The benefits of mindfulness for young children
Lisa Mount is a Mindfulness Educator, sharing mindfulness with young children via her Program 'Magical Mindful Me'. She is also a naturopath, doula, energetic practitioner, health writer and mum to two young boys, and lives on the Bouddi Peninsula on NSW's Central Coast. You can learn more about her sessions and classes for both adults and children at Bouddi Wellbeing.
This week Lisa offers suggestions for early childhood providers interested in adopting mindfulness practice in their services and explains the benefits for children.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness simply means 'paying attention to the present moment in a curious open-minded way', and it's a core feature of many religious and spiritual traditions. It is also quickly finding its way into mainstream western health, education and business settings due to the increased pace of our daily lives, the surge in technology use, and the stress these and other aspects of 21st century living place on our bodies and minds.
Mindfulness is an effective tool for countering this stress, and as much of this stress is out of our realm of control, we need to focus on and leverage our ability to choose how we respond to stress in our lives and teach children how to do the same.
Why Mindfulness for Young Children?
For young children in particular, keeping stress levels down while maximising positive experiences is crucial for optimum learning and growth, which is why mindfulness is such a useful tool to incorporate into early childhood settings.
When children feel confident responding to, and managing stressful emotions or situations, they can focus their energy on shining brightly and developing their gifts and talents.
And the sooner we help them to do this, the better!
Mindfulness, along with being well-researched and scientifically-proven to provide a host of benefits to physiological and psychological wellbeing, is simple to apply, and when practiced regularly, able to help young children shift their focus from 'the world out there' (with situations, places and people they can't control) to their inner world (where they can learn to become aware of sensations, feelings and thoughts and start to consciously choose different ones to create a different outcome).
From Passenger to Captain!
When a young child has an experience of becoming aware of an uncomfortable thought or feeling, consciously chooses a better feeling thought or feeling, and then experiences the present moment differently because of this, they receive a gift, a powerful moment of realisation that can and is life-changing in the best of ways.
The increased self-awareness produced by regularly engaging in mindfulness allows children to discover that even though they can't control other people or situations, they can choose how they themselves respond. They can then begin to regain a critical sense of 'control' over their lives. Feeling even just a little bit in control of their lives leads to lots of personal empowerment, an essential ingredient for children to feel happy and secure.
In Magical Mindful Me classes, instead of spending energy on trying to find solutions to things they can't control, which children quickly learn is a waste of their 'superpowers', we focus on asking helpful questions using our imagination and curiosity, such as, 'how do can we become more aware of our thoughts and feelings so that we can choose differently and then feel differently?'
The next step in this process, and the foundation of any good mindfulness practice, is bringing attention to the present moment, because when we're in the present moment, magic can and definitely does happen!
The 'Gift' of the Present Moment
There are many benefits to consciously spending time in the present moment, and a million ways (I kid you not!) we can increase present–moment awareness in early learning centres via games, activities, song, movement and other more structured mindfulness lessons and practice sittings.
The activities, games and practices promoted by mindfulness practitioners all focus on encouraging young children to really become aware and explore how they experience the present moment, because once they do this, they are then the 'captain of their ship' and can choose which course to sail by choosing which thoughts they think.
When creating or selecting activities to teach mindfulness concepts, it's important to ensure they are engaging and fun!
The key to the effectiveness of mindfulness is 'regular practice', so we want to develop ways to explore mindfulness that is really fun for children, so that regular practice will be a breeze and they’ll want to repeat the activities over and over and over again, ensuring they receive the benefits of mindfulness while also making your job as a parent or educator a pure joy.
Over the next few months we'll explore the different aspects of mindfulness and the ways your early childhood centres can build these into their programming.
This month we'll look at Mindfulness of the Breath.
Mindfulness of the Breath: 'Magical Mindful Breath'
Bringing our awareness to our breath has many benefits to our bodies and minds, and although it is simple, it's not necessarily easy.
