Teaching Kids Mindfulness (Activities Included)

In my last post, I touched on how we can help kids manage their emotions by managing our reactions. By being mindful of our reactions to their behavior, we can create an environment where kids feel safe and comfortable to express their feelings. This will not only help kids recognize that all feelings are okay, but will also give them room to start understanding their feelings (so important!). But what happens when an empathetic response just doesn’t feel like enough? How do we help kids manage their emotions during those times we aren’t around and what tools can we give kids so they feel supported?

In this post, I touch on the benefits of mindfulness for kids. By teaching kids mindfulness, they will learn to identify feelings, acknowledge them and eventually understand different feelings. Think of mindfulness as a tool to help kids handle difficult emotions in the same way that we can use meditation as adults. Besides, practicing mindfulness with kids also forces us to practice it too, so both kids and parents benefit! I’m seriously excited about this! This is HUGE!

What is Mindfulness

Mindfulness has been described as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

If you aren’t familiar with mindfulness, know that there are different types of mindfulness practices and programs for adults and children that originated from Buddhist thinking and meditation practices. It should be noted that many current mindfulness practices have been secularized and adapted to fit the Western mindset.

In this post, I focus on the benefits and practices that are centered on Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program (also known as MBSR), established at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the late 1970s.

Initially developed to help treat patients for pain and a range of conditions that were difficult to address in the hospital setting, MBSR incorporates mindfulness meditation, body awareness and yoga. It has since been used in over 200 medical centers, hospitals, and clinics around the world and has become a resource for anyone interested in managing their own health and wellness.

It is worth noting some of the benefits of MBSR are:

  • Dramatic reductions in pain levels and an enhanced ability to cope with pain that may not go away.

  • Dramatic decreases of anxiety, depression, hostility and the tendency to somatize.

  • More effective skills in managing stress.

  • An increased ability to relax.

  • Greater energy and enthusiasm for life.

  • Improved self-esteem.

  • An ability to cope more effectively with both short and long-term stressful situations.

After reading the research and benefits for unwell MBSR patients, I couldn’t help but think what the benefits could be for young children.

So I continued to further research MBSR and stumbled upon a mindfulness program for children created by a former student of Kabat-Zinn’s eight-week program by the name of Eline Snel. Snel, a native of the Netherlands, not only developed an attention training for children and adolescents from 4 to 19 years old, but also wrote a fantastic book, “Sitting Still Like a Frog,” that includes many of her teachings (lucky us!). Kabat-Zinn and his wife were so moved by Snell’s book that they actually participated by helping with the English translation, as well as writing the foreward!

I’ll share a couple of Snell’s mindfulness activities in a bit. Now that you have the backstory, let’s jump into what mindfulness means for kids.

Why Teach Kids Mindfulness

Teaching kids mindfulness will empower them to be more in touch with their feelings and the connection between those feelings and the sensations in their body. Instead of burying or becoming overwhelmed by unpleasant feelings or thoughts, mindfulness helps kids acknowledged and manage their feelings. This is an amazing tool to be able to give children as parents and educators!

Kids learn that they are not victims to their emotions, that feelings are temporary and that not all feelings are true (“I’ll never do well in that class”). Instead, they learn that they have a choice to either be powerless to emotions or to accept them and address them.

Mindfulness also has many benefits for school-age children. In a compilation of studies, MindfulnessInSchools.org found the below benefits for kids who practiced mindfulness (notice the very similar results to Kabat-Zinn’s findings in adult patients):

  • reduced depression symptoms

  • reduced somatic stress

  • reduced hostility and conflicts with peers

  • reduced anxiety

  • reduced reactivity

  • reduced substance use

  • increased cognitive retention

  • increased self-care

  • increased optimism and positive emotions

  • increased self-esteem

  • increased feelings of happiness and well-being

  • improved social skills

  • improved sleep

  • improved self-awareness

  • improved academic performance

Similarly, the Greater Good Science Center based at the University of California, Berkeley wrote a round-up of four research studies on mindfulness in schools showing very similar results. All signs point to mindfulness impacting kids in positive ways!

