by Lisa S. Wzorek, MA, OTR/L
A positive mental health strategy many of us are hearing about these days is mindfulness practice. Personally, I have been exploring it myself, and am feeling the benefits that are being touted for this simple activity – better focus and concentration, positive mental health, etc. (Ackerman, 2020). But what exactly is mindfulness, and importantly, can we teach this to our young children and our children with special needs?
Mindfulness is defined as “creating space for ourselves – space to think, space to breathe, and space between ourselves and our reactions (Mindful.org, 2018).” Being mindful means that one is aware of sensations and feelings in the moment without passing a judgment on it – it is noticing without judging. Googling how to practice mindfulness leads to an abundance of sites that instruct adults on how to practice…mostly sitting quietly, eyes closed, focusing on the breath, noticing our thoughts but not judging or trying to chase them away. So, can we help our young children to be mindful? Turns out, we can! And we don’t have to make them sit still to do this. We can guide our children in a mindful practice on nature walks, listening to music or sounds, or moving their bodies. Mindfulness activities can be customized to what will work best for your child. It can involve yoga poses but doesn’t have to. Some ideas to help our children with special needs practice mindfulness are as follows:
- Take a nature walk with your child. Tell your child that it’s time to look for a given object, for example, birds. Model looking for birds in different directions for your child by labeling and pointing (ex. “look to the right” while you point). Limit your talking but focus on the birds. If your child has a communication device, perhaps you can place a photo of the object you are looking for so that they can activate the icon when the see (or hear) the object. Or, if your child uses picture exchange communication cards (PECS), you can have them point to the picture as they see/hear the object. You can do this with flowers, insects, leaves, rocks, etc. Choose something that will interest your child the most. If a nature walk is not their style, but vehicles are, you can do the same with cars and trucks.
- Blowing dandelions, bubbles or pinwheels. Help guide your child to focus on taking a deep breath in and blowing the air out of their mouths. As the air hits the dandelion, bubble or pinwheel, guide them in watching it until you can no longer see the dandelion seeds/bubble floating in the air or until the pinwheel has stopped. If your child has a communication device or PECS, perhaps you can access pictures of these objects for them to activate or point to before you begin.
- For our kiddos that are movers, try guiding them into a pose that they hold. For example, standing tall like a tree with hands on the hips (or if more motivated by a character, use superman/batman etc.). Guide them to taking a nice deep breath and hold for a few seconds in the pose.
Some tips to remember:
- Start practicing when your child is happy and feeling good. Once they get it, then you can start using mindfulness to help them to feel better and more organized.
- Use pictures as a visual aid if you are focusing on a particular object or action as you begin the activity and show them each time that you see the object.
- If your child has a visual impairment, try listening for sounds instead of locating an object with sight. For example, when outdoors you can listen for birds or cars going by. Indoors, you can play calm music or a bell and focus on that sound as it begins and fades.
- It’s ok if you have to help your child to activate the icons on their communication device or locate the correct PECS. Guiding them in this will help them to understand the activity.
- It’s ok if your child can only do this for a few seconds at a time. The key is not to judge the activity as a success or a failure, but to continue practicing. Recognize your own thoughts during the activity but let them go.
- Be the model for how to be mindful for your child. Guide them with your actions. Give lots of praise when it is over for participating.
- Use the internet! If you have access to the internet and a tablet, computer or phone, there are many YouTube videos that can guide both adults and children through this practice. Here are several you can check out:
Friendly Wishes guided meditation by Cosmic Kids Yoga https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtYIQiXyrsE
Be the Pond Meditation by Zen Den https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wf5K3pP2IUQ
Fading Tone Meditation (Bell tone) by My Life * help your child to hold their hand over their heart during the sounds https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzuaKhkwskw
Enjoy experimenting and share your experiences with the Easterseals community!!
Ackerman, C.E. (2020). 25 fun mindfulness activities for children and teens. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/mindfulness-for-children-kids-activities/
Mindful.org (2018). How to practice mindfulness. Retrieved from https://www.mindful.org/how-to-practice-mindfulness/