6 – How to Teach Mindfulness to Kids


This episode explores how I teach mindfulness to my kids. We know that practicing mindfulness is beneficial for adults but it’s also very beneficial for kids. Research indicates that mindfulness can help kids improve their abilities to pay attention, to calm down when they are upset and to make better decisions.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast, and this is episode number six. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about tips on how to teach mindfulness to children or to your kids. So let’s get started.

Hey guys. Welcome to the Secular Buddhism podcast. If this is your first time listening, thank you for joining. SecularBuddhism.com is my website and blog, and this is the podcast that goes along with it. The Secular Buddhism podcast is produced every week and covers philosophical topics within Buddhism and Secular Humanism. Episodes one through five serve as a basic introduction to Secular Buddhism, and to general Buddhist concepts so if you’re new to the podcast, I highly recommend listening to the first five episodes in order. All episodes after that are meant to be individual topics that you can listen to in any order.

I like to start the podcast with a piece of advice from Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. When he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are,” please keep this in mind as you listen and learn about the topics and concepts discussed in this podcast episode. And remember if you enjoy the podcast please feel free to share, write a review, or give it a rating.

All right well let’s jump into this week’s topic. So what I wanna talk about today is mindfulness, specifically mindfulness for kids. I have a six-year-old, a three-year-old, and a four-month-old, and the topic of mindfulness is something that has recently become kind of a routine at night with my kids, and I wanted to share some of the tips and things that have worked for us to start talking about mindfulness. And I say mindfulness as a topic, not really as a word. You know, my six-year-old doesn’t know what the word mindfulness means. We don’t talk about the word mindfulness, but we have specific routines or exercises that we’ve been doing that involve mindfulness, with the ultimate goal of helping him to become mindful without necessarily telling him, “Hey, this is what mindfulness is,” because young kids don’t really get that.

So a lot of this needs to be adapted based on the age of the children that you’re going to be talking to or teaching. But I think most of this stuff is relevant for kids of any age. So keep in mind that as I share this my son is six and this was kind of tailored around him. My three-year-old is a little too young to really grasp any of this but some of what we do here also works with her.

So, at night, we have these routines that we’ve developed. Meditation is one of them. And I was having this conversation with my brother on the phone last week and telling him a little bit about the things that we do and he was very interested in taking notes and finding out what works for us to start teaching mindfulness for our kids. And that made me think, “Maybe I should do a podcast episode and talk a little bit about tips and ways to teach mindfulness for kids.”

So remember, we’ve talked about mindfulness before and the whole purpose of being mindful is to train ourselves, train the mind, to become aware of things as they really are. Remember our natural tendency is we take whatever is, the way life is and then we add meaning and stories, and we get lost in these stories and in the meaning that we create about things and what we’re trying to do with mindfulness is to just become aware of things as they are. And for kids this can be pretty natural, but it’s during the period of time that kids grow into adults that they really lose track of just allowing things to be what they are and then they start assigning meaning, like we do as adults. So some of these things are just meant to increase that awareness and help them realize that the way that they naturally do things is much more mindful than the way we as adults sometimes do things.

There are four specific topics or exercises that I like to do and a lot of these are pretty new. I’m testing these now and seeing what works and I’m sure this will evolve and change over time, but I wanted to share what’s working for me and with my kids. My six-year-old Rajko is very into meditation right now, and one of our routines at night for meditation is it started out with almost like a game. I wanted to say … ‘Cause he and his little sister Noelle who’s three, we sit down, and they each have their own bed. They share a room and we’d sit down on the bed and then it was like a contest. “Let’s see who can sit still and quietly for 30 seconds.” And I would set the timer on my watch, and they would sit there and usually she’s the first one at about that 15 to 20 second mark who says, “Are we done? Are we done?”

And it’s kind of become a little game to see who can last the longest. And she has lasted all the way up to 60 seconds, which is pretty impressive in my eyes for a three-year-old. But she’s consistently reaching 30 seconds now, and now it’s become a routine at night. She says, “Okay, let’s meditate,” and she’ll sit down. She can last about 30 seconds and then she’ll lay down and lay there quietly while her brother is finishing his meditation and 9 out of 10 times she’ll fall asleep while she’s laying there waiting for him. So it’s kind of become a win-win for the whole nightly routine of getting the kids to bed.

