Mindfulness isn't just for new age adults anymore. Practicing mindfulness can improve your overall wellbeing and contribute to a satisfied life. Studies have also shown it can actually improve your physical health by relieving stress, lowering the risk of heart disease and your blood pressure, improving sleep—the list goes on.
But what about mindfulness for our kids? Most days our little ones can hardly concentrate on a single task, so naturally, we were curious if mindfulness techniques adults practice could be taught at an early age.
We went to Arlene McLean, the founder of Mindful Movers and a Fourth Grade teacher with certifications in mindfulness and yoga, for answers.
Inside the Mindful Movers Classroom
Q: How can parents start teaching mindfulness to their children at an early age?
Mindfulness is being fully aware of what’s happening in your body and in the space around you. Mindfulness is the ability to accept and acknowledge all the emotions and feelings that may arise. There is no judgment of, “This feeling is wrong”, or “I feel angry so I’m a bad person”, or “I’m anxious so I must not be capable.” Mindfulness is saying, “Hey, I’m feeling angry or anxious right now, and that is OK.” Mindfulness is taking a pause before a reaction.
Parents can help create this life-long tool of mindfulness by modeling for their children when various emotions arise, saying out loud how they are feeling, and then deciding how to react. Parents can model mindfulness in the long line at the grocery store and then perhaps when their child is in a long line waiting for a turn at a game or a toy, that child will recall how their parent reacted in such a situation. Parents can model mindfulness when they are feeling a sense of overwhelm or fatigue. Families can turn off all electronics and sit (or lie down) in a comfortable position, and just breathe. Noticing the simple inhale and exhale, and repeating that noticing for a cycle of at least 5 breaths is a wonderful way to become connected and grounded.
Families can begin a daily routine of 5 Mindful Minutes in the morning, before nap time, before or after dinner, or at bed-time. 5 minutes may be too long for a young child so it may be just one Mindful Minute, and that is a great place to start.
Q: What're some basic yoga poses for children? What're the benefits?
- Child’s pose or rock pose is a wonderful way to curl up and feel more connected and grounded if the energy is too high or anxious feelings are being had
- Down dog is a fun pose to stretch out the whole body and the kids love to “wag their tail"
- Cat/cow poses are a super way to bring flexibility to the back. Of course “meowing and mooing” make these more fun.
- All balancing poses are a strong way to bring in focus and keep a mind from wandering or worrying. Youth of all ages always love to try all the balancing poses: Eagle, Standing-leg raise, airplane (and asking where in the world they are “flying to” makes this one fun), Dancer, and of course Tree
- Waterfall is a pose that can be very helpful before nap or bedtime as it allows all the toxins to flow down into the lymphatic system and this can be calming. Lie on your back and simply bring your legs up on a wall. Arms can be out like a T on the floor. Be sure to not look around to protect the neck. Stay with legs inverted for a few minutes then gently hug the legs in and roll to one side
- Savasana is the great rest. It is helpful to put an eye pillow (fun project to make your own at home) or a towel over the eyes to keep them from jumping around the room. Soft music is nice to listen to in this pose. Be sure to take a really big cleansing breath in and out and then just be still for a few minutes. This deep rest can be equivalent to a good nap time
Q: How about breathing exercises and mediation?
Focusing on the breath is the most essential and fantastic mindfulness tool. Your breath is always with you, it doesn’t cost anything, and it’s always accessible. Here are few exercises I recommend:
- 5-finger breathing is a fun one for kids of all ages. Start at the base of your thumb and with the pointer finger of your opposite hand begin to trace up the outside of your thumb to the top- as you trace up-inhale, then exhale as you trace down the thumb. Continue to inhale and exhale as you trace up and down all of your fingers until you get to the bottom of your pinkie. Children can do this breath with their hand in the air, or in their lap. It can be done privately under a desk at school or wherever needed
- Mindful Minute can be done by using a timer with a fun sound at the end. Set the timer for 1 minute and just breathe
- Mindful Minute counting breaths: set the timer for 1 minute and count your breaths. Each inhale and exhale counts as 1. Continue counting until the minute is up. Now you know how many breaths you take in 1 minute so if you are ever in a spot without a timer, and you just need to pause for 1 minute, count that many breaths
Q: Most adults have trouble sitting still to mediate. Any tips on how to help small kids focus on doing these exercises?
First off, know that it’s OK to not be still and little ones are not capable of being still for very long. Have an open attitude that yoga and mindfulness do not need to be quiet. This stamina is one that needs to be practiced and will grow. You may want to start with 30 seconds of mindful breathing and build up to 1 minute. Make yoga fun, it doesn’t need to be a serious practice to reap all of the benefits.
Doing a simple body scan is another way to build this focus/stamina. Lie or sit and begin to focus on the various parts of your body-working either from feet to head or head to feet. There are many body scans you can find on-line that may be helpful or the parent can talk through each part of the body so as you name the part, the child brings their attention to that body part, noticing how it feels as each part is said.
Q: Are there any tools and items you’d recommend to support your child’s mindfulness journey?
- I do recommend an eye pillow-as mentioned above, it’s fun to make ones at home out of rice and a clean sock. There are a variety of suggestions for this DIY on-line.
- A small stuffie can be a great mindfulness tool. Children can lie on their backs, put their stuffie on their belly, and try to give it a gentle ride up and down by breathing in and out. This animal can also be used as a tool to look at/focus on in their balancing poses.
- A glitter jar is another fun DIY and it can be a cool object of focus for breathing. As you watch the glitter settle, your body will also settle.
- A journal and fun colored pencils
Q: Any tips for parents who have kids that are anxious to go back to school post pandemic?
First of all, acknowledge your child’s feelings. Young children may need some modeling from the adults in their lives for this. For example you may state,” I’m feeling a little funny in my stomach tonight, I think it’s because I have a meeting at work tomorrow and I’m a bit nervous about how it will go.” Then ask your child if they have any advice for you. You may then want to elicit a joint response such as, ”I think I will try to sit and breathe for 1 minute, would you like to join me?” After the minute, be sure to discuss how you are feeling now. Young children often have difficulty placing names on their emotions so any guidance we adults can give is a help.
Journaling or doodling is a wonderful strategy to release emotions or reflections. A gratitude journal is also a fantastic way to be Mindful. Jotting down 3-4 gratitudes each day can be life changing and have a wonderful impact. These don’t need to be so “serious” either. I have jotted about the great iced tea I had or the yummy ice cream I ate for dessert. Having a set time for this in the morning or evening or both, can be a super helpful tool.
Teaching your child some breathing strategies like the five finger breathing is a tool that they can use anytime in school if they need to feel more connected to what is happening around them.
I am a firm believer in creating safe spaces for children. Having an open and honest discussion about school being a safe place and one you feel comfortable for them to be in is important. Youth hear the news and they are often more aware than we adults realize. Being open, honest, receptive of their concerns, and creating a level of trust is essential for these children to feel comfortable in school this Fall. Sharing our gratitudes and focusing upon the gift of education and “seeing” our peers, whether it be remote, hybrid, or in-person will set the tone for a great school year.