I recently attended A Mindfulness for Children conference with Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of The Mindful Child. As a children’s manners teacher and a kids’ yoga teacher, I incorporate many mindfulness exercises into my classes.
Mindfulness is an awareness of the present moment. Susan’s Inner Kids Program focuses on “the New ABCs – Attention, Balance & Compassion are taught through games, activities, instruction and sharing to develop: (1) Awareness of inner experience (awareness of thoughts, emotions and physical sensations); (2) Awareness of outer experience (awareness of other people, places and things); and (3) Awareness of both together without blending the two.”
Children who worry about whether they will get an “A” in Algerbra or beat them selves up over missing too many goals or passes in the soccer game are easily distracted into the future or the past. Research on stressed-out, over-scheduled children is well known and films like A Race to Nowhere and Waiting for Superman reveal the problem, but do little in terms of offering meaningful solutions. Mindfulness is a proven method for relieving stress, increasing focus, energy and self worth. Mindfulness means accepting what is in this moment. The more we give our children the tools to anchor them in the present moment, the happier, more focused, more relaxed, and more creative they become. I have fused what I have learned from books like The Mindful Child, mindfulness workshops and conferences, my experience as a kids yoga teacher, and a passion for theater–many of my classes include the following mindfulness exercises:
- Breathing exercises from counting breathes to belly breathing. I incorporate fun yoga breathing exercises like lion’s breath, bunny breathing and dragon breathing. Breathing games calm the mind and body by bringing awareness to the breath. It’s enables children to begin to let go of their “thinking mind.”
- Sensory games: Breathing exercises are sensory but others include listening games from chime listening to focusing on a piece of music. In the smelling game, we identify mystery essential oils. In the mindful eating of an apple or a raisin, we first talk about where it came, how the tree or vine grew with help of water and sun, we ponder who picked the apple or perhaps it was machine. How did it get to the super market and so on.
- Imagination games: Whether a child is drawing a picture, writing a story, creating a funny dance, these non-competitive creative expressions are fun and build self-confidence.
- Meditation: we rest with eyes closed or open, sometimes sitting, sometimes lying down, sometimes walking. We observe our thoughts. We practice letting them go and going back to our breath. We become aware how sometimes in our daily lives we jump on this thinking roller coaster, which creates a lot of emotion from fear to anger, none of which are based in what is real. For example, we may worry that the reason someone doesn’t call us or invite us to a party is because they don’t like us, maybe, we think, we said or did something to offend the person, and then we think what if this person tells our other friends etc. We build ourselves into frenzy by riding this thought roller coaster. In class, we learn to become mind gardeners. We identify and weed negative thoughts and then plant seeds of positive thoughts. We water them by repeating them again and again until they grow stronger. Children learn how to focus before a test or go to sleep at night or to step back in a heated argument. Our mind is like a muscle and the more we practice, the stronger and more focused we get. Meditation makes us feel happy and grounded–practicing a little every day will help us in everything we do and want to do whether it’s getting good grades or playing lacrosse or making new friends.
- Gratitude: The more we practice gratitude, the more positive our outlook, and the more empathy we have. I love the activity of the Gratitude stone. We find a stone and decorate it with paint, glitter, stickers. Underneath we paint a “G” for Gratitude. We place the stone somewhere safe like in our rooms or our backpacks or our pocket of our jacket. Whenever we see the stone, children remember to notice something they are grateful for. It can be as little as “I am grateful it’s Friday” or “I am grateful we are having pizza for lunch.’ Children are born with sense of entitlement and as parents and teachers, we need to replace this with a sense of gratitude. According to Christine Carter, a sociologist, happiness expert, and director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Parents, entitlement “leads to feelings of disappointment and frustration. In contrast, gratitude makes us happy and satisfied with our lives.”
At the end of a class of games, yoga, breathing and meditation, the children lay peacefully with their herbal animal pillows covering their eyes. They notice their breath entering and leaving their bodies. They notice their muscles, their 206 bones, their arms, legs, torsos sinking into the earth a little more with each exhale. We often do visualizations to further relax them. They become aware that this peace is always available to them, that this is their true selves under their intellectual and physical capabilities, under all their weaknesses and embarrassing moments, and it is this peaceful place that all children and all humans have. We just need to learn to access it.
Mindfulness training builds emotional intelligence and increases a child’s success and resiliency in school, sports, college, careers and family life. Children learn to notice their thoughts and feelings. When we have a thought or belief, we create a neural pathway in our brain and we start to believe it. Affirmations became a part of nearly every class and help plant seeds. Mindfulness is seed that is being watered by many individuals across the country. It is especially important to plant this seed into our children so that they will grow into joyful, compassionate and balanced adults.