Raising mindful munchkins begins here.

By Maggie Seaver
December 04, 2020
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If you want to raise a kind, self-aware, and resilient kid, encouraging them to practice mindfulness is a good place to start. Mindfulness may sound way too advanced or conceptual to teach your little toddler or rambunctious elementary schoolers, but that’s not the case at all. There’s an endless suite of fun, accessible, and completely organic ways, both formal and informal, to bring mindfulness into the fold of your child’s (and the entire family’s) daily routine. And they have nothing to do with forcing your 5-year-old twins to meditate in a dark room for two hours. Mindfulness-based activities and games gradually teach youngsters to perceive and relate to the world in a specific way that will benefit them throughout their entire life. 

“At its root, mindfulness is about friendly awareness—it’s paying attention with kindness and curiosity to yourself, other people, and the world around you. Awareness doesn't get rid of life's challenges, but it does change our relationship to them. That, in and of itself, is a huge deal,” explains Susan Kaiser Greenland, a mindfulness and meditation teacher, cofounder of the Inner Kids program, and the author of several books, including Mindful Games and The Mindful Child

When we’re young, our brains are still developing and at their most malleable. So, like any habit or skill, experiencing mindfulness from a young age can help instill the lifelong qualities and benefits associated with it—awareness, open-mindedness, resilience, focus, self-reflection, empathy, and gratitude—even earlier and more deeply. “It’s never too early or late to become better friends with our minds (our thoughts and emotions) and our habits (the way we react emotionally and behaviorally to incoming stimuli),” Greenland says. “Part of learning to become kinder and more compassionate to ourselves, and then, by extension, to others, is becoming less reactive. Lowering reactivity through the greater development of executive function is one of the reasons many schools integrate mindfulness into their curriculum.”

Mindfulness may not be taught at their school, but home is a perfect, low-stakes setting to practice with your kids. “I encourage families to drop mindful games and activities into their daily routines, especially during transitions—this is what we call informal practice,” she says. “At the dinner table, play a mindful game of appreciation before eating. Or while waiting in a carpool line, have kids in the back seat of the car pay attention to sounds.” When in doubt, invoke the five senses: Ask them to stop and notice what they see, smell, taste, feel, and hear in that moment, wherever they are.

Here are several fun and easy mindfulness-based tools, games, and activities to try with young kids. (And you just might get something out of them yourself). 

1

To introduce and simplify complex, abstract mindfulness concepts like awareness and metacognition (awareness of our own thoughts), Greenland loves to use analogies and pleasant imagery with kids. One of her favorites is comparing the mind to the sky. Like the sky, awareness is with us all day, everyday, whether or not we notice it. But we have the ability to stop and observe it. 

“The sky is infinite, it’s always there, but sometimes there are things in the sky,” she says. “Sometimes it’s wide open and sunny; sometimes there are fluffy clouds that are nice, but keep our minds busy; sometimes there are storm clouds (i.e. strong, big feelings); or sometimes there’s a rainbow, which is something new.” 

And when it’s so cloudy you can’t see the sky at all, it’s still always there, even if we can’t see it. “That awareness—that infinite quality of really knowing—is always accessible to us,” Greenland says. “It’s just that sometimes we don’t recognize it.”

Even if little kids don’t fully grasp the full metaphor, the simple idea that how, like the sky, our minds can look different everyday—and that we can objectively notice changes like clouds and weather—lays a foundation for understanding basic mindfulness principles they’ll grow to appreciate more over time. Plus, it’s always fun to cloud gaze with the kids. You can even have them draw a picture, asking: “If your mind was a sky today, what would it look like?”

2

Greenland reiterates that it’s never too early to approach mindfulness with your kids, and you can start by teaching toddlers simple, fun breathing activities. Of course, it’s hard to expect 3- and 4-year-olds to sit still and pay attention to their breath when asked. Instead, tap into their natural powers of imagination. 

“Kids can practice breathing on purpose by imagining their pointer finger is a flower that they’re smelling by taking a deep breath in through their nose,” Greenland says. “Then have them imagine their pointer finger is now a candle they’re blowing out with a long exhale.” Eventually this becomes an effective way to encourage your child to breathe deeply to calm down when upset or frustrated.

RELATED: 5 Mindfulness Breathing Exercises You Can Do Anywhere, Anytime

3

Another great mindful breathing technique for kids (and adults, too) incorporates additional sensory cues. Have them hold out one hand with their fingers spread, then slowly trace around that hand, up and down each finger, with the opposite forefinger. Starting with the spread hand’s thumb, they’ll inhale as they trace up one finger and exhale as they trace down the other side, and so on until they reach their pinkie. See if they can practice tracing up and down each finger—and therefore, inhaling and exhaling—as evenly as possible. A straightforward way to practice five steady, intentional breaths in a row (or 10, if they come back the other way).