By teaching kids mindfulness, we are helping develop emotionally healthy and aware children. We truly are setting kids up for a lifetime of emotional success because we are teaching them how to handle feelings that arise in any situation. We are teaching them to be comfortable with their thoughts, feelings and body. Is this not the best gift we can give them?

So how can you start teaching your kids mindfulness and make it a simple and regular practice in your home? 

Mindfulness Activities for Kids

Like any new habit, teaching kids mindfulness and practicing it as a family will require scheduling in the time and also making it simple enough that it becomes easy to make it a routine.

For those reasons and many more, I highly recommend reading, “Sitting Still Like a Frog.” It is a fantastic resource for adults who want to guide kids through different mindfulness practices. Snel makes practicing mindfulness with kids easy because she walks you (the adult reader) through various mindfulness activities for kids and explains the reasoning behind them. While the book is tailored to adults, the audio CD is child-centered and contains 11 mindfulness activities that kids can follow along with.

These exercises range from 3-9 minutes and are recommended for kids 5 years and older. With that being said, these are exercises the whole family can participate in. You’ll find the book offers mini mindfulness practices that are not included on the CD and vice-versa.

Below, I’ve included a couple of Snel’s exercises from the book, as a starting place in your family’s practice of mindfulness.

Mindful Eating

This exercise (pg. 36) is about getting the whole family to eat with mindful attention. It may seem like a simple idea, but it can be quite tricky to get kids to eat without positive comments (“yummy”) or negative comments (“we eat this all the time”).

When you take a bite of food, Snel recommends taking note of the following questions.

“What do you really taste once you stop thinking about food’s being either tasty or nasty?”

“Do you have a salty, sweet, or bitter taste in your mouth? Or a mixture of all three?”

“What is happening in your mouth while you are eating? What do you experience?”

This can be done out loud and modeled to young kids. Each member of the family can speak about his/her experience.

This activity not only helps kids to be more aware as they eat, but also helps them notice if they are full or still hungry. I find practicing this activity also helps make us all a bit less judgmental about what we are eating and to feel gratitude for the food on our plate.

Your Personal Weather Report

This is one of my favorite exercises in the book (pg. 54). Snel’s goal with this activity is to help children understand how they are feeling (“figure out their personal weather report”) which in turn will help kids (as well as adults) to accept their mood (“accept the weather”). It’s an important idea and also relates to my last post where we touched on the fact that children need to feel they are loved regardless of their mood.

The first step in the process is for kids to gauge “their personal weather report.” The next step is for them to accept the “weather” at that moment.

Some of the below questions can be asked to young children to help them figure out their “weather report” whereas older children can do this activity solo.

“What is the weather like inside of you?”

“Do you feel relaxed and sunny inside? Or does it feel rainy or overcast? Is there a storm raging, perhaps?”

“What do you notice?”

Once kids are able to describe their feelings, Snel advises that they “stay close” to that feeling: “Once you know how you are doing right now, just let it be… There is no need to feel or do anything differently. You cannot change the weather outside either, can you?... This is how it is right now… Like the weather, you simply cannot change a mood. Later today the weather will be completely different again… But right now this is how things are. And that is absolutely fine. Moods change. They blow over.”

What’s so cool about this activity is that it helps kids realize how they are feeling is temporary and doesn’t define them (“you can be scared without being a scaredy-cat”). It allows them to just feel the way they are feeling without judgment or worry.

These two activities were just a peak into the possibilities of teaching kids mindfulness. As you can see, it’s all about helping kids to become more in touch with their feelings, their bodies and the ever-changing flow of life.

I would love to hear from you! How did you enjoy the post? What are your favorite books and tools to help kids with their mindfulness practice?

Keep well, S