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 as well, by relieving stress, lowering the risk of heart disease and lowering your blood pressure, improving sleep—to name a few.
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.
To help us understand this concept, we sought out the experts. Arlene McLean, the founder of Mindful Movers and a Fourth Grade teacher with certifications in mindfulness and yoga, gives us her expert opinion on this topic.
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. For example, parents can model mindfulness in the long line at the grocery store and then when their child is waiting to play with a toy, they will recall how their parent reacted in a similar 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 five breaths is a wonderful way to become connected and grounded.
Families can begin a daily routine of Five Mindful Minutes in the morning, before nap time, before or after dinner, or at bed-time. Five 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.
6 Yoga Poses for Kids and Their 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 kiddos 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 which 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.
Breathing Exercises and Mediation For Kids
Focusing on the breath is the most essential 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: Similar to the above, set a timer for 1 minute, but this time, 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.
Tips Helping Young Kids Focus
First off, know that it’s OK to not be still. Little ones are not capable of being still for very long, so 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 online that may be helpful. You can also talk through each part of the body. As you name the part, the child brings their attention to that body part, noticing how it feels as each part is said.
Tools to Support Your Kiddo'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 to DIY this online.
- A small stuffed animal can be a great mindfulness tool. Children can lie on their backs, put their stuffed animal 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 are also great tools to have on hand.
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.
I am a firm believer in creating safe spaces for children and practicing mindfulness with breathing exercises and yoga is a great way for your little one to feel safe no matter where they are.