Changing What Mindfulness and Meditation for Kids Looks Like
Kids can’t sit still, they can’t stay quiet, they get distracted by everything. Kids need to move, explore, learn, play, jump, run, talk, sing, laugh, and follow whatever impulse is currently hijacking their little brains. Meditation is quiet, reflective, and still. Meditation and mindfulness require focus, presence, sustained concentration, and practice. Lights off, pillow ready, candle lit. Sounds like an impossible match. Yet, mindfulness and meditation are among the most highly adaptable and beneficial skills for teaching kids to de-stress, relax and regulate their emotions.
Mindfulness and meditation are among the most highly adaptable and beneficial skills for teaching kids to de-stress, relax and regulate their emotions.
As a parent or caregiver, the idea of asking a young child to sit quietly in focused meditation is laughable. Actually, expecting a small child can remain focused long enough to finish a sandwich, brush their teeth, get dressed, or do anything requiring sustained attention is laughable. Science backs up the suspicion that kids lose focus almost instantly. In fact, Dr. Barton Schmitt, from the Summit Medical Group, explains that the average attention span for a child is about 3 minutes per year of age. That means that a 2-year-old can concentrate for a maximum of about 6 minutes. A child entering kindergarten? They can focus on a task for a whopping 15 minutes before their minds and bodies move on. Parents don’t need these statistics, they know these numbers instinctively. This is why great efforts and ingenious strategies at keeping kids engaged and on task seem to rule much of the daily routine of raising young kids.
If it’s a challenge to get a kid through the routine of putting on shoes, is it realistic to assume a child can engage meditation and mindfulness?
Yes. As long as we completely change our expectations of what it should look like.
What is Meditation?
There are numerous ways to define mediation and just as many ways to practice it. These include listening to guided meditations, practicing mindfulness, or doing yoga. However it is practiced, the intention remains the same: to stay present in a moment without judgment. Psychology Today defines meditation as “the practice of turning one’s attention to a single point of reference. In other words, meditation means pivoting away from distracting thoughts and focusing on the present moment”. 2
Although meditation and mindfulness are becoming increasingly popular, it’s often still viewed as a serious process requiring quiet and stillness. Even to those familiar with its practices, this can feel intimidating, challenging and tricky for adults and impossible for kids. It’s commonly assumed that kids are incapable of engaging in meditation until they develop an increased attention span much later in life. However, research has shown extensively that, with a slightly different approach, kids can not only engage in meditation and mindfulness but that it is hugely advantageous to both their physical and mental wellbeing. (See “24 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Mindfulness and Yoga for Kids” for more information about the benefits of mindfulness) It just takes a willingness to get creative, be flexible and permission to move, make noise and have fun, far from what most associate with meditation.
Teaching meditation to kids requires a willingness to get creative, be flexible and permission to move, make noise and have fun.
There is no “one size fits all” way to adapt meditation and mindfulness to kids. However, several tips and strategies have proven successful in both a clinical setting and at home. Here are a few:
Tips and Strategies for Adapting Meditation and Mindfulness for Kids
Reconsider What it Means to Meditate and Practice Mindfulness
Meditation to most kids does not involve long stretches of sitting in quiet concentration, with eyes closed. It may include jumping, blowing bubbles, coloring, and making noise. No one position is best for a child to meditate in. The best place for each child is where they feel most comfortable. Kids don’t have to close their eyes. Even though closing eyes can help alleviate distractions, many kids feel uncomfortable and unsafe doing so, especially those who are scared of the dark or anxious by nature. Offering the option of closed eyes, but not requiring it, helps kids stay comfortable, safe and open.
At All Cost, Keep it Fun!
Introducing mindfulness to kids is all about planting seeds for future success. Keeping it a fun and exciting experience is essential, even if this means ditching the practice altogether for a game of peek a boo or tag. No matter what happens, if your child walks away having had fun, it was a success. The point is that kids learn to associate mindfulness with a pleasant feeling that they want to keep coming back to. Forcing kids to engage or using calming techniques as a punishment will backfire. Kids interest levels and ability to concentrate change second to second. If a child was super involved in an activity the day prior but now has no interest at all, don’t worry about it. Simply move on and try again later. It’s not harmful for a child to miss one opportunity for a mindful moment. It could, however, be detrimental if they begin to associate practicing mindfulness with being bored, in trouble or as something they are forced to do. As any parent can attest, this never ends well.
