In the children’s classic Olivia, the protagonist, a stylish Manhattan piglet, “is very good at wearing people out. She even wears herself out.” On a single page, author and illustrator Ian Falconer depicts Olivia jumping rope, wailing, leaping, baking, standing on her head, hammering a nail and playing with a yo-yo—all in what seems like a very short time span. Falconer’s subtly joyous message? Kids are just naturally high energy (some more than others; hey, there’s a spectrum). But before we try to manage this out of them, it helps to manage our expectations. When we talk about kids and mindfulness, the goal shouldn’t be to achieve an adult’s version of total relaxation or meditation, says Regine Galanti, Ph.D., author of Anxiety Relief for Teens: Essential CBT Skills and Mindfulness Practices to Overcome Anxiety and Stress. “What I like to think about with younger kids is giving them something else to do with their bodies that refocuses them,” she says. “It’s not necessarily about calming them down completely.” Here, seven mindfulness activities for kids, all designed to help them settle when mayhem is their middle name.
1. Read a book or play a board game
Kids need much more exercise than they are typically getting at school, says family therapist Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D. She notes that as schools have cut back on physical outlets like recess and PE, and grapple with increased academic demands, it’s especially hard on little boys. “Boys’ brains are not wired to sit in the classroom for eight hours without moving,” she says, noting “bounciness” is typical boy behavior. But if exercise isn’t an option, or if it’s one that’s been exhausted, there are other things adults can do with their kids. “If a parent offers to read them a book or play a board game, I don’t know any child who will say no. If you just engage them in a quiet activity, they’re going to love it.”
2. Engage all five senses
A child’s ability to self-assess and then take meaningful action doesn’t usually “come online” until adolescence, experts say. So the message we have to give younger kids is not “Do a mindful activity when you’re feeling stressed,” it’s “I see you have all this extra energy. This is what we’re going to do together.” It’s also important to know that any kind of mindfulness practice children do has to be initiated and guided by their parents. Preferably it becomes a daily practice, so kids internalize it as a tool for self-regulation. Galanti suggests writing down a bunch of different exercises and pulling one out of a hat (or a tissue box) each night before bed. “Anything can be a mindfulness activity if you give it your full attention,” she explains. When your child is brushing his teeth, ask him, “What does it feel like? What does it taste like? What does it sound like?” In her office, Galanti does a mindful eating exercise, where she hands a child a Hershey’s Kiss and asks him to describe the texture of the wrapper, listen to the sound of it crinkling, smell the chocolate, notice the sensations as he bites and tastes it. “Mindfulness is really just awareness of the present moment and accepting what happens when you’re in the present moment. So anything that involves all of your senses is a mindfulness activity.”
3. Color breathing
Diaphragmatic (or deep) breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, helping to relax and slow down anxious or amped-up kids. Galanti does an exercise called “color breathing” with her patients. “We pick a color they like and a color they don’t like. When you breathe in, you breathe in the color you like. Take as much of it in as you can. And when you breathe out, you breathe out the color you don’t like.” She tells kids the color they don’t like is “kind of sticky” and harder to get out, so they need to breathe it out slower. “The goal with any breathing exercise is that your exhale should be longer than your inhale.”
4. Stuffed animal breathing
Wedge advises children to lie down flat on their back, and you (the parent) put a stuffed animal on the child’s chest. Then he lies there and watches it go up and down as he inhales and exhales. “It gets the child to be right at the moment, focusing on a single thing, his breath,” she says. Keeping a child’s naturally short attention span in mind, Wedge recommends doing this for just five minutes a day, perhaps before school or at bedtime. “Even five minutes a day can calm the monkey mind, as they say—the pent-up energy, the anxiety, the racing thoughts. If the child wants to talk about something else, the parent says, ‘No, we’re just going to listen to the sound of your breathing, just for five minutes.’” Setting a visual timer may help the child see how short the time commitment will be.
5. Blow bubbles
Taking out a bubble wand is particularly effective with very young children because it also engages their breath and doesn’t require lots of complicated explanation. “If you try to blow bubbles without breathing, it doesn’t work,” says Galanti. A bubble bath is also a good option. As grandmothers have said all along, when all else fails, just add water.
6. Play the color game
When Galanti is working with a patient whose thoughts are spiraling, this game is her go-to. “I say, ‘Look around and tell me everything that’s blue.’ And as the game goes on, I try to get the kids as detail-oriented as I can. We start with the big things like the carpet and then they end up with the pen that’s really far away. And when they’re done, if they’re still kind of ‘up,’ we just choose a new color and do the same thing again. ‘Now name everything that’s pink. Now name everything that’s green.’ It’s amazing how quickly it helps. It’s really hard to think about all the other things going on in your life when you’re looking for colors.” This exercise also takes advantage of a child’s competitive streak. “Without telling them, ‘You need to calm your body down’ or ‘You need to sit right here,’ the game is effective because you can only win if you stop spinning or twirling or running or jumping.”
7. Watch a rain stick
“In my office, I have a rain stick that makes a lot of noise as it settles,” says Galanti. Better than shaking up a glitter jar or using some other purely visual aid, asking kids to focus on the rain stick engages both sight and sound. She advises kids to watch and listen until all the beads settle, then flip the stick over and watch it settle again. “The more senses that are involved, the easier it is to refocus a high-energy kid. You need something more all-encompassing than just a snow globe.” In other words, the more energy kids are putting out, the more energy you’re going to need to use to help them take it down a notch.