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3 fun mindfulness exercises for kids

Alice Gomstyn By Alice Gomstyn

If you ask my son about his favorite activities, he'll chatter about LEGOs, sports, reading and video games. What doesn't make the list? Sitting calmly without a book or device in hand.

So I was skeptical that Marshall, 7, would respond positively to the idea of mindfulness exercises. Would he stay put long enough to do them, or would he dismiss them as boring? Much to my amazement, he happily followed my guidance and afterward gave a terse but satisfactory assessment. "It was good," he said, and then scurried back to his LEGOs.

Well, it's a start.

Why mindfulness matters for kids.

Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to what's going on inside you ― your body and your feelings ― and around you. Over time, the practice can help you regulate your emotions and respond to the world in healthier ways. Research shows that children in particular reap a host of benefits from the practice, leading to better behavior and higher grades.

In my son's case, I'm hopeful that mindfulness will teach him to self-soothe after losing a game or having a tiff with a friend ― or keep him from getting overly upset in the first place. As he grows older and is exposed to more technology, perhaps mindfulness could help him avoid being overwhelmed by it all. For more about the benefits of mindfulness for youngsters, read Part 1 of our series.

Cheryl Jones, the director of mindfulness at Aetna, says that the practice can indeed make it easier for children to navigate today's tech-centric, rapidly moving world. “It's incredibly valuable for helping young people connect with their inner resources and stay grounded,” she says. “Mindfulness is a gift that enables them to manage the stressors of a very fast-paced life.”

How mindfulness is taught in schools.

Elementary schools across the U.S. increasingly recognize that gift. More and more are including mindfulness “games” in their curriculum, including those provided by Inner Explorer, an audio-based program founded by psychologist Laura Bakosh, PhD.

Bakosh notes that what works for grownups is not necessarily effective with kids. For instance, adults often use visualization exercises ― picturing themselves flying above the clouds ― to relax.

“We aren't trying to get kids to go off to an imaginary place. We want to help them inhabit the here and now," she says. But it's also important to make exercises engaging and memorable for children, Bakosh says, by infusing some playful elements. That can include unusual hand movements or references to animals.

Mindfulness games for kids.

Here are three exercises that parents and kids can try at home, courtesy of Inner Explorer. For each exercise, it's important to find a place where you can sit or lie quietly, without distraction. Marshall and I enjoyed doing these. I hope you do, too!

Shark fin:

  1. Sit on a chair or comfortable surface and close your eyes.
  2. Place your thumb on your forehead with your other fingers pointing to the sky like a shark fin.
  3. Move your hand slowly down from the forehead to your chest, keeping these S-words in mind:
    • Sit straight
    • Still
    • Silent
    • Soft breathing
    • Shut eyes
  4. Breathe in and out a few more times.
  5. Open your eyes and notice how you feel.  

  • Take a slow breath in. 
  • Bring one hand to your forehead, fingers pointing up like a shark fin. 
  • Slowly move your hand down to your chest as you breathe out. 
  • Move your hand up again and take a slow breath in. 
  • Do this 7 times. Notice how you feel.

Hand tracing:

  1. Sit quietly and take a few slow, deep breaths.
  2. Stretch out your fingers on one hand.
  3. With your other hand, slowly trace around your thumb. Breathe in as you trace up one side of the thumb, and breathe out as you trace down the other side.
  4. Do the same for the other four fingers, tracing up and breathing in, tracing down and breathing out.
  5. Switch hands and do it again. This time, pause slightly at the top and bottom of each finger.
  6. Think about which method you prefer today: with or without the pause.

Belly breathing:

  1. Choose a small stuffed animal or bean bag.
  2. Lie on your back on the floor, your bed or the couch.
  3. Place the toy on your belly. Keep your eyes open.
  4. Notice the weight of the toy. Feel your body touching the surface beneath you.
  5. Watch the object rise and sink as you inhale and exhale. Do this seven times.
  6. Take a moment and notice how you feel. 

  • Using a finger, slowly trace your thumb.
  • Up one side as you breathe in, down the other side as you breathe out.
  • Trace your other fingers.
  • Breathing in as you go up, breathing out as you go down.
  • Take a break at the bottom, then trace the other hand.
  • Notice how you feel.

Parents who are interested in bringing mindfulness into their homes can find other child-friendly exercises online and in mobile apps:

  • Inner Explorer The app offered by Bakosh's program features videos of kids practicing the exercises above.
  • Headspace The all-ages program includes short exercises for younger children.

  • Place a small stuffed toy on your belly. 
  • Notice the weight of the toy. Feel your body on the furniture. 
  • Watch the toy rise and sink as you inhale and exhale 7 times. 
  • Notice how you feel. 

About the author

Alice Gomstyn is a veteran parenting blogger and business reporter. She is an admitted sugar addict but plans to cut back on the sweet stuff and load up on veggies like never before. Bring on the broccoli!

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