Conscious breathing has a physiological calming effect if it is practiced in the correct way, which involves ensuring that we are breathing with both our chest and our belly expanding. Breathing deeply in this way allows for full oxygenation of our cells and is the foundation of an effective mindfulness practice.
When practicing mindful breathing with a child, they will become familiar with how to breathe mindfully (deeply and consciously) and breathing in this way will become second nature to them. The more you practice with them, the easier it will be for them as they will both be more motivated, feel more relaxed and have a loving person to 'attune' to.
You can use words and cues like, 'Mindful Belly Breathing', 'Mindful Belly Breaths' to begin to build language that you can both use in situations when you want to keep words to a bare minimum – such as when emotions are high or you are dealing with tired little ones.
It's very helpful to remember that it's mindfulness practice, not mindfulness perfect!
Reminding children that mindfulness is more like a moving train rather than something still like a block tower will encourage them to remain curious and patient in their practice.
Ways to Teach Mindful Breathing to Young Children
- Take '3 Mindful Breaths' together at the same time every day, making it a habit to calm and centre yourselves. 3 Mindful Breaths is achievable for even the busiest of centres and a great 'cue' to use for situations where emotions are high, in mindfulness with children we are wanting to create a simple, recognisable language that can be used in any and all situations, both by the children themselves and between adult and child.
- Children can place a hand on their belly to feel it rise and fall or move in and out, or under their nose to feel the air as they exhale- this helps them really connect physically with their breath and makes breathing less of an abstract concept and more of a concrete experience- this is especially important for boys and helpful for ‘fidgety’ children, giving them something to do with their hands while they are attending to their breathing.
- You can use a breathing ball, using a hobosphere is a great way to show children how their bellies contract and expand. Hobospheres are highly engaging and a great visual aid to pass around a circle of children and ask them to match their own breathing with the hobosphere as it contracts and expands. Pick one for your centre that is brightly-coloured and as large as possible!
- Practice lying down and breathing with a 'belly buddy' – a stuffed toy placed on the child’s belly. They can give their belly buddy a 'belly ride', enjoying the fun of the belly buddy moving up and down as their belly rises and falls with their breathing, again, this is something children can 'see' and they learn to 'feel' their breathing.
- Children can practice belly breathing in bed at night or at rest time at their day care before falling asleep (especially if a child has a hard time falling asleep). Use a belly buddy here also, especially for night-time settling.
- A great craft activity that is simple and easy to do involves making breathing sticks. Use a coloured thin bottle brush and a colourful bead, then thread the bead onto the brush, and then tie a knot in each end of the brush so the bead does not come off when pulled across. Children can then move the bead form one end of the brush to the other, matching this movement with their breath. This is another great tool to practice with both children are calm, and also when they need extra assistance connecting with their breath in times of stress, tiredness or high emotion.
- You can use a 1-2 minute sand timer to create a focal point for your mindfulness practice with children. They can see the sand disappearing so they know the 'finish line' is near, but they also have a lovely focus to rest their eyes on and help keep them motivated in more formal mindfulness 'sittings' It's during these structured sittings that they are strengthening their 'mindfulness muscles' for times when they may really need to use their mindfulness skills.
- Children can decorate a special box or bag (you can pick up plain ones ready to paint at craft stores), which will become their mindfulness box. You can then help them create mindfulness idea cards with words or pictures on them describing different things they can do when they need a 'mindful moment' (a great proactive 'time in' alternative to the traditional 'time out'). Ideas like, 'Take 3 mindful breaths', 'Give your belly buddy a belly ride', or Use your breathing stick until you feel calmer' are all great cues that can empower and remind children to use mindfulness to help shift their emotional state.
Keep It Simple, Regular and Consistent
In order to really reap the benefits of mindfulness, children need regular opportunities to practice, learn consistent language, and teaching concepts and metaphors must be kept simple and age-relevant (think blowing up a balloon to describe exhaling, or smelling a flower to describe inhaling).
In the next article, we'll explore Mindful Listening and Mindful Posture, along with activities to teach and develop these is fun and creative ways.