Why Early Childhood Is the Perfect Time to Introduce Kids to Mindfulness

Picture the last time you walked alongside a young child. The memory might bring up an interwoven mess of emotions from total annoyance to endearing awe. Most likely it was slow, interrupted and scattered, each step a seemly pointless effort at forward progress. If a bird, a flower, a ladybug, a rock, a stick, a piece of trash, or any object really was added to the adventure, the journey likely stopped in its tracks. Little legs instantly bent into a squat as chubby fingers explored the earth, eyes opened in wonder, and the world disappeared. With that, 5 minutes were added to the already agonizingly slow walk and a new effort at refocusing and moving began.

The natural inquisitiveness and unabashed curiosity in which children view the world is astonishing. As a parent trying to move through life, it can also be excruciating, mind-numbing and the biggest patience tester imaginable. Ironically, adults spend considerable time, effort and resources attempting to acquire the skills necessary to stay present, aware and curious of the world around them, a skill young kids seem to possess naturally.

This “awareness of present moment experience with acceptance” is how Dr. Christopher Germer, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School, defines mindfulness.5 Techniques aimed at cultivating mindfulness, which has been practiced and valued for thousands of years, appear to exist in the little brains of kids inherently. Before kids get swept up in the hustle and stress of everyday life, they seem to notice details adults often overlook, ask questions many have stopped asking and remain beautifully open to new experiences, without judgment or critique.

Why is the mind so open, curious and receptive in childhood and how can these qualities be conserved for future success into adulthood? Turning toward the science of brain development in early childhood can explain what is going on behind those big curious eyes, questioning looks and constant distractions. It also shows how these pliable and highly receptive little brains provide the perfect place to instill lifelong skills for safeguarding these tendencies of wonder and curiosity, setting kids on a course of increased happiness, peace and resilience into adulthood.

Science shows that the receptive and pliable brain in early childhood provides the best opportunity to instill lifelong skills of stress-reduction, increased peace, and resilience.

The Brain in Early Childhood

Exposing kids to the practice of mindfulness at a young age can positively benefit their health through the lifespan and knowing how the young brain works explain why. The brain develops at a faster rate in the period from birth to age five than any other point in the lifespan. In fact, over 1 million new neural connections form every second during this period. The brain is also the most plastic, or “flexible” during this time granting space for rapid growth and the ability to process the enormous exposure to new experiences.2

Although some structural development of the brain continues into adulthood, experiences in early childhood have a significant effect on how the brain is shaped and the quality of what is developed later in life. The foundation laid during this time (whether fragile or sturdy) has a lasting impact on a child’s ability to succeed in all future-leaning, health, and behavior.2

Exposing kids to the practice of mindfulness at a young age can positively benefit their health through the lifespan.

The Opportunity for Growth in Early Childhood

Early childhood provides the best opportunities for a child’s brain to form the connections needed for essential higher level skills like motivation, self-regulation, problem-solving and communication. As the child grows, the brain becomes less capable of reorganizing. Into adulthood, it becomes much harder to rewire the parts of the brain needed for these resilient behaviors.2

This period of increased plasticity in early childhood, then, makes it a more natural and productive time to influence the brain’s architecture and form- or not form- connections essential to becoming healthy, capable and prosperous adults.

Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, Professor of Child Health and Development at Harvard, agrees with the increased effectiveness of introducing young children to resiliency skills early.

He states that “the basic principles of neuroscience indicate that providing supportive conditions for early childhood development is more effective and less costly than attempting to address the consequences of early adversity later.” 2

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) further stress the importance of nurturing the body and mind in early childhood and the crucial role caregivers play in this effort. In their report on early brain development, they explain how children are born ready to learn and depend on nurturing and responsive care to support healthy brain development and instill essential skills for later success. They even claim that the work of equipping parents and caregivers of young kids with the resources needed to provide these skills is an essential public health goal.1

Mindfulness In Early Childhood

The science clearly stresses the importance of the introduction of self-regulation skills to kids at a young age. But what tools can be used nurture these skills during this crucial time of brain development? One emerging thought is mindfulness, the active practice of focusing one’s attention in the present moment, without judgment.

