Does Mindfulness Work for Kids?

Written by Stephanie Trueblood, LPC-Intern

Some of us may think of mindfulness as being too abstract or serious for kids and teens to relate to or understand.  However, mindfulness is actually the very simple concept of non-judgmentally opening up to the present moment with awareness of thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.  Kids are naturally much more present than adults because they often do not think past the here-and-now situation.  Although they are typically present, they may not yet understand the essence of awareness without judgment or attachment to the thoughts, feelings, and sensations.

Why It’s Useful for Kids

In recent years, mindfulness has been recognized as an important learning tool in schools.  It helps kids (and people of all ages) “develop attention, emotional and cognitive understanding, bodily awareness and coordination, as well as interpersonal awareness” (Hanh, 2011).  Additionally, mindful practice provides children and teens with the tools necessary to effectively handle stress, anxiety, frustration, and other difficult feelings so they will be more peaceful, open, and socially conscious human beings. 

How to Teach Mindfulness to Children and Teens

So, how can we teach these skills to kids in a way that’s not boring, clinical, and complicated?  Well, I like to use metaphors and hands-on materials to help the abstract concepts become more concrete and tangible.  For instance, Thich Nhat Hanh illustrated in his book,Planting Seeds:  Practicing Mindfulness with Children, the idea that through mindful breathing, we can hold all our thoughts and feelings in our minds yet remain peaceful and aware.  He used the “Mind in a Jar” exercise to convey this abstract concept to children. 

Here’s how “Mind in a Jar” works:  The teacher sets a clear jar filled with water in the middle of a circle of children.  Additional smaller jars, filled with a variety of colors of sand, are placed around the large jar of water.  The colored sands symbolizes different thoughts and feelings people may possess at any time.  The children are then asked to choose a color of sand to represent certain feelings they have experienced and then sprinkle the sand into the jar of water.  One child stirs the sand and water while the teacher asked for other thoughts and feelings the children have experienced in their lives.  The children add more colors of sand into the swirling water, while the teacher explains that the swirling colors represent our minds when we are feeling stressed, angry, or upset.  Then the teacher asks the children to stop, breathe, and observe the sand as it settles to the bottom of the jar.  They observe together that the water becomes calm, peaceful, and clear, even though all those thoughts and feelings are still present inside the water.  This is one way to tangibly illustrate how mindful breathing might assist kids in learning self-regulation and coping strategies when they encounter difficult thoughts and feelings.

The earlier these important tools are taught to children, the better!  Mindfulness skills serve kids in every aspect of their lives – at home, with friends, siblings, at school, and as they grow and develop into well-adjusted, healthy, balanced adults.  Don’t you wish someone had taught you about mindfulness when you were a kid?

Reference: Hanh, T.N., (2011). Planting Seeds:  Practicing Mindfulness with Children. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.

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