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, 25 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 (and that’s assuming that your kid’s school is even open right now). 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?”
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. Do a jigsaw puzzle
Putting together a jigsaw puzzle provides brain-boosting engagement and a big dose of mindfulness to boot—namely because the combination of quiet concentration and fine motor exercise required basically amounts to an activity that gives children no choice but to stay in the present moment. In fact, by forcing the mind to focus on a single task whilst simultaneously providing a tactile experience, jigsaw puzzles are thought to boast stress-relief benefits as well. Plus, the break from screen time is also a major win for mindfulness. Here are some of our favorite puzzles for kids of all ages.
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. Make a breathing buddy
This quick and easy craft yields a gift that keeps on giving...mindfulness, that is. Breathing buddies are a breeze to make—just stuff a sock with tissue paper or beans and tie it off with pipe cleaners or rubber bands so that its body is divided into five sections. (Your child can help you with every step of the buddy-making process—a project that helps focus the mind in and of itself.) When the job is done, the resulting sock friend can be placed on your child’s tummy where it will rise and fall as she lays down to do some mindful breathing. Why does this work? The visual aid will help refocus your child’s attention while promoting the practice of taking deep, calming breaths whenever there’s a need to take a break and chill out.
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.
8. Do a breathing ball exercise
Also known as a Hoberman sphere, this knobby and colorful plastic ball might look like a standard toy, but it’s actually a mindfulness prop that’s favored by teachers and occupational therapists alike. This breathing ball grows and contracts just like the lungs—and it’s particularly easy to grasp and manipulate, so kids of all ages should have no trouble getting into a rhythm as they expand and collapse it in time with some big, soothing breaths. For children that balk at the idea of deep breathing, this ball can also be put to use with background music as an opportunity for kids to connect their emotions, breath, and movement to the sound of pleasing auditory stimulation.
9. Make tape art collage
Crafts of all kinds can serve as mindfulness exercises—but when it comes to calming an overwrought kid, the simpler, the better. (Hint: It’s not in anyone’s best interests to introduce loose glitter mid-meltdown.) A process art project is particularly ideal for young kids who are prone to becoming overwhelmed by complicated undertakings or excess stimulation—and this one is a mess-free favorite. Start by setting out a poster board or oversized piece of paper; then, have your child use masking tape to create random intersecting lines across the paper. When the canvas has been set up, your young artist can get to work coloring in all the sections (in anticipation of the big reveal, of course). This exercise one-ups the soothing effect of the standard coloring book, because your kid doesn’t just get to color within the lines, she gets to determine them. (Psst: You can watch a step-by-step tape art tutorial here.)
10. Try a guided meditation
Good news: You don’t need to be a yogi to help your kid reach a more mindful state—namely because (you guessed it) there’s an app for that. Actually, there are several—so feel free to test the waters and find your favorite—but Calm is a great place to start. This meditation app boasts a whole host of diverse content that can appeal to mindfulness-seekers of all ages. Don’t shy away from the grown-up stuff though: The soothing sleep stories for children are excellent, but the body scan meditations—while not specifically for kids—are incredibly effective mindfulness exercises that are available in short enough intervals to keep the (head-to-toe) attention of even the very young and very restless.
11. Go on a nature walk
A breath of fresh air and a change of scenery is a simple but powerful combination that can inspire mindfulness in children of all ages. Although a stroll through a quiet, natural environment is the most soothing option, any walk will encourage mindfulness as long as the activity revolves around making observations about the surroundings rather than simply getting from point A to point B. Tip: Model mindfulness by setting a leisurely pace and engaging in quiet dialogue with your kid, as this will set the tone for the kind of stroll that encourages kids to slow down mentally while employing all five senses to find their inner calm. (In other words, encourage your child to chase the birds another time.)
12. Do some yoga
It’s no secret that yoga is full of mindfulness techniques and tranquil vibes, so it might be hard to imagine a revved up wild child engaging in this one with any success. Not so fast, friends: There are a ton of free yoga classes available that have been designed specifically with children’s needs (and limitations) in mind. In fact, yoga is one of the best ways to help a wound up kid calm down because it doesn’t ask the impossible of children (i.e., sit still). Instead, it encourages kids to burn off energy while focusing the mind with movements that are controlled and purposeful. Yoga classes for kids run the gamut from upbeat and goofy to mature and meditative, so we suggest you sample a few to find the style that best suits your child’s temperament. Want to cut down on screen time? Check out these yoga poses for kids instead.
