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Meditation For Children:
The Benefits of Real Time Out
By Ellen Rowland

Meditation for Children: The Benefits of Real Time Out

“If every eight-year-old in the world is taught to meditate, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.” ~Dalai Lama

It is early morning and I’m sitting on a bench in our garden – eyes closed, hands resting on my knees, focusing on my breath – when I sense my nine-year-old daughter sit down next to me. I resist the temptation to open my eyes and take her tangled morning hair and sleepy smile into my arms. I’m just happy she’s joined me. Soon, her breathing synchronizes with my own, naturally and effortlessly, and we sit in companionable silence for a few more minutes, trying hard not to think about what’s on the schedule today, but simply appreciating these few quiet moments. We both know they are precious and will serve us well in different ways throughout the rest of the day. As we slowly begin to wiggle our toes and fingers, allowing our physical senses to gently bring us up and out of our meditation, my daughter softly says, “Hey, mom . . .can you make pancakes for breakfast?” And just like that the lotus flower gives way to self-rising flour as momentum takes over our day.

But isn’t this what life is all about? Balance. Yin and yang. Equilibrium. A simple concept that we seem to be hearing a lot about these days and yet one that is increasingly difficult to achieve in our busy, technology-driven world. As adults, our minds are continually distracted with input and output – tasks to accomplish and lists of things undone, texts, emails, work, life, home. Our emotions, if we have time to acknowledge them, are often heightened or dulled, depending on how we individually handle stress. Our bodies may be suffering as well in an effort to keep up with our lives, in the form of muscle and joint pain, headache, tension, or fatigue.

As parents, we sometimes forget that children have busy lives too and are often exposed to the same distractions, pressures, and resulting emotions, even at an early age. Because children are naturally sensitive to their environment and the emotions of others, they may experience similar stress symptoms from over-stimulation, school demands, and even the rhythm of everyday life.

Developing a meditation practice with your children is one way to help everyone achieve balance, both as a family and individually. It’s a simple way to help us slow down, to take time out to recognize and appreciate the beauty present in our lives, while providing a powerful tool to help us navigate life’s difficulties. Guiding your children in meditation, or mindfulness practice, is low- to no- cost, requires very little time, and yet is a potentially lifelong gift.

What Are the Benefits of Meditation?

The breath and heart rate are regulated during meditation and the body and mind stilled, allowing for a greater awareness of ourselves and our environment. For adults and children alike, the physical and emotional benefits are numerous, yet individual. Studies indicate that adults and children who regularly meditate may experience the following aspects of well-being:

  • greater sense of calm/peace

  • connection to Nature

  • better focus

  • enhanced creativity

  • less tension and stress

  • strengthened immune system

  • enhanced sleep

  • better control over negative reactions

  • improved relationships

  • greater awareness of emotions (positive and negative)

  • improved self confidence

  • greater compassion for others

Getting Started

If you don’t already have a meditation practice, it’s a good idea to cultivate one first so that you can fully understand and integrate the benefits of regular practice before guiding your child. His natural curiosity will lead to questions and answers about mindfulness. Chances are also good that she will pick up on the calmer, more relaxed energy you give off and want to participate on her own level. If not, don’t force the issue with your child. He may not be physically and/or emotionally ready. Be patient. Regardless of age, meditation should never be an obligation, but a choice.

There is a wealth of books, videos, and websites dedicated to meditation, as well as guided group sessions.  However, when starting a practice, keeping it simple will yield the best results. As former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe states in his TedTalk All it Takes is Ten Mindful Minutes,

“We can’t change every little thing that happens to us in life, but we can change the way we experience it. That’s the potential of meditation, of mindfulness. You don’t have to burn incense, and you definitely don’t have to sit on the floor. All you need to do is take ten minutes out of your day to step back, to familiarize yourself with the present moment so that you get to experience a greater sense of focus, calm, and clarity in your life.”

Choose a quiet, peaceful place and sit comfortably on the edge of a chair or bench (or the ground if you prefer), back straight. Place your hands on your knees and close your eyes as you begin taking deep breaths, focusing on the rise and fall of your chest and abdomen. As you deeply inhale and slowly exhale, try to still the mind and body. Start with five to ten minutes a day and slowly increase to a time interval that feels appropriate. One of the wonders of meditation stems from this quiet passing of time, which during our busy day flies by all too quickly.

Once you feel comfortable with your own practice, here are some suggestions on how to introduce meditation to your little one:

Explaining Meditation: Children as young as four are capable of understanding and practicing meditation. But it’s important to explain it to your child in a way that she can understand, rather than using esoteric terms. One simple way is to use a snow globe. Shake it up. Explain to him that all those twirling, swirling snow flakes represent our feelings and thoughts, ideas, joys, disappointments, apprehensions, and reactions that mingle together when the mind and body are active. Sometimes there’s so much going on in there, it’s hard to see the beautiful scenery behind. But if we put the snow globe down for a few minutes, what happens? All those jumbled up thoughts and feelings start to settle, slowly and quietly to the bottom, until we can finally see everything clearly. Our feelings (the snow flakes) haven’t disappeared, but they’re still. This is how meditation works.

Reading is another great way to introduce meditation to your child. There are several great books on meditation and mindfulness designed specifically for parents to read to young children as well as books to guide parents on the path to mindfulness. (See resources at the end of this article.)

