Mindfulness is a word which has gained a lot of attention over the past few years and is being taught to employees, athletes and increasingly to children in schools.
But what exactly is mindfulness?
Put simply, mindfulness is the practice of being fully engaged in whatever activity we are currently doing. It is about being aware of our thoughts and feelings at a given moment, without judging or getting caught up in them. Being mindful is not as easy as it seems; it is a skill which needs to be trained. With regular practice, being more mindful in stressful or frustrating situations can become easier.
What are the benefits of mindfulness for children?
Mindfulness has a number of cognitive, emotional and social benefits for children of all ages. There is increasing evidence to suggest that mindfulness improves learning, decision-making, emotional regulation, self-confidence and connectedness to others.
The practice of being present and focusing on sensations and emotions as they happen has marked effects on the brain. With regular mindfulness practice, the amygdala appears to shrink. The amygdala is a primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, and is responsible for the body’s response to stress. It is the ‘fight or flight’ centre of the brain. As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex, which is involved in more sophisticated processes such as awareness, concentration and decision-making grows. Through mindfulness, the connection between the amygdala and other brain regions weakens, and the connections between regions associated with attention and concentration get stronger.
Behaviourally, these changes translate to reduced stress and anxiety, as well as better emotional-regulation skills. As children practice being aware of what is going on in their minds, it becomes easier for them to notice and deal with difficult emotions. With regular mindfulness training, processes associated with executive function such as attention, planning, problem solving, organising and impulse control also improve. This can lead to a boost in children’s performance across a number of areas including sports, academics and arts. Mindfulness also has benefits for children’s social development. Children who practice mindfulness can develop greater empathy, perspective-taking skills, emotional control, and demonstrate more prosocial behaviour than their peers. This can translate to children who are happier, more compassionate and resilient.
Mindfulness at every age
Children of all ages can practice mindfulness. However, it may be unreasonable to expect a very young child to engage in traditional meditation. Mindfulness activities need to be modified into more age-appropriate forms.
Toddlers are developing rapidly. They are learning to control their body, discovering language and beginning to exercise their autonomy. At this age, mindfulness activities should revolve around the senses and encouraging children to think about how they feel inside before acting out in a negative way. Here are 2 activities you might like to try with your toddler.
- Mind/body awareness. A body scan can help teach your child how their mind and body are connected. A body scan involves focusing on one area of your body and then moving on to the next, focusing on the feelings and sensations along the way. A body scan is a good way to start or end your child’s day. It can also be an activity you come back when your child is upset or anxious. Check out the resources section below for a guided body scan video!
- Focusing on the senses. Take a walk in nature with your child. Bring their attention to various sights and sounds like the leaves blowing in the wind, and the feeling of the warm sun on their face. Look out for birds and insects. Encourage them to explore the texture of leaves and tree bark. Using the senses is a great way to connect your child to their environment and to the present moment.
Children face many challenging situations every day, both at home and at school. These situations test their executive functioning, emotional regulation and social skills. Children now have more language at their disposal and can therefore engage in more advanced mindfulness techniques. However, they may still not be ready to try traditional meditation. Guided imagery, sensory exercises and more active forms of mindfulness may be more appropriate. If your child has trouble sitting still, start with shorter exercises and gradually work up to longer ones.
- Mindful eating. This is one that can be done as a family. Eating involves several senses—sight, smell and taste. Practicing mindful eating is a good way to incorporate mindfulness into meal or snack times. As you sit down for a meal, asking everyone to spend the first few minutes silently noticing the taste, smell, temperature and texture of their food. Share what you observe!
- If your child is having trouble sitting still, a more active form of mindfulness might be helpful. Yoga is a good way to connect the breath and body. A popular YouTube channel, Cosmic Kids Yoga has several yoga practices designed especially for kids. Try doing on of these together! Make sure that the space that your child does their practice in is calming, uncluttered and free of any distractions.
- Guided imagery exercises. Using guided imagery exercises is a great way to encourage an imaginative child to practice mindfulness. Imaging a still pond, or a sailboat on the ocean is a fun way to connect children to their breath. Scroll down to the resource section for some guided imagery videos and scripts.
Adolescents are able to take charge of their own mindfulness practice. Instead of telling your teen to meditate, try gently suggesting the idea to them. If your teen feels like they are being forced into it, they may be more likely to resist. All of the techniques mentioned above including guided imagery, body scans, breathing exercises, yoga and nature walks are also effective for teens. Encourage your teen to explore different techniques to find what works for them, and to build mindfulness into their routines to make it a habit. Ensure your teen has a relaxing, positive space in the house where they can do their practice. Here is one simple exercise for them to try.
- Mindful Music. Select a piece of music or song that you like and spend a few minutes at home focusing all your attention on it. Take the time to really listen to the music and notice the thoughts and emotions like sadness, joy or anger moving through you. Listen with your whole body, not just your ears. If you feel like it; let the music move you. When the song ends, notice the effects of really listening to music with your whole body.
We have collected a range of apps, activities and informative videos for you to help you learn more about mindfulness, and to assist you in your practice.
- Smiling Mind
Both apps available for Apple and Android.
Guided meditation videos
- Guided imagery – Under the Sea
- Guided imagery –Sail Boat
- Guided imagery – Be the Pond:
- The Listening Game
- Body Scan
- Sesame Street Monster Meditation
Guided meditation scripts
Yoga for Kids
Other Mindfulness Activities
TED Talks for Parents