In a world full of distractions, it’s getting more and more difficult for many of us — kids included — to stay focused and aware of what’s going on right in front our eyes. Mindfulness practice is one way we can help our kids (and ourselves) refocus our attention on what really matters: the here and now.
What is mindfulness, and where does it come from?
While it may feel as though mindfulness is something of a buzzword in today’s society, the practice of mindfulness is nothing new. In fact, people have been practicing mindfulness for thousands of years.
The history of mindfulness can be traced back to several Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, and it has also had a place historically in other spiritual traditions such as yoga. But mindfulness itself is not a religious practice, and it can be highly beneficial to just about anyone.
At its core, mindfulness is just the practice of becoming fully aware of the present moment — and of appreciating that moment for what it is.
Many of us spend our days preoccupied by our thoughts about the past and the future. When we’re eating breakfast, we’re thinking about the day of work ahead of us; when we’re working, we’re thinking about what we’re going to have for dinner; and when we’re eating dinner, we’re thinking about our plans for the weekend.
When we’re so distracted by thoughts about the things that have already happened to us, and about the things that haven’t happened yet, we forget to acknowledge and appreciate the things that are happening right now.
Mindfulness is all about training our brain to recognize those moments, and to pause and appreciate them as they are happening.
Why practice mindfulness?
In addition to keeping us from getting overwhelmed by all the unnecessary thoughts zooming around in our heads, mindfulness has been shown to offer many other benefits to people of all ages and backgrounds.
Of course, it goes without saying that the practice of focusing and refocusing our minds helps us to improve our attention. But mindfulness doesn’t just improve our focus during the mindfulness exercise itself. Studies show that people who practice mindfulness on a regular basis show significant improvement in sustained attention and focus, even after the exercise is complete, along with other cognitive abilities (such as working memory).
Aside from helping with attention, practicing mindfulness can also help alleviate stress and anxiety, improve emotional regulation, and foster a sense of happiness and general well-being. It has been used in cognitive therapy sessions to help patients suffering from clinical depression, in prisons to help incarcerated people improve their mindset, as well as in corporate offices, public spaces, and classrooms around the world.
In short, practicing mindfulness can be beneficial for anyone and everyone — and kids are no exception.
With their world becoming increasingly digital, kids today have more opportunities to become distracted than any generation that came before them.
And while the digital world isn’t going anywhere, that doesn’t mean that our kids’ attention and focus needs to suffer. It just means that we need to give them the tools to adapt to their changing world, and stay aware of their thoughts — even in the midst of all those distractions.
The benefits of mindfulness come to those who make it an integral part of their everyday lives. And thanks to their incredible neuroplasticity, kids are able to form habits relatively easily — especially when the adults in their lives are modeling these practices alongside them.
The best way to introduce mindfulness to your kids is to practice it with them on a regular basis.
If you’ve never practiced mindfulness before, don’t worry. We’ve chosen some simple mindfulness exercises to help you get started. Try incorporating one or more of these exercises into your kids’ daily routine — and follow along with them!
Here are 10 mindfulness exercises you can do with your kids:
When practicing mindfulness, it helps to have an “anchor” — like your body, your breath, or some words — to help bring you back to the present moment. When your thoughts start to slip away, you can gently redirect them back to this anchor and focus your attention once again on the exercise.
Focusing all of your attention on your breath is one of the most common ways to practice mindfulness. Here are a few simple exercises to try (and you can find even more of my favorite breathing practices here):
1. Counting Your Breath
This exercise is as simple as it sounds. Have your child find a comfortable, quiet place to relax, and start taking slow, deep breaths. Starting from one, have them count each breath in and out (either out loud or in their heads). If they lose count or get distracted, they can start again at one.
2. Balloon Breathing
For this exercise, have your child lie down comfortable on their back. Placing their hands on their belly, have them take a few deep breaths and feel how their belly rises with each breath in, and falls with each breath out. Tell them to imagine that there is a balloon inside their belly, and each time they take a breath, they are filling it all the way up with air — and then, slowly, letting all the air back out again.
3. Animal Breathing
There are tons of different breathing exercises that can help kids practice mindfulness — and many of them can be likened to different animals. Try some of these examples, or have your child create some of their own!
Bunny breath: Inhale several times in a short, quick manner — like a bunny sniffing his nose. When you can’t inhale anymore, hold your breath for a few moments… And then slowly exhale.
Lion breath: Sit on your knees, with your back and torso up straight and tall. Open your mouth and your eyes as wide as you can, stick your tongue all the way out, and roar like an angry lion! When you can’t roar anymore, take a deep breath in and do it all over again.
Snake breath: Make your mouth into an O shape and breathe in as much as you can, as though you’re drinking from a straw. Then, let all the air out again through your teeth, making a hissing sound — just like a snake!
Using words to guide your thoughts can help focus your mind completely, and eliminate any other thoughts that might come up. Try some of these exercises with your kids, and see which one works best:
Affirmations are short sentences or phrases that we can repeat to ourselves (either out loud or in our minds). Together with your child, come up with some positive affirmations that they can focus on during their mindfulness practice. Some examples might be, “I am kind,” “I am calm,” or “Today is a good day.”
Set aside some time to write or draw about your day with your child. You can keep a journal together, or have individual journals that you fill out on your own. You can try some journal prompts, or keep it open-ended.
6. Guided Imagery
Guided imagery is a great way to help kids relax, and to introduce them to more advanced mindfulness practices. You can use a script to read aloud to them, or do one together with a video or recording.
When we focus our attention completely on our bodies, it helps us to feel fully aware of the present moment. Try incorporating some of these exercises into your child’s routine:
7. Mindfulness Walk
You can turn any walk into a “mindfulness walk”! Choose a place to take a short walk together. As you go, take turns noticing as many things as you can. Are there any other people or animals? What shapes and colors do you see? What can you hear? Try to notice as many things as you can that you’ve never noticed before.
8. Five Senses
By using their five senses as an anchor during mindfulness practice, kids can really start to understand how mindfulness can help them in a tangible way. Choose one of their five senses, and gather some things they can use to stimulate that sense. Then, guide them to focus on every aspect of it — to appreciate everything about it. You can get creative and use anything available to you, but here are some ideas to get you started:
Smell: Candles, essential oils, coffee grounds, flowers, herbs and spices
Sound: Soft music, bells or other instruments, paper/plastic/aluminum foil (or anything else that can crinkle)
Sight: Artwork, colors, patterns, different materials (like wood, glass, or metal), photographs, plants and flowers
Touch: Different fabrics and textiles (like cotton, velvet, yarn, linen), warm and cool water, stuffed animals, flour, pebbles, fidget toys
Taste: chocolate, honey, peppermint, fruit, their favorite food
Mindfulness and yoga go hand in hand, because mindfulness has traditionally been a part of yoga for thousands of years. Try doing some gentle exercises or following along with a short video of a yoga practice, and encourage your child to focus their attention on all of the parts of their body.
10. Body Scan
One of the most common mindfulness practices is to do a full body scan before beginning a meditation — but you can also do a body scan all on its own. Starting from the top of the head, guide your child to focus their attention on each part of their body, one at a time, all the way down to their toes. As you practice the body scan more and more, try to get as specific as possible — instead of focusing on the hands as a whole, focus on each finger individually. It may help to have your child visualize something (such as a golden light) as they move through each part of the body.
These exercises can be done as part of a regular mindfulness routine, but they are also excellent to have in your toolbox whenever you (or your kids) need them. When kids feel overwhelmed or overcome by emotion, knowing how to focus their attention can be an incredibly useful skill — one that they can carry with them every moment.
By Rosie Byrnes