13. Play chess
Much like jigsaw puzzles, a game of chess demands both focus and visual-spatial reasoning—a combination that’s calming without being snoozy. The two-player component of chess games also encourages kids to stay present with one other person, parent or friend, while also tapping into their own creativity and natural problem solving skills. Yes, you can file this one under “play a board game,” but chess and, say, Candy Land are worlds apart. (Hint: One is way better than the other when it comes to teaching mindfulness.)
14. 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.
15. Go on a scavenger hunt
A scavenger hunt is an effective mindfulness activity for much the same reason as a nature walk, but with two added bonuses: a) it can be done outside or indoors (hello, rainy day calm) and b) it provides a little more structure than the standard walk-and-talk, meaning it’s more likely to hold the attention of even the youngest kids. The set-up for this one is also very straightforward—just ask your child to use their senses to find objects of a specific texture, color, shape and even smell (i.e., “find four things that are soft” or “find three things that smell nice”).
16. 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.”
17. Paint with water
Anyone who has taken up painting as a hobby will attest to the calming effect that putting a brush to canvas can bring; still, when it comes to acrylics and hyped up little kids, things can go from Bob Ross-style soothing to super stressful in the blink of an eye. The solution? Skip the pigmented paints and equip your angsty young artist with a cup of water, a paint brush and some colored construction paper instead. When applied to colored paper, plain old water is all you need to make a work of art—and the process of creating something visual by means of purposeful motion has mindfulness, er, painted all over it. Bonus: Once the masterpiece has dried (read: disappeared), your kid can start anew on the very same canvas. (If you’d rather skip the DIY aspect of this one, you can also purchase a Buddha Board that delivers mindfulness in much the same way.)
18. Play in a sensory bin
Mindfulness is all about training the mind to spend some time in the present—an experience made possible by the five basic senses. Of course, sensory perception is occurring all the time, but mindfulness means not taking it for granted. In other words, any activity that puts sensory perception at the forefront of a child’s mind is likely to have a positive, meditative effect. As such, a sensory bin for kids is kind of a no-brainer, and the process of setting one up is just as straightforward as the benefits. There are endless possibilities when it comes to creating a tactile experience for your kid (lentils! Shaving cream! Kinetic sand!), but here are ten great ideas to get you started. One thing all sensory bins have in common: Serenity, now.
19. Have a mindful snack
For afternoon snack, sit your kid down and have them describe the smell, texture and taste of the food. 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.”
20. Try a heartbeat exercise
Next time your child is acting or feeling a bit, um, untethered, try this simple exercise that involves nothing more than tuning into the rhythmic sound of his or her own heartbeat. Bonus: This one is also a genius way to distract and redirect when a very little kid is in the throes of a meltdown. (“Oh, wow! When I put my hand here, I can feel your heartbeat...do you feel it, too?”)
21. Check out a feelings chart
Feeling charts are great for kids, psychotherapist Dr. Anette Nunez tells us. Using them can help children learn how to identify and express their feelings appropriately, which in turn makes them likely to be empathetic towards others, develop fewer behavioral problems and have a positive self-image and good mental health. But Dr. Nunez notes that it’s important to bring them out not when your child is having a meltdown. Instead, go through the charts together when your kid is relatively calm and see how many of the feelings that can recognize (“see how ‘annoyed’ and ‘jealous’ is related to anger?”).
22. Do some journaling
Journaling is a tried-and-true mindfulness activity that’s especially well-suited for the tween and teen crowd. The purpose here is meaningful self-care—namely because journaling provides kids with a way to confront their emotions and sit with their own thoughts, which is a wholly constructive way to carve out time for oneself. Encourage your child to keep a daily journal to help process feelings as they come up—or depending on the age and temperament of said child, maybe just discreetly drop a journal in their room and hope they take the hint. (Your call.)
23. Make a storyboard
Grab a stack of large index cards and ask your little kid to tell you a story; then, while you listen, write a key phrase on each card. When the story is over, go through each card together so your child can draw a picture of the phrase on the other side. Once the artwork is complete, your kid can arrange the cards in order to tell the story, or experiment with a different order of events to tell a whole new one—either way, the creative engagement is a calming way to help your child connect with himself.
24. Do some gardening
Research shows that digging in dirt releases happy hormones and has therapeutic effects on both adults and children. You can either invest in a gardening set for kids or just grab your child’s beach toys to let them get in touch with the earth.
25. Play ‘Simon Says’
This game is essentially just an exercise in following directions, so success is entirely dependent upon a child’s ability to remain present and (yep, you guessed it) mindful. Plus, ‘Simon Says’ combines listening skills with physical activity, so it’s sort of the ultimate mindfulness challenge for energetic kids.