But what’s really impressed with Rajko, the six-year-old, is that starting at 60 seconds, this challenge of, “Oh, now can I do 100 seconds?” And then he did that. And, “Now can I do 200 seconds? Now can I do 300 seconds?” And he’s reached the point now where he can quiet easily sit there for 10 minutes, 10 entire minutes. 600 seconds. And what we do is he just sits there quietly, and I have my timer on my watch and when it hits 10 minutes, I just tap him and say, “Good job, you did it.” And he’s just so excited because to him it’s a challenge and he was able to do it. And he loves knowing that it’s not easy, and that I always tell him, “Most adults can’t sit down for 10 minutes.” And he just loves knowing that he can.

So that’s how he started to get into meditation. But really, we’re just sitting there quietly. There’s no specific thing that he’s doing other than … The only rule is if you open your eyes then you’re done. I’ll stop the timer. Or if you say anything. The moment you start talking, then it’s over. And I stop the timer and I’ll tell him, “This was your score.” And it’s happened several times where he’ll say something or open his eyes, and I’ll say he’s done and he’ll say, “No I wanna do it again,” and I’ll say, “No that was your shot tonight. We can try it again tomorrow and see if you beat tonight’s record,” and I think that’s helped motivate his determination to do this well and stay sitting there quietly.

And then as he practices his skill of just sitting there and controlling his desire to talk or his desire to open his eyes, I think that’s bringing about the awareness that I’m hoping he’ll get out of it which is that there is a lot of control that can go into our habitual pattern. The habit might be “I wanna open my eyes,” or the habit might be, “I wanna start talking.” And to be able to sit there and evaluate that and say, “No. I’m not going to. I’m gonna sit here quietly until my dad says the time is up,” I think is a tremendous sense of will power that he’s building up that’s going to be helpful in so many other aspects of his life.

So that’s kind of how we have approached meditation in our house with the kids. It consists of just sitting there quietly, and they really enjoy it. And even my three-year-old, if she doesn’t hit her 60 seconds, she kinda gets frustrated. She’s like, “Ah. I wanna do it again.” And I usually let her try again because Rajko’s gonna be sitting there for a whole 10 minutes so she’ll try it until she can get her 60 seconds and then she’s really happy and proud of herself ’cause she did 60 seconds and then she lays down and goes right to sleep.

So that’s how we do meditation. There are a few other exercises that I’ve started to incorporate that I have found to be very successful in helping to accomplish the overall goal of mindfulness in the first place like I said is to become aware of things as they are. And from the Buddhist lens, becoming aware of things as they really are consists of two major things that we’re trying to teach. One is impermanence, that all things are impermanent. And the second is that all things or interdependent or connected.

And, impermanence I think starts to make more sense as we get older. It’s kind of difficult for a child, but the way we talk about that is if we’re outdoors, we can sit for a minute, and we’ll do meditation just laying down and looking up at the clouds, and we’ll talk about how you can look at the clouds and if you look at ’em long enough, they come and they go. And the clouds that you were seeing five minutes ago aren’t the same clouds that you’re seeing now. And I usually try to compare that to not necessarily thoughts but to life. And I explain to my kids that in life, life is like clouds. And whatever life has in front of you right now like looking up at the sky, whatever you see that’s what it is right now but that’s not what it will be and that’s not what it was because it’s always changing.

And, how well do they really get that? I don’t know, and that’s why I don’t really dig too deeply right now into the concept of impermanence ’cause I think that’s a little harder to grasp. But interdependence has been a really fascinating topic to explore, with my kids and there’s been a really effective way to do that. And before I jump into interdependence there’s one more aspect of impermanence that I do discuss with my kids and I think this is an easy way to convey the idea that life is constantly changing, or that things that are at one point are no longer. And that’s using a bell.

I have two bells in my house, meditation bells. And one of them, it’s a little bowl with a wooden … A little wooden mallet that you use to hit it, and what I like to do, I do this when I teach meditation in general to adults but … Or mindfulness to adults but the idea here is you can take a bell and this will work with any kinda bell. And you ring the bell and you ask the kids to listen to the bell, and raise your hand when you hear that it stops ringing. And as soon as you raise your hand you can open your eyes and this works really well when you have several people in the room. Because what they’ll discover is as they’re listening intently to hear when the bell stops ringing and they think it stopped and they open their eyes and raise their hand, often they’ll notice somebody else hasn’t detected that. And it doesn’t usually happen at the exact same time. One hand will go up and then maybe one or two seconds later another hand goes up.

