Mindfulness for the Entire Family

Bring the kids along

Posted Jul 14, 2015

It used to be that we didn’t teach mindfulness to children, mistakenly believing it was for adults only. The argument went something like this: Children won’t be able to sit still, they won’t understand, and they’re too young to reap the benefits. Fortunately, all that has changed over the past few years. As mindfulness has gone mainstream, it has also started entering our schools, helping our children pay attention, get along with others, and manage difficult emotions. In fact, there are now a plethora of mindfulness-based curricula for schools.

            As someone who learned mindfulness in elementary school (thanks to an eccentric family), I am delighted to see this development, and to see the adaptation of traditional practices so that they speak to the needs of children. You don’t have to sit still for 45 minutes to benefit, and you don’t even need to close your eyes.

            A number of weeks ago, as part of our community outreach on behalf of the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at the Cambridge Health Alliance, Harvard Medical School, I spoke to parents at the Haggerty School in Cambridge. The workshop was organized by Laura Indigo, Mindfulness Educator for Children and Families, who has been teaching mindfulness to children at this school.

            The visit, for me, was especially sweet as my two children attended this elementary school over a decade ago. The familiar drive back was full of memories, including the stress of navigating through rush hour traffic; the challenges of helping two children get their lunches, homework, and gear together; and, of course, the inevitable squabbles in the car on the way to school.   

            After I spoke about the fundamentals of mindfulness and taught some basic practices for stress reduction to the parents, one father asked if there were mindfulness practices that could be done as a family. What a wonderful question! We typically think of mindfulness as a solitary pursuit that requires us to close our eyes and shut out distractions from the outside world. The following practice challenges this misconception, is a great family activity, and is perfect for a summer day – or any day, for that matter. It can be done in a park, on a beach, or on the street where you live.  I heartily agree with the writer and artist Maira Kalman, who has written, “Go out and walk. This is the glory of life.” And it’s a great antidote when your children are squabbling…

Mindful Pleasure Walk

  • Start by getting your family outside. No gear is necessary.
  • Begin to walk together, paying attention with all the senses.
  • Silence isn’t necessary, especially with young children, but try to keep conversation at a minimum and stay focused on what you are noticing.
  • Give your family a mini-vacation from devices--no screens, no texting, emailing or talking on the phone while walking. Just walk.
  • Notice what you see with your eyes—the color of the sky, the shapes of the clouds, the hues of the flowers. Notice what is on the ground (a favorite interest of young children)—a rainbow in a puddle, an earthworm, a colorful rock.
  • Pay attention to what you are hearing—the songs of birds, the barking of dogs, the buzz of bees gathering nectar, even the sounds of garbage trucks, or the honking of horns if you are in the city. And there’s no need to favor pleasant over unpleasant sounds. Instead, take it all in.
  • Bring your attention to smells—the fresh air, flowers, the produce from a fruit or vegetable vendor, the fumes from a passing truck or bus.
  • Feel your feet touching the ground, along with the other sensations of your body walking. If you’re at a beach, feel the sand under your feet. It’s fine to pick up a stone as a souvenir and keep it as a reminder to be in the moment.
  • After walking for as long as you like, and as long as your children are engaged (five to ten minutes is usually enough), get together and talk about what you noticed and experienced with all the senses.

In the spirit of walking and discovery, I was inspired by this quote I found recently at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in New York City, written by the little-known Swiss modernist writer Robert Walser, author of the 1917 piece, The Walk.  Susan Sontag has called him “a Paul Klee in prose… a cross between Stevie Smith and Beckett”:

The man who walks must study and observe every small living thing, be it a child, a dog, a fly, a butterfly, a sparrow, a worm, a flower, a man, a house, a tree, a hedge, a snail, a mouse, a cloud, a hill, a leaf, or no more than a poor discarded scrap of paper on which, perhaps, a dear good child at school has written his first clumsy letters.

Enjoy the world around you.

Psychologist Susan Pollak, MTS, Ed.D., co-author of the book Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy, (Guilford Press) has been teaching and supervising at Harvard Medical School for over twenty years.