Keep it Short
Kids don’t have to engage in lengthy mediation to reap the benefits. Clinical psychologist, Dr. Christopher Willard suggests that the right length to ask a child to meditate or practice mindfulness is what they can tolerate without squirming, plus just a little bit more. This, of course, will be vastly different from kid to kid and even from day to day or hour to hour.
Plan Around the Kid’s Emotional Rhythm
As any parent can support, young kids are incredibly emotionally volatile. Their moods are quickly impacted by subtle changes in sleep, appetite, temperature, people present, noise level, or pretty much anything. Parents typically have a good sense of their child’s emotional rhythm and what time of day or situation their kids are most open to new things and have the highest attention span. Introducing and practicing new concepts during this peak attention span will make the experience much more successful for everyone. When the mind is flooded with emotion, it’s almost impossible to learn, for adults and children alike.
Keep Instructions Simple, Clear and Concrete
Kids need clear instructions to feel safe and comfortable so keep explanations short and concrete. A good rule of thumb is that the instructions should be simple enough that a child can explain them to a friend, family member or stuffed animal. Many traditional meditation practices involve abstract visualizations that young kids can’t grasp. Instead, use clear step-by-step guidance. Precise instructions like “I am going to ring this bell that I am holding. Can you listen to the sound very carefully and raise your hand when the sound stops?” is much more appropriate for a small child then the traditional instruction of “let’s listen mindfully to the sound of the bell,” and it accomplishes the exact same thing.
Pick Easy Words and Stay Consistent
Many meditations geared toward young kids still use vocabulary they often don’t understand. Instead, be intentional about the vocabulary used so kids can grasp what is being asked of them. Keeping the words, you do choose consistent is also helpful. Telling a child to “breath in big and fill her tummy with air” one day and “breath in big and fill her belly with air” the following is confusing to little kids. Are belly and tummy the same thing or are they different body parts? Pick a single word for each body part or instruction. Also, keep in mind that young kids are incredibly literal. For example, asking a child to take a big slow breath instead of a deep breath will most likely result in a more effective breath. It’s very possible to take deep, fast breaths. When we cue a deep breath, we really are trying to encourage a slow breath.
Work Around Pre-Existing Routines and Activities
Young kids thrive with predictable routines. Instead of adding another activity into the child’s day, try integrating practices of mindfulness into their existing routines at predictable times. Together with the child, choose one or two events that already happen every day at roughly the same time. For example, getting in the car seat and buckling up. Could they take one big slow breath with each buckle click? Or recite one positive affirmation when they put their pajamas on at night? After repeating these short moments over and over, kids begin internalizing them automatically. It then becomes much easier to access needed calming skill during a challenging moment. Even though it’s tempting to pick several moments, try sticking to just one or two until regular habits are formed.
Cater Toward The Child’s Specific Interests
Cater and adapt practices to fit what kids already love. Almost any exercise, meditation, or even yoga poses can be slightly altered to fit multiple subjects or themes. Making the practice around what gets the specific kid excited will increase buy-in and engagement. For example, a kid who loves sports might benefit more from movement-based mindfulness. A kid who love drawing might enjoy art based mindfulness practices and a kid who loves fire trucks would enjoy focusing on mindful listening of sirens, or empathy.
Don’t Be Afraid to Move
Kids need to move. Don’t be afraid to incorporate movement into mindfulness practices. In fact, Dr. Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson explain in their book The Whole-Brain Child that “research has shown that bodily movement directly affects brain chemistry. So when one of your children has lost touch with his upstairs brain, a powerful way for him regain balance is to have him move his body.” 3 Encouraging a little movement might be just the thing to help a child get into a regulated, open state where they are focused and ready to learn. “However you do it, the point is to help your child regain some sort of balance and control by moving their body, which can remove blockages and pave the way for integration to return,” Dr. Daniel Siegel explains. 3
Tell Stories to Engage the Imagination
A tool called guided imagery is an incredibly impactful and effective way to introduce young kids to meditation. Guided imagery is the use of storytelling to help a child paint a picture in their mind that creates a positive feeling or association. Kids are naturally imaginative, and use imagination and play as a way of processing the confusing world around them. By relaxing into a vivid and engaging story, kids can gain incredibly valuable tools for dealing with stress, pain or complicated feelings. It’s a very non-threatening way for kids to be exposed to these practices. And it’s fun!
