Mindfulness is word that seems to be everywhere now — from calm-boosting apps to anti-stress colouring books, the cult of slowing down and appreciating the ‘now’ has never been more popular.
But while most of us know by now how beneficial embracing relaxation techniques can be for adults, what about children?
Researchers have found that mindfulness can have positive effects for youngsters too. One 2015 study found that school children aged 10 and 11 who participated in a short meditation program showed improvements in cognitive control, working memory and cognitive flexibility, as well as achieving better academic results.
Research published in the Mindfulness journal also found improvements in mathematics grades in children with ADHD, while a study of primary school children in Korea found that just eight weeks of mindfulness lowered levels of aggression, social anxiety and stress.
So what exactly is mindfulness? In a nutshell, according to the experts, it’s a type of meditation where you shift your awareness to focus on what you’re sensing and feeling in that present moment. Practising mindfulness can involve breathing methods, guided imagery, and other techniques to help relax the body and mind and help reduce stress responses. It’s not about ‘switching off’ your mind, but bringing your awareness into the present.
“I’ve been a teacher for 20 years and have witnessed first-hand increasing stress levels among children,” says Uz Afzal, a UK primary school teacher who has written a new book on the topic, called Mindfulness For Children.
Afzal believes that the growth of smart phones, tablets, gaming and social media, there’s additional pressure on children that didn’t exist 10 years ago.
“Living in a fast-paced ‘swiping’ culture means children can find it hard to stop and be still,” she says.
“They can find it hard to ‘just be’ and to connect with things that are slower.
“The anxiety that children feel before exams can prevent them from performing well too,” adds Afzal, who has witnessed how building a regular mindfulness practice can help to keep exam jitters under control.
“Practising mindfulness before a test can help children to calm down, to focus and to access their higher order thinking skills and their learning memories.”
Here, she outlines three simple exercises that parents can use to help children have a sense of agency over their lives, thoughts and feelings...
1. Balloon breathing
“This is a really helpful practice that your child can use at any time of the day to calm down and to focus,” says Afzal.
To start, ask your child to place their hands on their abdomen.
“Tell them to imagine that they have a small balloon in their belly and that each time they breathe in, the balloon blows up, and each time they breathe out, the balloon deflates.”
Afzal says your child should feel their belly rising and falling as the balloon blows up and deflates.
“As they breathe in, they can say to themselves in their head, ‘Blow up balloon’, and as they breathe out, they can say, ‘Let all the air out’.
“Perhaps they can picture the balloon blowing up and deflating with each in and out breath.”
You should continue this for about 30 seconds to three minutes, depending on the age and attention span of your child.
2. Eat like a scientist
When it comes to mealtimes, it can often be a race for both parents and kids to eat as fast as possible, to the point that we often barely register the process. This exercise, Afzal says, is great for instilling a sense of appreciation in your child, and it may help them to make healthy choices too.
“Choose a piece of food to share with your child,” she instructs, noting that fruit or dried fruit works well.
“Now we’re going to pretend to be scientists. Take a moment to investigate what your food looks like. What colour is it? What shape is it? What else can you notice about the way your food looks?
“Next, let’s use our imaginary microscope. Looking really closely, can you see any patterns or lines on this food?”
In the same way, she says you should also both explore the texture of your food. You can do this either by looking at your food or touching it.
“Take a piece of this food and hold it under your nose,” says Afzal. “Take a deep breath in. How does it smell?”
Next, put the food on your tongue and use your scientist’s taste buds to explore further.
“How does it feel in your mouth? Notice the shape and texture. Does it taste of anything?”
At this point, you can slowly begin to chew your food, all the time using your scientist’s skills to notice how the taste, shape and texture are all changing. Afzal says you should keep your child engaged, exploring their plate in this way until all of the food is finished.
3. The grateful gaze
“This next practice is a lot of fun. It helps your child to notice what they have to be grateful for, wherever they are,” says Afzal.
“Tell them to take a moment to be still and focus on the breath in their belly. Now ask them to look around the space you are in, you might be in their bedroom, or another room of the house, on a journey or outdoors.
“Wherever you are, can they look around themselves with a grateful gaze? Can they name each of the things they can see that they’re grateful for?
“If they are in their room, they might notice their bed, their books, their clothes and so on.
“If they’re in the kitchen, they might notice the food, the drinks, the cups and spoons and so on. Ask them to notice how they feel as you practice the attitude of gratitude.”
When practising mindfulness, Afzal says to remember to have fun and keep it breezy — the idea is that your child enjoys spending time slowing down and doesn’t view mindfulness as another thing to worry about on their to-do list.
Doing these exercises together can be a great bonding experience for parents and children, and of course, the calming techniques are also beneficial for adults, helping to ease the stress of day-to-day life.
Mindfulness For Children by Uz Afzal is published by Kyle Books, (octopusbooks.co.uk).