And, I like to explain to them that the nature of impermanence is that everything that has a beginning, or that we would typically think this has a beginning or this has an end, when you listen to the bell what you discover is what you may have thought was the beginning or the end of the sound, may just be the end of the sound for you but it’s not necessarily the end of the sound for someone else yet. And if you really pay attention to this, and listening to the sound of a bell, it’s very difficult to pinpoint exactly when it stopped. You can pinpoint when for you it stopped, but you can’t really pinpoint exactly when it actually stopped. Because it’s different for people.

So yeah. The ringing of the bell is another fun way to kind of just bring up the topic of impermanence. Another one is the clouds like I mentioned before. Those are two good ones for kids. But the one that I’ve really focused more time to is the idea of interdependence. I think this is something that resonates well with kids, and it makes sense. So the way we talk about this, I don’t use the the word interdependence. The word I use with my kids is I tell ’em, “Did you know that everything is connected?’ And the way that I convey this, I’ll say … This is … Usually we’re sitting in bed, either right before or right after meditating. Usually before ’cause sometimes my daughter’s asleep after.

But we’ll be sitting there and I’ll say, “Rajko grab your pillow,” or, “Grab a stuffed animal,” or just “Pick something in your room.” And he’ll grab it, and I remember one time it was his favorite pillow. And he’s holding his pillow and I said, “So I want you to learn to discover that everything that you have connects you to someone.” And he said, “Well what do you mean?” And he said, “But nobody else has owned this pillow. This is just my pillow.” And I said, “I know but let’s look at the pillow.” And his pillow has fabric, it’s stitched, and it has a little print on the top like a sailboat print.

And I said, “Rajko I want you to look at your pillow and look at that print. Is that different fabric than the fabric of the pillow?” And he said, “Yeah. That’s not the same.” And I said, “So, I want you to imagine did your pillow grow on a tree or where did your pillow come from?” And he thought about it for a second, and I think it’s really important to allow them to make these connections on their own rather then telling them the answers. So he thought about it for a second and he said, “Oh, somebody made it.” And I said, “Yeah somebody somewhere made this.” And I said, “So you’re connected to whoever made it right?” And he said, “Oh yeah. Okay. So that’s what it means that everything’s connected?” And I said, “Yeah, but let’s explore this a little more.”

I said, “Whoever made it had to stitch it,” and we have a sewing machine at home and his mom does a lot of sewing and I said, “Mommy stitches stuff and makes dance costumes,” and I said, “Do you think somebody used a sewing machine like mommy has to make this pillow?” And he said, “Yeah. They stitched the pillow. I can see all the stitching.” And I said, “Yeah well where do you think that person got the sewing machine?” And he said, “Maybe they bought it at the store?” And I said, “Yeah so they must have bought it from someone right?” And he said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Well now you’re connected to the person who made the pillow and to the person who sold the sewing machine to the person who made the pillow.” And he said, “Oh wow so it’s two people?” So I said, “Let’s keep going with that. The sewing machine, did that grow on a tree? Do sewing machines grow on trees? Or are they just out in forest or how do we get sewing machines?”

And again he thought about it for a second and realized, “No, somebody made the sewing machine.” And I said, “Okay well the … ” So this process goes on right? And I keep breaking it down. “Where did the string come from? The components of the sewing machine?” And what he kept discovering is everything would connect to someone else, and we talked about the person who drove the sewing machine once it was completed, to the store. The person who invented the car, the person who invented tires so that cars can drive and you can go on and on. This is a never ending process.

But you just kinda pick the bigger, more obvious parts of the process that kids are gonna understand and suddenly he just pauses and he’s like, “Daddy, this pillow connects me to thousands and thousands of people.” And I said, “I know. Isn’t that awesome? And we usually sit here and we look at this pillow and we think, ‘It’s just a pillow.'” And I said, “But it’s not just a pillow. This little pillow connects you to so many people in so many countries and so many processes. All of these things happened so that you could just have this pillow right here on your bed.” And then he picks up his pillow and he just hugs it and he’s like, “Oh, I love this pillow.”

And it was just this moment of excitement for me because that’s what you’re trying to teach, with interdependence, is this understanding that we truly are interdependent and connected with everything. And something as silly, or not as silly but something as simple as a pillow, that you may never think of, all of a sudden he saw it differently. And I don’t think he’ll ever see that pillow the same way again and that was a neat experience for me.

