The tension, stress and uncertainty in our world today are not unseen or unfelt by our children. They see it for themselves, learn about it in school, and sense its effects on you.
One way to help children cope with the stress of their lives is actually a gift they can use throughout life—mindfulness.
When we share mindfulness with children, we are helping them develop their own personal tool for managing life’s uncomfortable and challenging moments. We are helping them develop resilience.
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to your feelings and how your mind and body experience them in the present moment. It can be a valuable tool to help children (and adults!) process feelings. By bringing mindfulness into a child’s routine, children can become more aware of physical sensations, notice how their bodies respond to emotions, and develop greater compassion towards others.
One of the best places to practice mindfulness: in nature.
Nature is a place of regeneration, resilience, learning, peace and escape. The cycle of nature still carries on despite the latest headlines in our world. Tuning in to the sights and sounds of nature’s steady beat draws a child’s attention to the here and now and helps to reduce stress and worry. It can feel removed from the stress of our human-made world and problems. Nature is of course comforting. And it is a delight to the senses.
Being mindful in nature can help children see the strength and beauty of nature through trees, wind, clouds, and the sun. When practicing mindfulness, children can feel strong like the tree, flowing like the wind and warm like the sun. Children feel stronger and more confident by aligning themselves with nature. Their stresses will melt away.
Plus, mindfulness in nature relaxes kids. It’s proven. In Wales, primary school children aged 7-11 took part in mindful approaches in local nature reserves. The children were from four different primary schools and, thus, represented four groups. While each group visited only one of the nature reserves, they engaged in mindfulness activities including breathing meditations, listening exercises, landscape observations, bird watching, feeling leaves, and smelling moss. Some of the activities were planned and adult-led; others were generated and led by the children. After returning to their schools, the children reported feeling calm and relaxed; and their behaviors – as noted by the teachers – reflected this sense of calmness. The children also reported experiencing a different sense of time, a being away from “clock-time.” They felt a sense of being in a different world, an “improved reality”, which they attributed to their immersive communion with nature.
Another benefit of practicing mindfulness in nature—empathy. By tuning in deeply into the rhythm of the natural world, a child’s focus shifts from “I” to “we.” Children will become more aware of their relationship with other living things, feeling more of a part of a community, rather than the center of it. This helps children develop a sense of empathy for the natural world, considering the needs of others (plants, animals, or other people). And this is crucial for their future relationships with the natural world and with others.
Feel free to explore mindfulness activities that appeal to your family. Some nature mindfulness exercises include breathing meditations, listening exercises, observing the landscape, watching birds, feeling leaves, smelling moss, cloud watching. Here are a few ideas that may help your child experience some of the healing, revitalizing and mindful benefits nature has to offer.
A Cloud Meditation
Cloud formations like our thoughts are ever-changing in nature- they arise and pass spontaneously. Observing clouds is a wonderful reminder that everything shifts in life— from the news cycle to our feelings.
On a day with clouds in the sky, find a peaceful spot outside and invite your child to sit down comfortably and allow their eyes to close gently. Tell them that their brain should know that their body is awake.
Ask them to take a few moments to notice their breath and any sensations happening in their body. Notice how their body feels where it touches the earth.
Now ask your child to look up and pick out a cloud in the sky. Invite your child to bring their full attention to that cloud and just breathe as they are observing it.
With each breath, they should watch and see if that cloud changes shape or size. If their mind wanders, quietly remind them they should simply notice that and gently bring their attention and breath back to the cloud. As best they can, they should just remain focused on the cloud, watching and breathing until it gradually fades away.
Just like they watched the clouds go by, let them know that now they are going to watch their thoughts go by. Ask them to take some time here to let thoughts come into their mind. Ask them if there is there anything that they are excited about? Worried about? Happy about? Unsure about? Let a thought float around in their head like a cloud, just letting it be there.
As they watch these thoughts, remind them to realize that they’re just thoughts. Just like clouds in the sky, they come in different shapes, sizes and colors, but they all pass by. As they continue watching their thoughts from a distance, remind your child that they are not their thoughts. They are just thoughts and float through their own sky.
After a few moments, ask your child to return their attention to their breathe, noticing the sensations in their body. Now ask them to gently open their eyes and bring their attention back to the room, stretching if they wish.
This meditation was inspired by “Child’s Mind: Mindfulness Practices to Help Our Children Be More Focused, Calm, and Relaxed” by Christopher Willard
The following meditations are from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Invite children to sit outside with their eyes closed. Encourage them to inhale slowly, imagining warm air filling their lungs like a soft breeze. Then tell children to exhale slowly, as if they are releasing a spark into the air. With each inhalation, children slowly breathe in warm air, and with each exhalation, they transform the tiny spark into a fire.
In a gentle voice, ask children to picture the glowing fire in their minds.
After several breathing cycles, change the image.
Now ask children to slowly breathe in cool air and exhale a cloud hovering over the fire. With another exhalation, imagine rain slowly falling from the cloud to extinguish the fire. Add a “sss” sound to the breath to hear the sizzle of the fire burning out.
Down to the River
A ‘body scan’ helps children visualize the gradual movement of sensations throughout the body, zeroing in on physical sensations as they move from toes to head. In this body scan, children take an imaginary walk to a river.
Have children lie down on their backs in a comfortable place outside with eyes closed. Ask them to breathe slowly and imagine that they have turned into an aquatic creature like a beaver or a frog.
Guide children through an adventure in the water (what plants or other kinds of animals might they encounter? Where might the current take them?), bringing attention to the sensation of water on their toes, feet, legs, belly, chest, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, and cheeks as you do.
Ask them to think about the temperature of the water and the way it might feel to swim as this kind of animal.
When the exercise is done, slowly direct children back to shore with a few centering breaths before they open their eyes.
Then, invite children to share details of what they imagined on their journey.