Guided outdoor observations for young children: Nature is a great place to meditate with children, provided the weather is good. This could be your backyard or garden, a clear patch in a forest, on a river bank, or even the beach. Sitting comfortably, eyes closed, ask your child to begin breathing deeply (just like mommy or daddy does in their own meditation). To illustrate deep breathing, have your child lean back and place a small, flat stone on his diaphragm and notice how it rises and falls with each breath. Now ask her to listen carefully to all the sounds of Nature around her while still focusing on the breath. After a minute or two, ask him to slowly open his eyes and describe what he heard: leaves rustling, birds chirping, small animal noises, insects buzzing, water rippling, etc. This is a short calming meditation for younger children that helps them develop and “observe” the natural environment with senses other than sight. Try adding smells and sensations (a cool breeze, the warmth of the sun) with each new meditation.

Body awareness: This meditation can be practiced indoors or outdoors and is meant for children (and adults) of all ages. The principle is the same as above, but this time the focus shifts to the body. After deep breathing is established, starting with the feet, ask your child to focus on and relax their toes, heals, ankles, knees, and legs, working your way up the body until you reach the neck and head, relaxing facial muscles. Finish with a smile. This technique fosters awareness and appreciation of the body while releasing any tension in specific body parts. Use general descriptions (feet, legs, arms) for very young children, adding more specifics (joints, muscle groups) for older children. Not only is this meditation great for promoting physical relaxation, it’s also a great way for kids to learn anatomy!

Sleep Serenity: Sometimes, kids have a hard time winding down from a busy day at bedtime, particularly when they have worries or concerns on their minds. Or maybe they’re excited about an upcoming event. This meditation is the same as above except the child is lying down on the back, eyes closed, in a modified “star position.” Derived from a standard yoga pose, the arms are splayed, palms up, and the legs are spread slightly beyond hip distance. (This is an ideal position, but your child will benefit from this meditation regardless of what position he’s comfortable in.) Speaking quietly and slowly, begin again with the toes and ask your child to relax them, one by one, etc. working slowly up the body, as above. Ask your child to notice how light each part of the body is becoming, as you speak more and more quietly, naming each body part. Chances are good he will be asleep before you finish the meditation. Your soothing voice, in combination with muscle relaxation and stilling of the mind, provide a safe and peaceful path to sleep.

Focus on Feelings: The basic breathing technique, which is the root of all meditation, may eventually allow older children to be more aware, not just of their physical sensations during meditation, but their emotions as well. If you notice your child is struggling with difficult feelings, acting out or withdrawn, you can often help them work through the problem or situation through meditation. This can work in one of two ways. If your child can articulate the specific feeling (sad, angry, afraid), as well as the cause (a friend wouldn’t share or someone was unkind to them), ask them to think of a person or a memory that made them feel happy or loved. Have them think of that happiness when they breath in and ask them to “blow the bad feeling(s) out” when they exhale. Sometimes your child won’t be able to initially articulate what’s wrong or identify a specific cause. After all, we all have “off” days for no particular reason. This is where a few minutes of peaceful time-out in meditation can be helpful. Once her mind is clear, the root of your child’s feelings may be more clear as well, allowing her to talk them through. In general, meditation is conducive to encouraging your child to discuss his feelings and emotions, both positive and negative.

Calm on the go: The benefits that meditation offer don’t have to be confined to a sanctuary. Teach your child that when she encounters difficult or stressful situations or people, all she has to do is stop and take a few deep breaths. That’s all it takes to slow adrenaline and heart rate and help keep calm. Eventually, “taking a breather” will become a useful lifelong habit to help maintain patience, resilience, and self-respect in negative situations. Mindfulness also promotes a sense of well-being, which allows us all to be more aware of and grateful for the people, peace, and goodness that life has to offer. From the small things to big life events, being mindful of these gifts is what meditation is all about.

Whatever age your child, keep your expectations simple. Start slowly and keep it short – it’s not easy for some children to sit still in the beginning, but with patience and encouragement, they will be able to participate for longer periods of time. And the benefits will be noticeable. Take it day by day, breath by breath.

As I was finishing up this article, my daughter became frustrated because she desperately wanted to show me a budding lemon that had miraculously appeared on our citrus tree overnight.  Although she paced back and forth behind me, I kept going. “In a minute,” I kept saying. Until I remembered the words of one of the great Zen thinkers of our time:

“Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

Well said, Winnie the Pooh, well said.

Learn More

For Children:
A Handful of Quiet: Happiness in Four Pebbles by Thich Nhat Hanh (Plum Blossom Books)
Moonbeam: A Book of Meditations for Children by Maureen Garth (Harper One)
Peaceful Piggy Meditation by Kerry Lee McClean (Albert Whitman & Co.)
Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents) by Eline Snel (Shambhala)

For Parents:
Child’s Mind: Mindfulness Practices to Help Our Children Be More Focused, Calm and Relaxed by Christopher Willard (Parallax Press)
Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness With Children by Thich Nhat Hanh (Parallax Press)
Sensational Meditation for Children: Mindfulness, Guided Imagery and Other Child-Friendly Meditation Techniques by Sarah Wood Valelly (Satya International, 2nd Edition)

Ellen Rowland isn’t a yogi, a guru, or a master of mindfulness. But she is mom who’d like to be a little more light-hearted and enlightened. She lives on an island off Greece with her husband and two teenagers. Prior to that, the family built and lived in an off-the-grid earth house in Senegal, West Africa. She writes about people, sustainability, culture, children, family, and food. She is also an accomplished poet and author of Everything I Thought I Knew, a collection of essays about living, learning, and parenting outside the status quo.

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