- Mindfulness-based practices can be effective in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression.
- Learning to pay attention to thoughts is an executive functioning practice, strengthening attention and reducing impulsivity.
- In teaching children exercises to optimize their mental health, it is important that these activities are clear, concrete, and engaging.
From a developmental perspective, children’s thinking tends to be more concrete and their attention spans shorter than adults’. As such, in teaching children exercises to optimize their mental health, it is important that these activities are clear, concrete, and engaging. Children are imaginative and are able to use their creativity to learn. Mindfulness-based strategies have become increasingly popular in practicing with children in and out of school context. It is important, however, to present mindfulness in a way that is open, accessible, and engaging for children.
Recently I had the pleasure of attending Eline Snel’s mindfulness workshop at Mindfulness Everyday, where she shared some of her mindfulness training with children and youth in the Netherlands. She shared what motivated her to initiate this work and ultimately develop the Sitting Still Like a Frog mindfulness book for children (ages 5–12): the need to understand our inside world.
Snel begins her book with the simple phrase, “In order to love you need to be at home in yourself.” As children grow and develop in our society, they often focus on everything external around them; people, social media, school. Yet, the internal world is often poorly understood and the mind–body connection is lacking. When teachers say “pay attention” or “calm down,” what does this really mean? How do children learn to do this? Snel’s mindfulness books focus on this idea of playfully learning how to cultivate greater self-awareness, inside and out. Below are some fun exercises from this book that parents can practice with their children.
The Attention of a Frog
Paying attention is a skill that we can improve through practice. One exercise that Snel shares is to imagine yourself as a frog, sitting very, very still, aware of everything around you, but not reacting right away. The frog sits still, breathing, preserving its energy; its belly rises a bit and falls again. Being like a frog means paying attention to the breath. I like to add frog puppets with younger kids and visually show the frog’s belly moving up and down. Bottom line: Slow down and pause in a way that works for kids and that may not be considered “boring.”
What does the research say about breathing practice?
Fun fact: We breathe about 20,000 times each day! Yet, how many of these breaths are we aware of? The foundation of all mindfulness practices is to bring your awareness to your breath. This is also known as “coming back to your breath.” Deep belly breathing supplies more oxygen to the body, increases the functioning of the immune system, increases energy and mood, reduces stress, and strengthens connection with the body.
This one is one of my favorite and most playful exercises to help children become more aware of how their bodies feel when they experience different feelings. The idea here is to imagine the child transforms into stiff and uncooked spaghetti in their body, pausing like this and noticing the stiffness in their bodies. Then the child imagines being soft and cooked spaghetti, completely limp, totally relaxed. This helps them recognize what calm and tense feels like in their bodies. The simple purpose of this exercise is to have children be more attuned to their bodies, which, as research shows, ultimately enhances our ability to respond to situations from a place of regulation and awareness.
What does the research say about tuning in to our bodies?
Not only is there a general ability to dial down body’s responses to stress when one can tune into one’s body, but many other benefits also follow. Recent research reviewed more than 200 studies on mindfulness and found mindfulness-based practices to be effective in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression.
First Aid for Worries
One way to help children better identify and be aware of their worries, as well as know what they can do with these worries, is to teach children (and teens, and adults!) how to shift their attention out of their head and to distance themselves from their thoughts. In this exercise, children shift their attention (like a small spider on a thread) down into their abdomen. There are, after all, no thoughts in their abdomen, only the breath, calm and steady. The abdomen is a safe space to shift to; there are no worries there, simply peace and quiet. In sum, when the child worries, all they need to do is notice the worry and move it down toward the breath in the abdomen, where there are no thoughts.
What does the research say about awareness of thoughts?
Once children are able to tune in to their breath and their body, they may learn to bring awareness to their thoughts by noticing without reacting to these thoughts. That is, children learn to have an attitude of curiosity, acceptance, and nonreactivity. In a way, this may be described as an executive functioning practice, as it involves being aware and monitoring cognitive processes. Indeed, research on children and youth with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has increasingly shown that engaging children in these mindfulness exercises leads to improvements in attention, reductions in impulsivity, and reduction in parental stress, while increasing parents’ psychological well-being.
All in all, mindfulness exercises for children (and parents!) can lead to some pretty fantastic outcomes. As Jon Kabat-Zinn infamously phrased it: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”