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The Angle, May 2018 – Teaching Mindfulness to Toddlers

Mindfulness is a hot buzzword in the high-stress, always-active world we currently find ourselves in. We’re told if we just “cultivate” mindfulness we’ll be calmer, healthier, and happier. Sounds good, right? If this is something we’re taking up for ourselves, should we be sharing it with children, too? But, how do we do so in a way that speaks to them?
 
We asked Ruby Velasco, M.S., LMFT, one of Child360’s Mental Health Specialists, what relevance this has for children age 0-5, and learned that she conducts training sessions for parents and providers specifically about this topic. She shared that the basic psychological components of mindfulness are in play from birth, as “mindfulness practiced by teachers and caregivers benefits babies and toddlers by early modeling.” In terms of teaching children active mindfulness strategies, she says, “preschool [age 3-4] is the best time” to begin.
 
Effective mindfulness strategies work the same way in children as in adults: to relieve stress, promote happiness, and regulate emotions. Preparation and practice are key. According to Velasco, “The worst (i.e. least effective) time to ask a child to calm down is once strong emotion has gotten the best of them.” We can teach them to practice these strategies, then turn to them whenever emotions begin to rise out of control.
 
The research of Susan Kaiser Greenland, a writer, advocate, and children’s mindfulness expert, is fundamental to Child360’s own mindfulness program. In adapting the often-complex study of mindfulness and meditation, Greenland identifies six basic “life skills:” Quieting, Focusing, Seeing, Reframing, Caring and Connecting, with each concept building on the other. 
 
For preschool age children, the first four skills are the most accessible (though the latter two will follow with maturity). Ruby Velasco talked us through some specific ways to help youngsters hone these skills, using Greenland’s established methods.
 

Quieting 

“It’s important to remember that mindfulness and meditation are two separate things,” cautions Velasco. “Mindfulness is about focusing, and knowing where our mind is in the moment; meditation is the practice to achieve that goal of mindfulness; breathing is the core of this strategy.” Since it’s often challenging—even for us adults!—to concentrate on solo breathing exercises, Greenland has devised creative games to guide the process, simple exercises so enjoyable their only difference from other fun games is the intent behind them. 
 

Quieting Exercise: “Rock-a-Bye”

Children pretend to rock a stuffed animal to sleep on their bellies to relax their bodies and calm their minds. The activity leader gives the following instructions:
  1. Lie on your back with your legs flat on the floor and your arms by your sides. If you like, you can close your eyes.
  2. I’m going to place a stuffed animal on your belly. Imagine this animal loves to be rocked to sleep up and down. When you breathe in, it moves up; when you breathe out, it moves down.
  3. Notice what it feels like to breathe in and out; put your hand on the animal and notice what that feels like too. What’s happening in your mind?
  4. If it’s hard to keep your mind on your breathing, silently say the word “up” when the animal moves up and “down” every time the animal moves down.
 

 

Focusing

According to Susan Kaiser Greenland, “Mindful play is a great way for kids to develop focusing skills, while learning to regulate their emotions and respond to any situation calmly, with kindness and compassion.” Our expert Ruby Velasco agrees, and points to Greenland’s “Seeing Clearly” exercise as one of her favorites.
 

Focusing Exercise: “Seeing Clearly”

Children shake a glitter ball to help understand the connection between what happens in their minds and in their bodies. The activity leader follows these steps and asks questions like:
  1. Describe how your body feels when you’re stressed?When you feel stressed, can you think clearly?
  2. When the ball is still, you can see through the water. When you shake the ball, the glitter (or snow) whirls about, making the water cloudy. “Can you still see through the water?
  3. Now, place your hands on your tummy. Can you feel your breath? 
  4. Do you see the glitter has settled? Our thoughts are like glitter. When our minds are busy, it can be hard to think clearly. If we feel our breathing and leave our thoughts alone, they will settle down so we can think clearly.
  5. Once a child understands the metaphor, you can use phrases like, “See if you can settle your glitter” as a gentle prompt when someone is overly excited or upset.
 

 

Seeing Exercise: “Mystery Box”

When asked to guess what’s inside a mysterious box, children notice how it feels when they’re asked a question and they don’t know the answer. It’s especially helpful for children grappling with the insecurity of saying, “I don’t know.” Here’s how to conduct this exercise:
 
  1. What do you think is in the box? 
  2. What do you feel like when you don’t know? Excited? Frustrated? Something else? 
  3. Hold the box and feel it, look at it, shake it—but don’t open it. Do you have other guesses? 
  4. Let’s open the box and see what’s inside. How does it feel when you don’t know what’s going to happen next? What does it feel like to expect one thing but find another? How do you feel when you have to wait for something?
  5. For very young children, it helps to give examples of kinds of things that might be in the box before they begin guessing.
 
This seemingly simple “Mystery Box” exercise touches on some cognitive developments that will figure prominently as a child grows. According to Author David Gelles, of the New York Times, prefrontal connections are created most intensely during childhood; mindfulness promotes skills controlled in the prefrontal cortex—like focus and cognitive control—and therefore impact the development of skills including self-regulation, judgment and patience.
 

 

Reframing Exercise: “The Big Picture”

Trying to guess what something is by touching only part of it with their eyes closed, children learn that what they believe depends on the information they have. This exercise works best with just one or two children at a time. We are using the authors’ adaptation for young children, as the original is a mental visualization exercise.
 
  1. Ask the child(ren) to close their eyes (or use a blindfold), while you bring out a stuffed or model animal, such as an elephant.
  2. Have the child touch just one part of the animal and guess what they’re feeling. Help them with adjectives (for example, the trunk is “long and round” like a snake or a hose; the ear is “thin and wide” like a fan)
  3. Tell a story about a time you misunderstood someone because you didn’t have all the information, or a time someone misunderstood you because they didn’t know the whole story.
 
”The Big Picture” teaches children (of all ages) that despite doing their research and weighing all the information, they may not know what they need in order to answer a question correctly. 
 

 
If you’d like to read more about mindfulness strategies, or incorporate Greenland’s exercises into your home or classroom, Child360 recommends the “Mindful Games” book, as well as its companion activity card set (co-authored by Annaka Harris), which are one of our featured selections in this month’s Book Review. The book is also available in Spanish, with a Spanish card deck set for future release.