So, we continue that process. Everything is connected and I’ll say, “Rajko. Now grab your little toy.” And we started the same process. He has a little dinosaur. He’s way into dinosaurs. And he’s just studying this dinosaur and now he’s breaking it down, and he’s like, “Well this has plastic, but it also has screws.” And I said, “Yeah, do you think somebody … Look at those. Do you think somebody put those on there? Maybe using their hands?” And he said, “Yeah maybe.” And I said, “Well sometimes it’s machines that do it. What if a machine did it?” And without even thinking he just said, “Well, but somebody made the machine.” And I was like, “Exactly.” So then we were able to kind of explore the process of one of his toys for a little bit.

And I like to do this every now and then. I’ll just pick something random and say, “Rajko. What does this connect you to?” And then he’ll study it and he’ll think about it. And I’ve been very impressed with how much more in depth his understanding is with interdependence. Without ever even using the word interdependence now he looks at things and studies them and sometimes he needs to be prompted by me to get him thinking but he can see things differently. He’s learning to start to see things as being connected, and that’s the whole point. That’s the object of mindfulness is that we can start to learn to see everything as interdependent and I’m starting to see that with my six-year-old.

With my daughter who’s three it’s a little more difficult, but you can … You can still kinda talk about it and they get whatever they can get. As they get older, it makes more sense so I think it’s important to not get caught up in thinking, “How can I ensure that my three-year-old learns this,” or, “My four-year-old learns this.” It may be that they don’t until they’re older. In my case my six-year-old is really getting all of this. My three-year-old really isn’t. And that’s fine.

So, everything is interconnected is how we talk about interdependence. The third exercise that we’ve been doing is a component to mindfulness is becoming very aware of our senses, being aware of things as they are, how we are just as we are. And a good way to do this is to explore sensations, your physical senses. These are sight, sound, smell, touch, and the way we do this, I’ll kind of talk about each one separately and I don’t do all of these at the same time at night. It’s not like we go through all of these. You kinda do these throughout various times of the day. Usually at night … Our routine for nighttime is we talk about, “Everything is connected. Pick something, and let’s see how we’re connected to it.” Once that discussion is over we do meditation and that’s really all we do at night.

But at other times during the day or at random times I like to bring awareness to their physical sensations. So with sight, this is kind of a new thing I started and I got this from my dad. My dad has for years had this habit when he comes over, he’ll take one of the little toys of the kids and he’ll just go hide it somewhere. Somewhere obvious like he’ll take a little plastic figuring and put it on one of the blinds, and then see if anyone notices. And nobody notices so after a while he’ll say, “Hey, have you seen that little Batman?” And then they’re all like, “Huh,” and they know the game has started. The kids know this. He does this with my kids and with my brother’s kids, and it’s a fun game and it becomes this moment of awareness. “Where is that little toy,” and they know he hid it somewhere and so they start looking around and they’re like, “Where is it?” And it’s a really fun game.

And then, usually they’re looking around in places that they wouldn’t think to look and that’s where they find it like he’s on top of the fridge or he’s on the vase where the flowers are. It’s usually somewhere hidden, but somewhere obvious. So I’ve started to try to do this a little bit with my kids and sometimes I’ll just, when I’m playing with them, I’ll take a little toy when they’re not looking and I’ll go hide it somewhere really obvious, right in front of ’em and then I’ll ask them, “Hey. Where did that little Lego guy go?” And they know. As soon as I say that they look around and they’re excited to start looking. And the object of this game is to started teaching them to look. That’s really all it’s about. What are they looking for? What do you see that is right in plain sight but you just don’t see it? That’s the object.

And then usually, one of them will find it and then we’ll laugh and I’ll say, “Isn’t that funny how sometimes the things that we’re looking for are right in front of us but we just don’t see ’em because we don’t typically look?” And that’s about the extent of the lesson I’ll give, because again I don’t think they really grasp it, but it’s an exercise and a routine that I plan on someday turning into a powerful lesson, on insight. And on mindfulness. For now it’s just a little fun game and an exercise that we do, but that’s what I do with sight.

With smell, something you can do that’s fun is maybe when they’re sitting at the table or it’s time to eat you could pause, and play a game where you say, “Okay, everybody close your eyes,” and then you bring out what they’re going to eat or maybe it’s an orange or just a random object, and say, “You’re not allowed to touch it but you can reach down,” or not reach down but, “You can put your head down and smell.” And just see if they can smell, based on their smell, decide what it is and again it’s really simple. It doesn’t really do much other than set you up at some point for teaching them that they can become aware of obvious sensations that are there that we don’t usually pay attention to.