4

To teach kindness and compassion, try the simple, yet powerful activity of sending friendly thoughts to the self and others. “Part of the kindness [aspect of mindfulness], comes from thinking in a particular way with this idea of friendly wishes,” Greenland says. “We start by thinking kind thoughts and wishes for ourselves first, then for people we do know, then people we don’t know, and then everyone and everything.” 

Each time, the circle of friendly wish recipients gets wider. If they’re comfortable, kids can practice voicing out loud happy wishes they have for themselves; then for a friend, a teacher, or relative; then someone they don’t know (say, the mail person or local grocery store worker). Then, finally, the whole world. 

If they’re a little older, you can start to change slightly the different circles of people they wish well. Begin with friendly wishes to “me,” then expand to people they like, next to people they don’t like, and lastly everyone and everything. “We have to work with kids on making a distinction between liking somebody and wishing them well,” Greenland points out. “It’s just fine not to like somebody, but we can still wish them well.”

5

If you have a classic Barrel of Monkeys game lying around the house, try this activity, which is great for large families or groups of kids. First start by breathing mindfully, counting five to 10  natural, easy breaths, trying hard to focus only on the air going in and out. Of course, everyone’s mind will wander while doing this. So afterward, ask them what came to their mind when it wandered away from their breathing. Each thing they name (maybe it was food or excitement about a playdate) link a plastic monkey onto the chain. Keep adding monkeys until they’re gone or they’ve named every thought. At the end, look at the chain and acknowledge that each monkey is a different thought or feeling or memory that popped into their head during the exercise. Once they’ve noticed their thought monkeys, let them all go, dropping the pieces back into their barrel. 

“[They] practice over and over again noticing the thoughts, not trying to block or push them away, but noticing them without getting involved or building stories around them,” Greenland says. “It makes sense that this sort of contemplative or intellectual restraint of being able to stop yourself from getting into a loop is building executive function.”

Once you’ve played this with them, the kinds of verbal cues used in the game can become excellent verbal cues in everyday life. If your child gets caught up in a mental spiral, you can say, “drop the monkeys”—a friendly and familiar trigger reminding them to pause and let go.

6

This brilliant mindfulness meditation introduces youngsters to a pretty complex concept: How our experience of something can change drastically based on the attitude we bring to it. Place an ice cube in the palm of their hand and let it sit there and melt, resisting the urge to remove it. (You can always place it in your own hand to demonstrate if it's too uncomfortable for your little one). As it melts, observe what it feels like:

“The ice doesn't hurt much at first, but the longer it sits there, the less pleasant the experience,” Greenland writes in her ice cube meditation description. “The discomfort is more manageable, though, if you relax your arm and hand while holding the ice. And then the experience changes again.”

After the exercise you can tie it back to real life. If something unpleasant or irritating is going on, we can’t always get rid of the unpleasant thing itself; but can we learn to alter the way we approach it and react to it? Kids will learn that experiences can be easier or harder to deal with, depending on how they relate to them.

7

Fidgety toddlers will calm right down with an easy belly breathing trick. With their favorite stuffed animal placed on their belly, have them rock their toy to sleep with the rise and fall of their breath. This encourages them to notice the breath with pleasant visual (the up and down of their belly and animal) and physical (the weight of the animal) cues. And, hopefully, these deep breaths will help lull them to sleep.

8

This is a lifelong activity, but particularly helpful for kids struggling with the challenges posed by the pandemic, from social isolation to general uncertainty and confusion. Have your kids name something that’s bugging them or worrying them, followed by the phrase, “but still I feel lucky because…” adding one thing they are grateful for or excited about.

“This helps broaden their perspective,” Greenland says, explaining that we’re biologically programmed to focus on the negative as a survival instinct. “We’re really glad we have that survival instinct, but we have to be able to recognize we don’t always need it, and then do the extra work to think of positive things.” They’ll learn both to acknowledge negative thoughts—which are normal, natural, and valid—and then balance them with optimistic ones, which can be harder to cultivate. Overtime, they’ll be organically conditioned to remember there is always something to be grateful for, despite the inevitable negative stuff.

RELATED: 16 Meditation Apps to Help You Keep Your Cool All Day, Every Day

Remember, there’s no magical quick fix to make your kids understand mindfulness and live a more intentional existence—and there’s no one “right” way to introduce them to it. “Mindfulness isn't a one-size-fits-all kind of thing,” Greenland says. “It makes sense for parents or teachers to learn a variety of mindful games and play them with their kids.”

So try out different activities to see what your little ones respond to, and don’t be discouraged if something doesn’t stick—you can always simplify the game, try it when they’re a little older, or explore more ideas and exercises (Inner Kids is a fabulous mindfulness resource for both kiddos and busy parents).