What is mindfulness?
The practice of mindfulness is one that has gained mainstream popularity over the last decade. With rising rates of stress and anxiety across the US, many have turned to meditative and mindful exercises to find balance in their lives.
According to Psychology Today, mindfulness is defined as a state of active, intuitive attention to the present that involves observing thoughts, feelings, and sensations in an objective manner. Rather than avoiding pain or difficult emotions, mindfulness equips us with the tools to become aware of our feelings and work toward acceptance. The goal of the practice is to cultivate inner peace that can translate to external relationships with others and the world around us.
The benefits of practicing mindfulness with children
Mindful practices present abundant benefits for people of all ages, including improvements in focus, patience, emotion regulation, and decision making. For children still developing key social-emotional skills, mindfulness techniques can teach them early on how to process their thoughts, emotions, and actions and react in positive ways.
Scientifically speaking, a majority of the skills that mindfulness promotes are controlled by the prefrontal cortex section of the brain. Connections are created and formed in the prefrontal cortex at the fastest rates during early childhood. While the brain continues to develop throughout our lives, childhood is an especially crucial time for these skills and connections to form.
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has outlined five core skills crucial to SEL learning:
- Self-management or self-regulation
- Responsible decision-making
- Social awareness
- Relationship skills
While CASEL has explicitly cited the benefits of mindfulness in relation to self-awareness and self-management, additional research suggests that all five CASEL skills may benefit from practicing mindfulness in these ways:
- Improved ability to pay attention and remember information.
- Improved ability to transition between different tasks.
- Improved academic performance, classroom participation, and interpersonal interactions.
- Increased focus, curiosity, self-control, coping abilities, empathy, and compassion.
- Decreased levels of stress, depression, anxiety, and disruptive behavior.
How incorporating mindfulness may differ across age groups
It’s never too early to introduce mindfulness to children! The practice may also simultaneously ease the stress of parents and caregivers. In fact, it is highly suggested that caregivers who practice mindfulness themselves may be better suited to integrating it into their child’s life.
Infants learn primarily through observation; an infant will sense when a caregiver is present in the moment. Try to limit use of digital devices around a baby and learn to ask yourself where attention is directed when spending time with one. Since parents and infants often feed off of each other’s emotional reactions, it’s equally important to maintain mindful habits in stressful situations, such as crying tantrums or sleepless nights. One example is gentle and loving eye contact.
These sentiments are important when practicing mindfulness with toddlers as well, but this age also presents more opportunity to explore the vast reaches of mindful practice. Mindfulness can be incorporated into reading, making art, or outdoor time with a toddler. Intentional expressions of mindfulness can begin to be practiced at this age as well, such as breathing exercises and learning to express gratitude often.
Young children will retain the mindful skills they’ve learned as infants and toddlers and may begin to explore meditation, yoga, and independent mindful activities. Across age groups, there is an array of mindful activities that children can enjoy!
Mindfulness practices to try with your child!
- Walk around a room slowly while holding your infant. With each step, think about the love you hold for them and silently repeat phrases of gratitude or well wishes to yourself and your baby with each step.
- Sit with your child and ask them to relax the tension held in their muscles. Take it slow and name each part of the body from the top of your head to the tips of your toes until each muscle has been relaxed.
- Practicing squeezing and releasing your hand is a good way to demonstrate tension for younger children.
- Use coloring as a mindful activity and ask your child to color their feelings. Invite them to associate colors with their thoughts and feelings.
- Blow bubbles and associate each drifting bubble as releasing negative emotions. Offer farewells to the bubbles by saying “goodbye tears” or “goodbye sadness.”
- During snacks or mealtimes, ask your child to describe their food to you. This can include size, color, texture, and taste. Ask them to consider ways the food nurtures their body and keeps them healthy.
- Fill a jar with water and glitter. When your child feels distressed they can shake the jar and watch the glitter slowly settle to the bottom of the jar as a grounding and calming exercise.
- Create a mindfulness kit! It could include essential oils, stimulating sensory objects, a journal, art supplies, or a comfort toy.
- On a walk with your child spend time collecting different natural items. Take turns describing your findings to each other, including what they look and feel like.
- Take five deep breaths in the morning and/or at bedtime. Encourage slow, deep breaths drawn in through the nose and pushed out through the mouth. A child may find comfort by holding a stuffed animal or closing their eyes.
Practicing mindfulness with children equips them with the tools to be self-reliant and self-aware, preparing them to overcome challenges later in life. The earlier mindfulness is introduced in a child’s life, the more empowered and resilient they will be. A mindful lifestyle can be refined as they grow older.