Most folks think that meditation is something that “new age” adults turn to when they are stressed. Now, however, meditation is commonly used for children as young as 3 or 4 and even younger. The benefits of meditation for adults are extremely well documented in both physical and emotional realms. It can reduce instances of illness, lower blood pressure, stave off life-threatening diseases such as cancer, and improve overall quality of life. Experts in child and adolescent behavior also now believe that meditation can help counteract the negative effects of early neglect, abuse and trauma.
You can start teaching your child to meditate very early. One place to begin is helping them become mindful of their breath. Kids really get into this by playing table-top balloon games. One approach is to blow up small balloons and place a few on a kid-size table and have everyone get their mouths level with the table-top. Everyone then blows the balloons back and forth to each other. This is a fun way for the kids to start learning to be mindful of their breath.
Next, start teaching your child how to breathe using his or her diaphragm — nature’s built-in mechanism for calming our bodies. When we are born, we naturally breathe with our diaphragms. But over the years or as a result of hard experiences, we tend to start breathing by expanding our chest. If your child no longer uses her diaphragm to breathe, here is a way to teach it to kids as young as 3: have them lie on their backs with knees bent and feet flat on the floor and then pretend that their tummy is a balloon and they are blowing it up. You will need to demonstrate and when you do, exaggerate by pushing your tummy out as far as you can. Play with this for a while. To make sure that you are breathing with your diaphragm, place one hand on your chest and one hand on your tummy and watch which hand rises as you breathe. Practice this until you can easily breathe with your diaphragm.
Next, help your child learn to exhale slowly. Most kids will huff and puff. A fun way for them to learn to breathe slowly is to blow up a balloon and tie a string to it. You can make it fun by letting them decorate their balloon with glitter glue. Then hold the balloon a few inches from their mouth and ask them to take a big breath and slowly exhale through their mouth — trying to blow the balloon away from them for as long as they can. The goal is the slow exhale — not how far they can get the balloon to swing away from them, but for how long. Do this for about 10-15 minutes at a time. When not practicing, it is recommended that you put the balloon away for the next time you all practice the calming breath. This helps the kids assign a special meaning to when these balloons appear, that they will be practicing their calming breathing. Another fun technique is to have your kids pretend that their fingers are birthday candles and they slowly blow out the candles one at a time, folding each finger down as they blow it out.
Once you think your child has the breathing down, you can move on to teaching her how to keep her body still. The book “Sitting Still like a Frog” has received great reviews, and could be used to illustrate the concept of stillness. Read the story to highlight how the frogs sit so still on their lily pads. Have your children sit criss-cross applesauce on cushions on the floor or in the position of a frog. As they are sitting, have them do calming breathing, and if they get antsy, they can quietly blow out their candles. Then introduce a pretend fly buzzing by (you make the sound) and the kids — aka frogs — try to catch their lunch. This will get the kids pretty excited, hopping around after the fly (or mosquito, bug, or other good frog food) and that is OK, go with it. Then let them know that all the bugs are gone and they have to be still again so the bugs will come back. Help them all get settled again on their lily pads and with calm breathing and calm bodies. Keep repeating this cycle of calm, excited, and calm again for about 10 – 15 minutes. It is really powerful to have them know they can be calm, get excited, and then calm down again. Most infants learn this in a relationship with their loving caregiver by the age of 12 months, but many of our adopted kids never experienced external regulation from a caregiver that they could absorb and internalize. Practicing this activity can help develop self-regulation.
So now they are mindful of their breath and can quiet down their body. The last skill in meditation is to quiet the mind. With kids under 5 years old, it helps to read them a story designed to quiet the mind. A few that I am familiar with are “Moonbeam: A Book of Meditations for Children” and “Starbright – Meditations for Children,” both by Maureen Garth. There are many to choose from. The key is that the stories create a peaceful image in the child’s mind. For example, one image might be that they are on the beach watching the waves come in and go out and a beach ball on the waves coming in and going out. The imagery created is in sync with their breathing.
Practicing daily with your child will have many benefits. It will build the foundation for continued meditation practice as your child grows. It can be used to develop the skill of self-regulation. And if you are playful about how you go about teaching meditation, it can be an excellent bonding experience.