Mindfulness is the practice of non-judgmentally paying attention in the present moment--letting go of the past and future and our thoughts and judgments. Children are inherently better at this practice than most adults, so starting a mindful meditation practice as a child is natural, and, in many ways, perhaps easier than beginning as an adult.
Mindfulness and meditation are often used interchangeably, and while they are very similar, they do have noticeable distinctions. Mindfulness is the practice of focusing one's awareness on the present moment, which is used during meditation, but we can be mindful all throughout the day, while meditation is typically for a prescribed period of time.
“Mindfulness and meditation are mirror-like reflections of each other: mindfulness supports and enriches meditation, while meditation nurtures and expands mindfulness,” explain Ed and Deb Shapiro. “Where mindfulness can be applied to any situation throughout the day, meditation is usually practiced for a specific amount of time.”
Benefits of Mindfulness for Children
Mindfulness releases endorphins, or “happy chemicals” in the brain, which, in turn, decreases stress and anxiety. Mindfulness has also been shown to improve digestion, increase attention span, develop social awareness, and boost compassion.
When students are able to meditate, even for short periods of time, it increases their attention span for all other tasks, including educational assignments. Awareness helps children be less reactive and better able to regulate emotions and complete tasks when emotions are high.
Teaching mindfulness to our children may seem like a daunting task, but every little bit helps. As with all things, children absorb so much when we think they aren’t paying attention, so practicing meditation ourselves may help our children develop their own practice over time.
5 Techniques for Incorporating Mindfulness and Meditation
1. Listen to the body.
With very young children, it is often easiest to start with the basest of needs: anything to do with the body.
We know our children, and we intuitively understand when a meltdown is the result of fatigue or hunger, but toddlers are often too young to see this connection. This is the opportunity for us to act as mindfulness guides/teachers, reminding our children that it’s time to take a nap or eat lunch. When our young ones are back to the happy stage, we can bring their awareness to the improvement, commenting on how much better they feel after napping and eating. Eventually they will make this connection on their own.
2. Check in with the body.
It’s also beneficial throughout the day to ask our toddler or preschooler to do a self-check: is he hungry? Does he need to use the bathroom? Is he happy or sad? These simple reminders of practicing mindfulness can help direct our children toward a path of self-awareness.
3. Chant a mantra, such as "OM."
In yogic tradition, chanting a mantra is a powerful tool to calm the mind. “Om” or “aum” is considered one of the most sacred and powerful mantras, and the sound of om encompasses all words and sounds in the human language.
Om is a simple word to pronounce and easy to remember for children. Children who can speak can begin chanting om, and the process is simple: sit up tall in cross-legged, bring the hands to the knees or heart center, close the eyes, and chant "om" three times.
Om can also be replaced with any mantra of your child's choice. Mantras can also be phrases, such as "let it go" or "I am thankful" or positive affirmations, such as "I am healthy and strong" or "I am safe and loved." You can also tailor the mantra to your child's needs: "I learn best at my own pace," for example.
Incorporating chanting into the daily routine increases the chances of it becoming a habit, so consider chanting with your kids after arriving home from school, immediately after brushing teeth, or before sitting down to dinner.
This simple routine is usually enough to bring a sense of calm, and some children will continue to sit in stillness after the chanting is over.
For older kids, we can encourage them to remain seated for a little longer. A general rule of thumb is to take the child’s age and cut it in half. If your child is 6, then 3 minutes would be plenty of time for self-meditation.
4. Practice yoga.
One of the purposes of yoga is to learn to quiet the mind through disciplining the body. Yoga helps to prepare the body for extended periods of sitting and to ready the mind for stillness.
Krishnamacharya, often hailed as the “father of modern yoga,” trained many young boys, using a vigorous practice to develop strength and stamina. While teenagers may benefit from rigorous yoga training, young children can still reap the benefits of yoga through a few poses (asanas) at a time.
If practicing at home, a general guideline is to incorporate the same number of poses as the child’s age. If your child is 7, then 7 poses may suffice, although more or less may depend on the individual child and that particular day.
The crucial part is not the pose itself or the number of poses, but instead drawing the child’s attention to the breath while holding the pose in stillness. Three to five slow, deep breaths in each pose will help bring awareness to the body and the present moment, which is exactly the kind of mindfulness we are hoping to instill.
As many parents know, acting as both teacher and parent can be exhausting and counter-productive, but many kids yoga classes are available in the area. Yogaja has a Big/Little workshop approaching, which is geared toward parent and child, and in the summer, we will host Kids Yoga Workshops. The library also occasionally provides free kids yoga classes, and many school systems are beginning to incorporate yoga into the curriculum.
If your school district does not provide yoga, sending an email to an administrator might be all the impetus needed to add it to physical education or hire a yoga teacher for a dedicated class.
5. Practice guided meditation.
As the positive evidence for meditation continues to mount, a plethora of free meditation tutorials and apps are available for use.
YouTube has guided meditations geared toward various ages and for varying lengths of time. The Listening Game (6 minutes) combines mindfulness with listening, and Breath Meditation (5 minutes) assists young ones in learning the meditation process with listening and visualization.
Older children may enjoy longer guided meditations, such as The Secret Treehouse (16 minutes) or The Magic Shell (13 minutes).
There are free and paid meditation apps available for download as well. We love Insight Timer and Ananda, but experiment with several and choose which works best for you. Calm and Smiling Mind have programs specifically designed for children.
If you’ve had success using other apps or websites, please comment below so our readers can benefit from your experience.
Tips and tricks from our Yogaja Yoga teachers:
"I love using the Insight Timer [app]. It tracks the number of consecutive days you use it, which is good to hold me accountable! It also has lovely guided meditations to use at no cost." ~ Michelle Ostermyer
"I love Insight Timer and how I can choose whatever meditation I am feeling I need, whether it’s for sleep, relaxation, or even chakra balancing if I’m feeling out of balance." ~ Adrienne Salon
"I do japa meditation early in the morning using a mala prayer (108 beads) to recite a mantra of my choice, followed by breathing meditation using The Breathing App for a visual counting on the inhalation and exhalation--very simple and straight forward. I also use Insight Timer for relaxation." ~ Dhawi Pienta
"Initially, I go behind, or underneath my thoughts--because they are always there--and inhale to the words: 'May I be happy.' Exhale: 'May I be loving.' Inhale: 'May I be loved.' Exhale: 'May I be free.' This quiets my mind, allowing me to sit in the stillness that I crave and meditate with ease." ~ Shauna Gilsdorf
"Love Insight Timer. I think practitioners should remember the mind is always thinking...seek the pause." ~ Donna Seed
*Photos by Mary Wyar Photography.