When I felt bored, anxious, or angry as a kid (and I felt all of these emotions), I learned to watch tv, play a video game, or eat toast and butter, my preferred snack. My most healthy reaction as a kid would have been to find my brother and go outside to play. As kids most of us are taught to ignore feelings like these and as a result, we learn to distract ourselves from unpleasant emotions and shift our focus to another activity.
Many parents would prefer a bored kid choosing to play outside instead of playing a video game. An anxious child that learns to reach for a healthy snack instead of a bowl of ice cream is undoubtedly better off. However, even when our kids make better decisions in these situations, they are not processing their emotions. The following 5 simple and mindful exercises have proven helpful in teaching kids how to become comfortable with feeling their emotions instead of pushing them away.
Practicing Mindfulness is Not a Miracle Cure
Practicing mindfulness or meditating regularly won’t make your, or your kid’s, problems miraculously disappear. Quite the opposite in fact. When we are mindful and bring our attention back to the breath, or back to the body, we strengthen our ability to withstand and experience our emotions instead of turning away. Similar to building muscles by lifting weights: the more our kids practice mindfulness, the stronger their self-control.
Getting Started Mindfulness Exercises and Activities
Before exploring the exercises below, be sure to check out an earlier blog, Why Mindfulness and Being Present is Good for Our Kids. Knowing how these exercises work on our brains definitely helps me in my own meditation practice and when I’m working with my daughter. Also remember there are adult and kid, mindful practice and meditation apps that work across platforms, books, websites, blogs, podcasts, and YouTube videos. While I plan on writing a few blogs on these resources, I wanted to first share these simple and mindful exercises we do at home.
5 Simple and Mindful Exercises for Kids
Please share in the comments section below any advice regarding these 5 exercises, or any other mindful practices you use at home with your kids. And for a more in-depth look at the benefits of mindful practice for kids, check out my previous blog Why Mindfulness and Being Present is Good for Our Kids.
1. Mindful Breathing
Mindful breathing or following the breath is the cornerstone of almost any meditation practice. While there are many variations of how to teach mindful breathing to small kids, one of my favorites is called Breathing Buddies. I’ve recently started doing this with our daughter before bed. You can watch the YouTube video explanation of the practice with Daniel Goleman. Basically, have your kid choose their favorite stuffed animal (you can pick one too), then lie down and place the stuffed animal on their belly. Ask your child to focus on their animal’s eyes as they breathe in and breathe out. Talk your kid through the process, “breath in—one, two, three,” and then, “breathe out—one, two, three.” Through this mindful practice exercise, as Dr. Goleman explains, our kids strengthen their ability to pay attention, while building the capacity to self-manage their feelings.
2. Mindful Listening
A second common prompt in most mindful practice and meditation traditions is mindful listening. Like mindful breathing, there are several variations you can practice with your kid. One mindful listening exercise our daughter liked from the beginning involved ringing a bell we have on a small altar in a meditation space we’ve set up in our bedroom. It’s a very simple practice. Ask your kid to close their eyes and listen closely. After you ring the bell, instruct your kid to open their eyes when they can’t hear the bell anymore. After a few rings, chances are your kid will want to ring the bell. After everyone opens their eyes, ask a few follow-up questions.
- How did it feel to be quiet and listen to the sound?
- Could you listen to the sound until it stopped?
- Did any other noises or feelings distract you?
Of course, there are no right or wrong answers. You should also share your answers. We are simply trying to teach our kids how to focus on one thing, while being open to whatever it is, they are feeling. Like following the breath, we are mentally training the mind.
3. Mindful Body Scan
A third common exercise in most meditation traditions includes a mindful body scan. This is a great exercise for kids, because it not only teaches them how to center themselves, but also how to use the technique when they’re feeling anxious. Simply have your child close their eyes and either sit or lie down. Starting from the top of the head or the bottom of the feet, ask your child to feel each body part. For example, you can begin with the feet—ask your kids to relax their feet, feel the ground with their feet, do their feet feel hot or cold, slowly wiggle their toes, even feel the space between their toes. From the feet move up to the ankle, then the leg, then the knees. As you move up or down the body be curious, ask them a series of questions to help them focus their attention on one specific body part at a time. Keep the exercise short, just long enough for them to lose themselves in the process.
Then, like mindful breathing and listening, follow up with a few questions to see how they felt. Do they feel calmer after the exercise? How does their body now feel after having gone through the scan? Ideally our kids will become more familiar with how their bodies and feelings interact. I will often practice this exercise on myself when I’m having a difficult time falling asleep or feeling anxious.
4. Mindful Walk
This is my favorite activity because I love walking meditation and I love to be outside with my daughter. This activity also brings together most of our senses into one mindful exercise. Like the other exercises, it’s simple and straight forward. Start your walk by asking your kid to pay attention to what sounds they hear. After a minute or so, talk about what both of you heard. For sight it can be, walk for a minute and silently note which objects have the color orange in them. After a couple of minutes, again, debrief what objects each of you found. While the mindful walk exercise can be used in some variation for smell and touch, I might move to the kitchen to practice mindful tasting!
5. Mindful Superheroes
My kid loves Wonder Woman. We have several play battles throughout the day, and of course, I never get to play Wonder Woman. For this mindful exercise, it’s all about the pose. Chances are, whichever superhero your child identifies with, he or she will know the pose. For Wonder Woman my daughter will stand with her legs apart, her fists placed on her hips, in an old tattered cape she loves to wear around the house. Whichever superhero your kid chooses, and whichever pose they strike, direct them to stand tall in their pose and to feel brave and good. The great take away from any of these superhero mindful poses is to remind your kid, anytime they are feeling scared or anxious, they can always focus their mind on their body, and feel strong again. They have the power to calm and focus themselves at any time they need to.
Please feel free to share any mindful exercises or kid-centered meditation practices in the comments below. And keep following my blogs. I’m looking forward to sharing additional kid-focused mindful and meditation practice resources in the near future.