At dinner, it can be as simple as, “Close your eyes. I want you to take some whiffs and smell and see who can tell what we’re having for dinner.” And that exercise alone would start to train them to become more aware of what they are smelling. Again it’s one of the senses that’s there, and unless you’re paying attention and using it, it’s just … You don’t really do that. In everyday life.

So that’s one way to do smell. Sound, sound like I mentioned the bell before is a fun one to play with. Something I like to do, if we’re just sitting there, and this one might be one I’ll do at night. If you sit there and just listen and say, “Okay, we’re gonna play a game guys. I want you to close your eyes and I want you to listen. And I want you to tell me what do you hear?” And you just sit there in complete silence, and then maybe someone will say, “Oh I just heard a car drive by.” Then you could develop that over time, “Well, do you think that was a car or was it a truck or was it a semi?” And you wanna try to refine their ability to sense what they’re sensing so in this case really hear what you’re hearing.

And we live close to a bigger road that’s not that busy but it’s a state highway so sometimes it’s a truck, sometimes it’s a tractor, sometimes it’s a semi, and they can start to tell the difference between the sounds. But what you’re trying to do is train them to become aware of what they are aware of. So, that’s how we would do sounds and then touch, that’s another fun game.

You can just sit down and say, “I’m gonna put something in your hands. Close your eyes, I want you to feel it and tell me what it is.” This can be something as obvious as a stuffed animal and my kids love stuffed animals so they have like 50 of them. And I’ll take one and say, “‘Kay I’m gonna put this in your hands. You’re not allowed to open your eyes, but just feel it and tell me which one is this?” And they’ll feel it and say, “Oh, this is the rabbit. Oh this is the puppy.” But again what you’re doing is training them to become aware of the senses, to become aware of awareness. That’s the whole purpose of meditation. Or of mindfulness.

So, using sensations is a good way, it’s a fun way, it’s an easy way, and there’s not a really deep lesson, at least not yet. You don’t have to sit there and say, “Let me tell you what you’re learning here.” You don’t have to do that. You just play, and you’re increasing their ability to use their senses. That’s kind of the whole point. And at some point, it’s a very powerful lesson when they’re older and they understand and you can explain mindful living as being very aware of everything just as it is. And that includes seeing things as they are, smelling as it is, hearing things as they are. You can kind of incorporate all that at some point. That’s my plan at least.

So those are the four main ways that I try to teach mindfulness to my kids. The sound of a bell, or clouds in the sky to discuss the concept of impermanence. Playing the game of, “Everything’s connected. How are you connected to this?” And handing them an object, that’s how we discuss interdependence. And you can do this at dinner too. If you’re gonna have a meal, it’s fun to sit down and say, “Okay, where did this corn come from?” And then you talk about that for a little bit. “Where does corn come from? How do we get corn from the field, to our table?” And discuss the whole process. From transportation to the machines that husk and just whatever you have to and you can do this with any kind of food.

But it’s a moment to become very mindful about what you’re about to eat and where it comes from and how it connects you to everyone and everything, that made that process available for you to just sit there and eat corn. Interdependence I’ve found for me, is perhaps one of the most powerful ways of being mindful. Is when we become mindful of how everything is so interdependent. The causes and conditions, and the processes that are required for us to just do what we’re doing. Whether that’s eating, watching TV, playing with a toy, so much had to happen for this toy to be here. So much had to happen for this pillow to be here that I get to lay on. So much had to happen for this meal I’m about to eat. These are things you can discuss, constantly with your kids, and this trains them to become very mindful of interdependence.

So yeah those are the four things. Sensations that’s another fun one, meditation I talked about, but I’d love to hear from you in the comments on the blog or on the website or on Facebook or wherever you’re seeing this. If you’re listening to it, maybe you can email me. Noah@secularbuddhism.com. I’d love to hear what works for you. How do you teach mindfulness to your kids? And hopefully these tips and hints work for you as well as they’re working for me. I’ve found it to be very rewarding, and very enjoyable to see this process unfolding with my own kids, and to see them becoming more mindful of life in general. And more mindful … I guess more mindful just about everything. It’s a really neat process. And I think it helps foster in them a sense of gratitude for everything because they realize that for everything to be happening the way it’s happening, a lot had to go into that. And that’s what mindfulness really teaches so.

Hopefully these tips are good and thank you for listening and I look forward to talking to you guys again next time. Thanks.

  • Lorenn Walker

    Thanks Noah! I listened for ways we could improve teaching mindfulness to imprisoned people, and believe your tips are useful for people of all ages–I like simple! Mahalo again, Lorenn