When I was at school, the closest we came to mindful was a game of sleeping lions which we played at the end of a particularly giddy school day.
It was a clever way for the teachers to achieve some peace, and I clearly remember my peers enjoying a few minutes’ respite from the diversions and excitement of the day. We were told to focus on our breathing while many of us drifted off to sleep.
That was the early nineties—fast forward to the present day where the influence of Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn and his seminal book on mindful practice ‘Full Catastrophe Living’ can be traced in universities, corporations and even across the military and prison sectors.
The education world has been quick to recognize the value in teaching mindful exercises to its students in countless schools across Europe. Studies show that mindful programmes improve learning and reduce behavioural issues, as well as easing stress and anxiety. Schools also recognize its value promoting empathy and civic responsibility in students; two topics which are often neglected in many curriculums and in the increasingly secular nature of our education system. In this way we can see how mindful exercises in school replaces traditional rituals of Assembly or morning prayers.
Naturally, this education trend has extended to early-years and adolescent development, engendering one of the biggest trends in parenting since the smack became taboo. Willem Kuyken, a professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University, recently said the spread of mindfulness among children could do for Britain’s mental health what fluoride did for its teeth. With the approval of key academics such as Kuyken, the mindful trend has gathered apace, opening up many channels into which parents can pour their money. Online courses, studio sessions, colouring books, subscriptions to apps—these opportunities have sprung up to serve the parental hunger for guiding their children onto the path to enlightenment.
These options are not to be discredited, but it’s important not to let the pursuit of mindfulness become another faddish pressure on children, or indeed their parents. Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre says that many mindful steps can be simple, beneficial and easily undertaken at home, for free.
1) Practice eating slowly
‘An important part of mindfulness is reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations they experience. This means waking up to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment,’ says Williams. An easy way to try this with your child is with that time-honoured sweetener, a piece of chocolate. Encourage them to savour the chocolate in their mouth – ask them to notice how it feels, to describe the texture and taste, is it sweet, bitter or creamy? Careful eating is always a positive thing (no parent wants their child to hog their food) but the chocolate game is also an easy way to build sensory awareness.
2) Find a breathing buddy
Help your child become more mindful of their breathing by using a designated soft toy, a ‘breathing buddy’. Place the soft toy on their tummy and encourage them to watch the buddy move up and down as they inhale and exhale. This is a great way to teach your child to be observant of their breath at an early age—an excellent tool to combat stress in the years to come.
3) Leave your child alone
Although many mindful activities involve both you and the child, there is great value in leaving your child alone to observe their feelings. One of the key tenets of mindfulness is to observe your thoughts, almost before you think them. To expect this complex ‘meta-cognitive’ framework of a young child is ambitious, but you can encourage thought-awareness by leaving your child alone to rest while lying on their back. When you return, ask your child about their feelings and divide these into thoughts, sensations, surges or emotions. You can then draw similarities between the emotions (eg. happy, worried) and the accompanying physical sensation (e.g. warm, tingly, achy)
4) Gratitude is great
Over dinner, encourage everyone at the table to name one element of their lives for which they’re grateful. Avoid naming material possessions such as computer games or toys and try to focus on relationship-based positivity and empathy. ‘I’m grateful to my classmate who helped me in art today’ rather than giving thanks for receiving the latest release of Grand Theft Auto.
5) Take a silent walkabout
On your next walk, encourage your children to fall silent and listen to the sounds around them. This focuses their attention away from idle conversation and into the sensory world, helping your child become more mindful of their surroundings. The walkabout is best reserved for walks in nature.
Throughout this, it’s important to have fun. The best bits of mindfulness encourage a greater sensitivity and enjoyment of the world around you. Master even one of these steps, and what can you expect? Studies show children enjoy better sleep patterns, parents report fewer tantrums and a clearer perspective on their schoolwork. Some parents even suggest that empathy in mindful practice can foster more peaceful relationships between siblings and schoolmates. Try it at home and observe the benefits. Perhaps then you’ll finally have more time to turn inward and focus on yourself. Though dozing off is strictly forbidden…