Mindfulness for kids: activities and exercises to try with your children
11 May 2021
Small children sometimes have to cope with big issues. Even things that can seem little to us can feel huge to them. Encouraging mindfulness can make a difference to how your child feels day-to-day.
We all know that primary school children have coped with a lot during lockdown. They’ve had to face uncertainty, school closures and, more recently, the return to school.
A Mumsnet survey found that 78% of parents say lockdown has been harmful to their children’s mental health, and 90% say it’s been harmful to their social lives too.
Children have also had to deal with issues unrelated to the pandemic like falling out with friends, finding their place in the world and worries about schoolwork. And they don’t always have the vocabulary to describe how they feel or the tools to help themselves get through it.
On the Mumsnet forums, there have been several big word spikes in the last year, with users writing the term ‘mental health’ alongside either DD, DS and/or DC (daughter, son and/or child).
The biggest spike came after the January 2021 school closures (pink) and the second biggest (turquoise) was in August 2020 as schools were about to reopen.
This echoes what Bupa have discovered. According to their 2018 research, 32% of parents with children aged four to 18 said that their child had been affected by a mental health issue in the last year. 40% of parents said they struggled to talk to their child about their emotional wellbeing.
Other research from Bupa reinforces the emotional challenges faced by children during lockdown. While those at home sought extra affection, those in empty classrooms felt ever more isolated.
Not to mention the negative effect of social media addiction on children’s mental health during this period, with children looking to social media platforms for positive reinforcements.
So if you’re a parent whose child is struggling or would just like to improve the wellbeing of the little people in your household, we’re here to help.
Here are tips on how to introduce mindfulness to your child or children, and some mindfulness activities and exercises for them to try.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness, according to the NHS, is about sitting silently and paying attention to thoughts, the sounds around you, the sensations of breathing or parts of the body. The tricky bit for some is to stay focused. If your attention starts to wander then it’s important for you to bring it back.
It might sound hard to make your child sit still for a second, never mind long enough to do a whole mindfulness exercise. But many exercises are incredibly short – some just 60 seconds long.
Mindfulness is becoming increasingly important, particularly for children, and some schools are introducing exercises as part of their PSHE lessons. It’s now even a Brownie badge and counts towards the Community Impact badge at Cubs and Scouts.
Like any skill, mindfulness can take time to master, so encouraging your child to practise it for a few minutes every day or every few days can make a big difference.
But many activities children automatically do, like colouring in or becoming absorbed in imaginative, small-word play, can involve elements of mindfulness without even trying.
“It bothers me sometimes that people think meditation is a bit ‘woo.’ I don't think it is – deep relaxation and calming of our jumbled thoughts is underestimated in terms of health benefits, I reckon.” – Mumsnet user
“Helping kids to cope with stress and pressure without needing as much alcohol as our generation has to be a good thing.” – Mumsnet user
What are the benefits of mindfulness and why is it important?
Mindfulness is important because it’s all about taking a step back, and noticing sounds, smells, tastes and thoughts. It means turning off screens, stopping with multitasking and eliminating noise.
“Mindfulness in children helps to reduce stress and anxiety, helps to increase focus and cognitive function, reduces the risk of physical ill health, and helps to improve wellbeing by being a tool to use for daily activity as part of the core structure of living,” says Anna Gammond, a mental health nurse at Bupa.
It can also help children to build confidence and resilience (an essential life skill), teach them to recognise their emotions – and, crucially, deal with them – and offers useful tools for dealing with tricky situations, which they can later use when they become teenagers and eventually adults.
“My 10 year-old has developed insomnia and we are having a horrible time. We are trying to focus on positives (difficult at the moment) and spending time playing board games, walking the dog and making sure we have 30 minutes each day where she can just vent about anything.” – Mumsnet user
How do I teach my child mindfulness?
Teaching mindfulness doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are some tried and tested tips from Mumsnet parents:
1. Start simple
“Start when they are small by naming their emotions. If they can recognise how they feel, it helps them to voice their feelings, learn that emotions are normal and learn that they change.”
2. Keep things pressure-free
“Don't rush things – five minutes every day is probably better than an hour a week.”
3. Make sure they’re in the right frame of mind
“Do something energetic before you start to get it out of their system so they can focus.”
4. Lead by example
“Model how to not let small things worry you and how to handle big things.”
5. Stay light-hearted
“Keep it all friendly, light-hearted and fun.”
6. Keep it simple
“Use simple language like ‘what do you notice?’ and ‘how do you feel?’”
