Mindfulness Part 2: Calming and attention focusing activities for even the very young

byDr. Alison Gardner, Psy.D.

This article is the second in series on mindfulness and how children can be taught to reap the benefits of this ancient practice (please see the previous article here)

In short, mindfulness is defined as a state of mind that engages us more fully in the present moment then we typically spend our days. This may be as simple as tuning in to and being aware of the feeling of breathing, the sun on our face, the butterflies in our stomach, or the ache in our back. What is fostered is a nonjudgmental accepting of whatever we are experiencing in a given moment in time while trying not to evaluate or emotionally react to our experience. By taking this important first step to notice and accept our experience we not only strengthen the brain’s ability to selectively pay attention, but also learn to ground and calm ourselves in the face of hurdles and unchangeable circumstances. Being mindful does not mean that we stop trying to be active agents for change and growth in our lives but rather that we are better able to face the challenges life brings our way.

Empirical evidence is mounting that teaching mindfulness can improve children’s “executive functioning,” which are the domain of the frontal lobe of the brain, like focusing attention and regulating emotions. In particular, a series of three studies completed at UCLA, evaluated the outcome of the Inner Kids program co-founded by Susan Kaiser Greenland. In this program children ranging in age from prekindergarten through elementary school age were taught a 1/2 hour long mindful awareness class twice per week for 8 weeks. The series of studies demonstrated that children as young as four years can meaningfully participate in the classes and that 2nd and 3rd graders can show improvements in behavioral regulation, metacognition (reflecting on how we think), and in teacher and parent-reported ability to shift, initiate and monitor attention. Over time, children with lower executive functioning skills were shown to improve to an average range and all children showed improvements in working memory, planning and organizational skills-all very important brain skills.

So how did these researchers teach children from numerous Los Angeles schools to sit still and practice mindfulness? Not infrequently, children with attention difficulties find mindfulness activities challenging and even aversive. Active children understandably find it hard work to slow down. However, through the wonders of recent research on neuroplasticity () we have learned that the ability to focus one’s attention on something is a skill that can actually be strengthened, little by little, with practice.

Below, I have summarized some of the exercises Ms. Kaiser Greenland used in her Inner Kids curriculum. For greater detail and even more ideas, her book “The Mindful Child” is an excellent primer on how to bring the art of mindfulness into our own lives and our children’s worlds. Reading through the whole book before trying these exercises with your children will greatly increase the chances of success since there are so many aspects to learning mindfulness that cannot be fully addressed here.

In her mindfulness classes, Ms. Kaiser-Greenland shares that she often finds that children are more open to trying the activity she wants to teach when she precedes it with a fun, playful activity of parents with their child. She recommends unstructured play with inflated balloons and beach balls, blowing bubbles, dancing, and singing as an important way to join with your child and shift mental gears from hectic typical daily activities.

An engaging way to introduce the concept of opening our minds to different ways of thinking while learning to reflect on how various experiences feel in our bodies is what Ms. Kaiser-Greenland calls the “What’s Inside the Box” game. She fills an empty oatmeal container with something other than oatmeal, for example, with Legos, marbles, or other toys. She asks children to guess what could possibly be in the box. The children offer all of the possibilities that they can imagine. Before diving in to discover the mystery toy, children are asked to reflect on what it feels like to not know what is in the box; if there have been other times they didn’t know something and what that felt like; what do they feel inside their bodies when they don’t know what will happen next: excited, nervous, comfortable or uncomfortable. The children are encouraged to sit with this feeling and with their attention focused on their own felt experience, to take a deep breath, and then dive in to discover the hidden toy.

Some children find slowing down and following an adult’s lead on deep breathing to be easy natural and calming. Others find slowing down this much to be pure annoyance because it is so difficult for them to put on the brakes long enough to turn their attention away from where it wants to go naturally. Here are a few different ways to introduce deep breathing and centering activities for both types of children.

  1. Children can be asked to lie on the floor and imagine they are a starfish. A leader talks about how starfish do everything from their centers from eating to breathing. Children imagine that their two arms, two legs and head are the five arms of a star fish and stretch. Children are coached to breathe in fully, breath out fully and slowly, and to rest while they focus their attention on what each step feels like.
  2. Once a child is relaxed from the starfish stretch, they can try the “Rocking a Stuffed Animal to Sleep” breathing exercise. Children can take their favorite stuffed animal and place them on their abdomen and pretend they are rocking the animal to sleep with the soothing movement of their bellies as they slowly breathe in, out and relax. By cueing children in a soothing voice during this activity regarding what they may be paying attention to with their mind one can further encourage the practice of selective and focused attention. Some examples of this are: paying attention to the changes in length of the in and out breaths, the changes in feelings within the child’s body e.g. feeling more relaxed and calm, the mind becoming quieter, or how easy or difficult it is to pretend to be rocking the animal to sleep.
  3. For the active child who finds slowing down to do the above activities aversive, “slow and silent walking” can be an easier exercise for them. We can bring to their attention three aspects of the act of walking that we usually all take for granted: lifting the foot, moving it forward, and putting it back down on the ground. Children can be encouraged to further narrow their focus of attention on things like the physical sensation of placing a foot on the ground vs. lifting it off of the ground.
  4. Similarly, children who feel the need to keep moving while practicing mindfulness can be taught the “pendulum.” In this exercise, they find a slow comfortable pace with which to rock back and forth either while sitting or standing and focus their attention on the various sensations. It can be helpful to support the children in finding a soothing pace by setting a rhythm with a musical instrument like a drum, guitar strum, or bell. Ms. Kaiser-Greenland sometimes uses the phrase, “Tic-toc, like a clock, until we find our center.”
  5. Another fun activity to work on the skill of deep breathing while selectively directing attention is the use of good old fashioned pinwheels. Children can be asked to breathe in deeply through their noses and then blow the pin wheel with long breathes, short breathes, and medium breaths. Children can then be cued to reflect on what their bodies feel like with a short vs. longer breaths. Afterwards, they can be asked to describe what happens in their minds with this activity.
  6. Finally, counting while focusing on the breath can make it somewhat easier to quiet the mind and stay with the activity. Ms. Kaiser-Greenland guides kids this way, “When you breathe in, let your body relax. When you breathe out, silently count one, one, one, one, until your lungs feel empty.” Next do the same with the number two and so on.

For more information, please refer to “The Mindful Child: How to Help Your Kid Manage Stress and Become Happier, Kinder, and More Compassionate” (2010) by Susan Kaiser Greenland (Free Press).