Updated: Sep 8
Mindfulness seems to be a buzz word in our world at the moment. It is this mysterious thing that people do that is supposed to solve so many of our problems. The truth is mindfulness is quite simple. Mindfulness is bringing yourself back to the present moment, being aware of your senses, thoughts and emotions in that moment and not letting your thoughts run away to the "what ifs". While mindfulness is simple this doesn't take away how incredibly effective it is. The positive outcomes from practicing mindfulness have been well researched and they are far beyond just feeling relaxed. We are learning that teaching children mindfulness skills from an early age is significantly improving their performance academically, socially and emotionally. This has lead to many schools adopting mindfulness practices into their curriculum.
Children seem to thrive once they have been taught mindfulness. Part of the reason for this is that mindfulness helps build neurological pathways that promote focus and cognitive control. These skills are accessed from the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Childhood and adolescence are when the most development of the prefrontal cortex takes place. So basically by practicing mindfulness at these key stages of development, children are building the paths for increased focus, control and emotional regulation that will stay with them throughout their life.
The benefits of mindfulness
1. Cognitive Benefits
There have been several studies (Flook, 2010; Napoli, 2004) that have shown that implementing a mindfulness program in schools resulted in the participating children greater performance on academic tests, improved attention, ability to plan, switch focus and remember details. By practicing to focus, children were able to improve their attention which means they perform better. We will always perform better in something when we can focus whether it is school, sports or anything. Mindfulness has even been shown to help children with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder become more focused (Zhang, 2016.)
2. Social Benefits
By practicing mindfulness, children become more aware of their own feels and therefore become less reactive. When children (and adults) are less reactive they are able to listen and communicate more effectively. If they are aware of their own emotions then they will gain the ability to understand these emotions in others and therefore have empathy for others. Some studies even found that bullying dropped significantly after a mindfulness program was run in schools (Zhou, 2016).
3. Emotional Benefits
There is no doubt that mindfulness helps to bring calm and help us to manage stress. The ripple effect of this calm is amazing. When we are able to feel calm, we are able to reduce anxiety, think clearer, and perform better. As a result self-esteem and feelings of self-worth improve. Imagine the long term impact of building self-worth in our children especially as a way to counteract the difficult adolescent years. Mindfulness creates good habits for the future. They will ultimately face challenges in life, but they will have the skills to stop, calm and work through the situation without being reactive.
Mindfulness really needs to be practiced and done regularly for it to be effective. It is best if it is made part of your daily routine with you participating too. The best way to teach children about mindfulness is to model it yourself. Let them see you stopping, breathing and coming back calm. There are so many fun mindfulness activities for kids, but it will always be best if you do these activities with your children. Be careful to keep mindfulness activities as a positive practice, don't use them as a punishment or as a shaming tool. You will simply loose the benefits of the activity by doing that.
I have already talked about many relaxation and mindfulness activities in previous blogs, however I thought it could be helpful to have several of them here in one place.
Focus on senses: This can be any activity where they stop and become really focused on their senses. What can they smell, see, hear, taste and touch. They could pretend to be a superhero, or find 3 things for each sense like eye spy, or any variation. This activity will encourage them to stop and focus on the present while being aware of the information from their senses.
Glitter Jar: These are easy to make and very effective. Get a plastic bottle. Fill about a quarter of it with warm water. Add some glitter glue and some extra glitter. A drop of food colouring if you want too. Then fill the rest with warm water and put the lid on.
Shake the jar and watch the glitter swirl around. You can talk about how our thoughts and feeling can be like the glitter all mixed up. Then sit and watch the glitter slowly settle to the bottom. Add some controlled breathing to this and the child will be breathing for the whole time the glitter settles. Talk about how when our thoughts and feelings settle, we can think clearer and feel better.
Mindful Walk: Walk with our child and take notice of all the things around you. Again, what can you see, hear, smell, taste and feel? Can you find bugs? can you see pictures in the clouds?
Blow bubbles: By blowing bubbles you need to use long slow calming breaths. If you blow to hard and fast you won't get a bubble. Have them focus on the bubbles as they form and float away. You can also imagine the bubbles are their worries and they can have fun popping them.
Pinwheel: Similar to the bubbles, you need to get the breath right for it to work. You can also focus on the colours as it spins. There are plenty of templates to make pinwheels if you search for them.
Texture Game: put different objects into a bag. Have your child use only their sense of touch to feel the objects and describe what they feel like. Are they soft, hard smooth, rough etc
Taste Test: blindfold your child and have a few small foods such as sultanas for them to taste. Have them put the food in their mouth. What does it feel like in their mouth. Have them roll it around on their tongue. When they chew it, what is the texture? What is the main flavour? does the flavour change?
Tummy breathing (boat or toy): Have them lay down and place a paper-boat or a toy on their tummy. Take slow breaths while trying to fill the lungs. Have them watch the boat rise as they breathe in and fall as they breathe out. Just like the waves of the ocean.
Muscle relaxation (robot/rag-doll): have them lay or sit. Ask them to squeeze every muscle to be as tight as a robot. Have them hold this for a few seconds and then release to be floppy like a rag-doll. Have them describe how they feel after this. Repeat a few times.
Heartbeat exercise: Have your child run or jump, anything to get their heart rate up. Then have them sit and close their eyes with their hand on their heart. Have them breathe slowly and pay attention to their heart-rate slowing as their body calms. This helps them be aware of their body. They will be able to notice their heart-rate increase with anxiety or anger and understand how to calm it.
Guided Meditation: I have written about guided meditations in my previous Blog "finding your special place". There are so many on the internet. The smiling minds app has free guided meditations that are really helpful. My favourite is to imagine that I am at the beach. My breath becomes rhythmic like the waves. I can feel the sun and the sand. I can hear the birds and the waves. I can taste the salt in the air and I can smell the ocean. It doesn't have to be complicated. Just find one that you and your child enjoy.
There is no doubt that mindfulness is a powerful tool to help our children develop. Research shows that mindfulness improves cognitive, social and emotional functioning. Overall the child's well-being, attention, self-regulation and social skills will improve and equip them with these skills for life.