by Grace Helms Kotre, MSW
Imagine a group of four-year-olds sitting cross-legged on the floor, eyes closed, listening intently to the sound of a chime. As the ringing stops, the children’s hands rise from their laps and settle on their bellies. They breathe in… and then out. When their eyes open, they share how they’re feeling. “Calm.” “Tired.” “Hungry!”
This is how my preschool mindfulness classes begin. While it may be hard to imagine, kids as young as three can become mindfulness practitioners! Basic mindfulness skills taught at an early age can help young children to stay healthy and balanced as they grow.
Mindfulness is the practice of bringing attention to our present-moment experiences, on purpose, and with kindness and curiosity. The formal practice of mindfulness is called “mindfulness meditation” and involves focusing on particular aspects of our experience (typically sound, body, or breath). This formal practice is like strength-training for the mind, enhancing our awareness so that we can more skillfully respond to all that’s happening within and around us.
The informal practice of mindfulness is simply bringing present-moment attention into what we’re already doing – walking, sitting, tasting, seeing, talking, and listening. While mindfulness classes for adults place greater focus on formal practice and involve longer periods of meditation, classes for young children do the opposite. Developmentally, it’s only appropriate for young children to practice very brief periods of meditation. They may sit in “mindful bodies” and focus on sound or breath for up to one minute, but most of class time is devoted to playful experimentation with informal mindfulness – bringing mindfulness into all the things we do every day.
I am often asked, “Aren’t young kids already mindful?!” And it’s true that young children tend to be naturally curious and present-focused. But at a time when their brains are rapidly developing, mindfulness can help young children to build particular skills that support healthy development.
Researcher Lisa Flook of the University of Wisconsin Center for Healthy Minds demonstrated some of these benefits through her Mindfulness-Based Kindness Curriculum, a 12-week program for preschool-age children. The lessons focused on using mindfulness to promote self-awareness and empathy. Children in the program experienced lasting benefits including improved social competence, academic performance, mental flexibility, health, and self-regulation. (The Kindness Curriculum is available for free in both English and Spanish.) Although more research is needed to verify the benefits of mindfulness for youth, this and other studies show promising results.
And the movement is growing! There are increasing opportunities for parents and educators to share mindfulness with their preschoolers. This year, the Second Annual Preschool Mindfulness Summit brought together experts in the field to share best practices with an international audience; there is a proliferation of mindfulness-themed picture books now available; and preschools are starting to incorporate mindfulness into their programs (check out The Cove School in Seattle and The U School of Ann Arbor).
So, what are the keys to sharing mindfulness with young children? If you are a parent, caregiver, or educator, how can you incorporate mindfulness into your preschooler’s daily routine?
Mindful Activity Suggestions: Developmentally appropriate mindfulness for this age incorporates play, sensory experiences, stories, music, movement, and crafts. Here are some example activities for introducing mindfulness to your little one.
Belly Buddy Breathing (promotes emotional regulation and attention) – Lying down, place a “buddy” (lovey) on your child’s belly. For one minute, notice the buddy moving up and down with the breath, “rocking it to sleep.” This is a great calming activity for before bedtime.
Mindful Bodies Freeze Dance (promotes awareness of body and breath) – Playing music your child likes, dance together when the music is on. When the music turns off: stop, stand tall, and place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly, noticing the pace of the heart and the breath. Share what you notice! Then, turn the music back on and repeat.
Good Things Jar (promotes positivity and appreciation) – Find a jar and a bag of cotton balls (or other small items). The cotton balls symbolize “good things” in your life. Take turns naming one good thing and adding a cotton ball to the jar. Notice how full the jar becomes and reflect on how it feels to consider your many good things!
Everyday Mindful Moments: If you can’t find the time to do structured mindfulness activities, you can integrate mindfulness into your everyday moments together with the following kinds of practices.
Notice & Name Emotions (promotes emotional regulation and self-awareness) – When your child is upset (or when you are), name the emotions you’re feeling out loud. Share where you feel the emotions in your body. Invite your child to do the same.
Three Mindful Breaths (promotes awareness of breath and emotional regulation) – Take three mindful breaths together at the same time every day to develop the habit. Simply place your hand on your own belly and take a few intentional breaths. Invite your child to do the same. Reflect on how you feel afterward.
Kind Wishes (promotes empathy) – When we have challenging experiences or encounter others who are suffering (i.e. the sadness of a friend, illness of a loved one, or an ambulance siren passing by), we can share kind wishes. “I wish for me/them to be safe. I wish for me/them to be healthy. I wish for me/them to be happy. I wish for me/them to be loved.” Notice how it feels to share kindness with yourself and others this way.
While bringing mindfulness practices into the lives of young children can be a very helpful and rewarding experience, not all children are going to be interested! Mindfulness should never be forced or used as a disciplinary strategy. If your child is resistant, try getting creative. Some children will love taking their quiet belly breaths, and others will prefer mindful movement activities. Let your child’s interests determine which practices you do so that mindfulness becomes an enjoyable daily activity.
Finally, for all of these mindfulness activities and practices, your own engagement matters! Studies have shown that when parents and teachers practice mindfulness themselves, children benefit. And, of course, children at this age model their caregivers’ behaviors. Developing your own mindfulness practice can be a source of health and wellness for both you and your young child.
Grace Helms Kotre, MSW, is a Certified Mindfulness Instructor and the founder of Power to Be, LLC. She shares mindfulness as a tool for empowerment with youth and adults in schools, organizations, and businesses. Grace has been practicing mindfulness and meditation since 2009 and has additional training in mindful parenting, non-violent communication, trauma-informed outreach, and mindfulness for social justice. You can reach her at email@example.com or visit www.mindfulpowertobe.com.