This article was originally posted on Children's Book Review on June 6, 2016.
When we think about the crazy idea of teaching kids mindfulness, it can help to think about how do we teach kids anything? And the answer is simple—make it easy, make it short, and most of all, make it fun. But getting kids to sit or stand still? How is that fun?
Lev Vygotsky, noted child development researcher, once did a little experiment trying to see how long he could get a group of eight-year-olds to stand still. The result was about as effective as anyone else trying such a feat. But then he decided to suggest they stand still imagining that they were guards at a factory, with the result that the kids were standing still almost four times as long as the simple instructions he’d given them earlier. What can we learn about teaching, and about teaching stillness?
When we make something fun, and engage the imagination, children especially are apt to learn. Inspired in this way, we can use guided imagery, games, and playacting when we teach mindfulness. One form of mindful walking for example, is taught to us adults when we try to bring our awareness to the physical sensations of walking. It’s quite wonderful practice, and often a favorite way to practice mindfulness among adults, but it sure might sound boring to a child. But if we ask them to walk as quietly as possibly like a spy, or imagine they are walking carefully over an icy pond, they can focus more readily on the task, and really bring a new awareness to walking that also becomes fun.
Likewise for breathing, a child I worked with years back once informed me with an eye roll that “deep breathing is played out.” For that matter, it can be hard to just focus on the breath for very long. But what if we imagine we are holding a steaming bowl of our favorite soup or oatmeal, and gently inhale through our nose as if we are smelling it, and exhale through our mouth as if we are blowing on it to cool it off before we enjoy it. “The Soup Breath” is a relaxing and familiar way to slow down the breath and rest our attention on something, and so learn the basics of mindful awareness. And if your kids don’t like soup, there’s always hot chocolate, pizza, or plenty of other kid-friendly foods from which to choose.
And we can find a few minutes in our busy days to do a soup breath here, or some mindful walking there, which over time kids can use to help themselves when they are stressed, emotional, or maybe just bored and looking for something to do. A moment or two before dinner is ready, a few minutes of boredom while waiting for the school bus, these are great opportunities to teach some patience and mindfulness to our kids and ourselves.