As adults with years of experience being in the world, sometimes it’s hard to remember just how limited a child’s view is. If a child is asked to imagine they are a big sturdy tree, for example, they might have a hard time bringing to mind the image of a tree. Think about the difference in the number of memories and neurological connections tied to the image of a tree in a 30-year-old brain versus a 3-year-old brain. The 30-year-old has probably seen millions more trees in their lifetime and thus have a lot more images to choose from. Even an ordinary everyday object, like a tree, can be hard for young kids to bring to mind on the spot. Showing a picture as a visual cue can help make the experience more vibrant and meaningful.
Repeat Short Exercises Many Times
“The moment…doesn’t last very long by itself, but that’s perfectly okay. You don’t have to try to prolong that moment; rather repeat it many times – “short moments, many times” – Lama Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, As It Is 4
It’s more beneficial for kids to do shorter exercises more frequently than more extended activities less regularly. Don’t be discouraged that practice is incredibly quick, just keep repeating it throughout the day.
Enlist Your Child’s Help
Whenever possible, let your child have autonomy in choosing, creating and implementing the mindfulness activities you do together. Kids are natural choosers. Research has shown that a child’s desire to make their own choices is so strong that they actually engage in and enjoy the same activity significantly more when they can make a choice about it versus if the decision is made for them.1 Ask questions about what they want to feel and come up with creative solutions together. Is your child obsessed with dogs? Ask them how they think a dog would take a deep breath and follow their lead.
Be Patient and Assess Your Expectations
Often parents begin the process of introducing their kids to meditation and mindfulness with a slew of expectations for a particular outcome. This is completely understandable, right? Every parent wants their child to gain tools for increased peace and emotional stability. Expecting or hoping for a particular outcome is just part of being human. However, beginning the mindfulness journey with an outcome in mind can leave parents feeling burnt out and disappointed and kids feeling like failures if the desired result isn’t met. Dr. Willard reminds us that “ultimately, all you are ever really doing is creating the conditions under which change is most likely to occur.” Every child will respond differently to mindfulness, and with that, every outcome will look different. Research has shown that the introduction of these skills to young children is beneficial in the long run. Planting seeds, no matter what the immediate outcome is, will give children gifts even if they are not seen for years down the road. Trying to set intentions for planting seeds rather than than the goals of a changed behavior leads to increased success for everyone.
Ultimately, all you are ever really doing is creating the conditions under which change is most likely to occur. 4
-Dr. Christopher Willard
Practice Alongside Kids
Kids are very visual learners and mirror their parents actions even before they can follow verbal instructions. So, practicing alongside a child can teach volumes. Even if a child isn’t interested in the moment, watching a parent engage in a mindfulness practice still plants the seed. They also see that they are not being asked to do anything that the parent isn’t willing to do themself. This is a nice break from the authority figure dynamic that kids face in many areas of their lives.
We know that a young child cannot sit on a meditation cushion, with feet planted firmly on the ground, spine straight chanting “om” for 20 minutes. We also know that most young kids can lay down or snuggle with a stuffed animal for one minute, sit on a trusted grown-ups lap and listen to a 2-minute story or learn to take one slow deep breath when they get strapped into a car seat. This is precisely how we can expect kids to meditate, in a way that feels safe, doable and fun. Through courageously setting aside our own desire to do it “right” and allowing our kids to move, play and have fun while learning vital skills of regulation and stress reduction, we give ourselves and our kids a beautiful lifelong gift.
This is precisely how we can expect kids to meditate, in a way that feels safe, doable and fun.
“Your flexible and supportive attitude gets away from the predictable dichotomy of right and wrong that many kids live in. It helps simply to let go of your own attachment to what meditation should be. These preconceived ideas come out of cultural traditions which may not align with those of the kids we are working with. Rather than showing up with a rigid curriculum and expecting the kids to adapt, it is better for us to adapt ourselves and our practices to suit their minds, bodies, and spirits” – Dr. Christopher Willard 4
To download a short guided meditation that has been adapted especially for young kids, click HERE. For our entire collection of age-appropriate guided meditations, short yoga videos and breathing exercises, visit us at Yogamentary.com
- Chansky, T. (2014). Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: Practical Strategies to Overcome Fears, Worries, and Phobias and be Prepared for Life- From Toddlers to Teens. New York: Harmony.
- Meditation. (2019, March 15). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/meditatio
- Siegel, D. & Payne Bryson, T. (2012) The Whole-Brain Child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. New York: Bantam Books.
- Willard, C. (2016). Growing Up Mindful: Essential practices to help children, teens, and families find balance, calm and resilience. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.