“We can set kids on a course of healthy brain development across their lives through early mindfulness practice” 6

– Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Christopher Willard

Introducing and incorporating mindfulness practices into the lives of young kids can enormously benefit both their physical and mental health. Mindfulness has shown to improve focus, memory, self-esteem, and behavior. Additionally, it has proven to reduce anxiety and stress in children.6 Dr. Willard’s research showed that “through meditation and other activities, we can improve what we once thought to be innate and unchangeable qualities like attention, intelligence, and even mental health by rewiring neural connections. As with training the body, we can build strength where we once were weak, though we cannot change our height or shape beyond certain limits. Studies have found that long term meditators show changes in baseline activity levels in various parts of the brain, and even change the amount and shape of brain gray matter”6 (For more on the benefits of mindfulness, see our earlier post 24 Scientifically Proven Ways that Yoga and Mindfulness Benefits Kids)

Dr. Gurjeet Birdee, MD, a pediatrician and assistant professor of internal medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, stresses the need to give kids tools early in life to help with later success. He explains that at a younger age, kids can shape the stress response in a way that impacts how they handle stress into adulthood and kids must learn tools to manage stress at a young age.4    

Although forms of mindfulness have been practiced for thousands of years, they remain widely misunderstood in many western cultures. Many people associate mindfulness with religious practices and think of it as something much too advanced or difficult for kids to do. These beliefs have led too many people to wait until later in life to explore how mindfulness could be incorporated into their life.

As more and more research and anecdotal evidence show, childhood is an incredibly beneficial time to introduce kids to these practices. Giving kids the tools to handle stress, reduce anxiety, regulate emotions and form resiliency skills at the very time their brains are most receptive and open, is the biggest gift we can give our kids. These skills help kids form the foundation for future success in school and later in the workplace and community.

Many grade schools are recognizing the benefits of mindfulness practices, and they are quickly becoming part of mainstream curriculums. However, based on the flexibility and rapid growth of the brain in early childhood, some stress that the introduction of coping skills needs to start even before grade school. James Heckman, a Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, and expert in the economics of human development says “as a society, we cannot afford to postpone investing in children until they become adults, nor can we wait until they reach school age – a time when it may be too late to intervene.” The Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development also emphasizes that “optimizing the early years of children’s lives is the best investment we can make as a society in ensuring their future success.”3 \

Fortunately for those raising young kids, many tools are available that help kids practice and nourish stress reduction and resiliency skills, mindfulness being among them. Although mindfulness is not the only option, nor the option that will best fit the personality or lifestyle of every child, it is enormously beneficial in nourishing these skills in kids. Mindfulness can be easily adapted to fit into most families everyday routines, can be done at home with no equipment and can be modified in an age-appropriate manner. Therefore, it serves as an excellent tool for families in search of ways to help their children thrive through these sensitive years of brain development.

Dr. Willards urges us to give kids the gift of mindfulness at an early age. He says ‘introducing a child to mindfulness practices is a lifelong gift. You are planting the seeds for a practice that can help sustain and nourish mind, body, and spirit for a lifetime”.6

Introducing a child to mindfulness practices is a lifelong gift. You are planting the seeds for a practice that can help sustain and nourish mind, body, and spirit for a lifetime.6

Dr. Christopher Willard

We agree. This is why we have developed a large selection of mindfulness tools, practices and teaching techniques that have been uniquely adapted for young kids and busy families. Although our tools might not be right for everybody, many families have found several among our collection that has greatly benefited their young kids.

Here are several FREE tools that can be accessed immediately and tried out at home. To gain access to our full collection, including age-appropriate yoga videos, breathing exercises, guided meditations, and screen free mindfulness activities go to Yogamentary.com.

References

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019, February). Early brain development and health. Retrieved by https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/childdevelopment/early-brain-development.html
  2. Center on the Developing Child (2007). The Science of Early Childhood Development (InBrief). Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu
  3. The Encyclopedia of Early Childhood Development. (2017). The importance of early childhood development. Retrieved by http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/
  4. Stephens, B. (2014, September). The power of yoga. Staying Healthy. Retrieved from https://yogaplayhouse.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Parents-kidsyoga.pdf
  5. Willard, C. (2006). Childs mind: mindfulness practices to help our children be more focused, calm and relaxed. Berkely, CA: Parallax Press.
  6. Willard, C. (2016). Growing Up Mindful: Essential practices to help children, teens, and families find balance, calm and resilience. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

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