7. Incorporate mindfulness into all aspects of daily life
“Help them consider all five senses. On walks ask them what they can see or get them to shut their eyes and ask what they can hear. When they’re eating, ask them what they can taste or smell.”
5 mindfulness activities and games for kids
1. Colouring in
Colouring in might not sound like a mindfulness exercise, but it is. It’s meditative, creative and fun. As your child colours in, the repetitive motions means that they have to focus, forcing them to live in the here and now.
2. Draw a mind map
Get your child to draw a picture of themselves – just an outline. Then they have to fill in (draw or write) how different parts of their body and mind feels. Maybe their eyes are sleepy or their head feels muddled, or perhaps their tummy feels swirly. This is a way of teaching your child to get in touch with their emotions and to recognise their feelings. If you do this with them regularly, they will learn to recognise that feelings can change over time.
Make it child-friendly. Instead of doing Downward Dog, encourage them to make themselves into a bridge for the Billy Goats Gruff to cross. And rather than doing Chair Pose, encourage them to pretend that they are a bouncy kangaroo. Coordinating movement and breath in this way is great for mindfulness and focus.
Help your child get a playlist together and then dance like no one’s watching. Choosing relaxing music or uplifting music will help show them what a difference sounds can have on their mood. Dancing also releases endorphins in the body – feel-good hormones that help you to feel happy. See more on Bupa’s children’s wellbeing page.
5. Make mood cards
You can buy mood cards, but you can also make your own. When you talk to your child after dinner or before bed, you can then use the cards as a prompt. This can help your child to connect with their emotions.
Simple mindfulness exercises for kids
1. Balloon breathing
Get your child to lie on their back with their hands on their stomach and ask them to push up to the ceiling as they breathe in, like blowing up a balloon. Then encourage them to watch it fall back to the floor as they breathe out. Once they get used to it, see if they can slow their breath down or notice the gap between inhaling and exhaling.
2. Body scan
Get them to start with their feet on the floor, hands on their knees, and encourage a minute or two of deep breathing. Then encourage them to check in with their thoughts – not really focusing on them, just letting them come and go. This bit can be hard! Then, starting at the top of their head, they need to work down their whole body, noticing any tensions or feelings. Sometimes they’re OK feelings, sometimes not. They just have to acknowledge that that’s how they’re feeling right now and that they don’t need to try and change it.
3. Happy place
Get your child to describe their happy place. Maybe that’s walking in the woods with you, curled up in their bed or on a trip to the beach, listening to the waves. Then help your child to visit their happy place in their mind – anytime and anywhere. They could draw or, if they’re old enough, write a story about the place to ground the feelings and make it easier to conjure them up when they are feeling anxious or sad.
You can teach this exercise to help your child when they find themselves in a situation that causes them anxiety. It stands for:
- Stop. Get them to pause no matter what they’re doing.
- Take a breath. Encourage them to feel their breath going in and out.
- Observe. Ask them to notice what’s happening – not whether it feels good or bad, just that it’s happening.
- Proceed. Get them to carry on with what they were doing before.
Apps and other resources to support mindfulness
There are lots of resources to make mindfulness easier for you and your children:
- Cosmic Kids Yoga offers free child-themed yoga and guided meditation. It’s very popular – the one inspired by Frozen has been viewed 17 million times.
“Cosmic Kids Yoga – it’s an app and on YouTube. It’s brilliant. Some videos are yoga and others are about mindfulness/meditation. My five-year-old loves it.” – Mumsnet user
- Three-Minute Yoga Flow for Kids is a great way to start your day as a family.
- Bupa’s Comfort Kit video features Sammy the Snail to show your child how to make a ‘comfort kit.’ It’s aimed at children under seven.
- Twinkl – the resource platform for lesson planning – has free mindfulness colouring in sheets that parents can print out.
“Colouring in is a calm activity which allows for gentle conversation or just some thinking time. Sharing of coloured pencils. Tranquility. Pretty pictures at the end.” – Mumsnet user
- Bupa’s children’s mental wellbeing page has tips on how to help your child’s wellbeing, including advice about OCD. Also see more advice and tools here.
- The Headspace app has free relaxing sounds like white noise or raindrops as well as stories to calm children (and adults) and help them to sleep better.
“There are guided meditations for children on the Headspace app that can help.” – Mumsnet user
Do you have teenage children? You can also use Bupa’s free resources for teens.
About Bupa Family
If you and your family need more support, with Bupa Family health insurance you can access the Family Mental Healthline. Providing advice, guidance and support if you’re worried about a child.
Page sponsored by Bupa
1 Bupa research among 4-18 year olds
2 Bupa research among 4-18 year olds