Too often, life feels designed for distraction. Between school, work, and devices that offer us unlimited entertainment, it can be hard to be fully aware of what’s actually happening at any given moment. As a result, we feel fried. Our kids feel fried. And before we know it, we experience the consequences: tension, anxiety, temper, and so on.
While there’s no single cure-all to any of this, meditation can help. That’s why, in addition to offering multiple lessons on the topic (from mindful eating to meditation and breathing), we at Uplift have gathered resources here to help you teach kids meditation.
Here are ways to teach meditation to kids:
- Expand your definition of what meditation is
- Outline the benefits of meditation
- Sing meditation songs
- Play meditation games
- Practice mindful eating (one mindful bite)
- Repeat simple meditation mantras
- Use sleep meditations
- Practice still sitting
- Download a meditation app
Defining Meditation for Kids
Meditation is when we’re aware of what is here and now. This might mean that we’re aware of our breath, how we’re feeling, what we’re thinking about, what we’re seeing, or something else. Whenever we do something and we’re fully aware we’re doing it, we’re practicing some form of meditation. Our attention will shift from what we’re doing, and meditation invites us back to the here and now. At the most basic level, that’s it. That’s the practice.
People from a variety of traditions align with this definition. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Meditation is to be aware of what is going on — in our bodies, in our feelings, in our minds, and in the world,” Pope Francis says that meditation is “like stopping and taking a breath in life,” Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines meditation as “the awareness that arises from paying attention,” and Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of Emotional Intelligence, says that meditation is “the whole class of ways to train attention.”
Regardless of tradition, the basics are the same. Meditation is about attention and awareness.
Benefits of Meditation for Kids
As kids learn to be aware of what is going on with their thoughts, feelings, and sensations, they lay the foundation to navigate a wide range of challenges in life. That’s why it’s so critical to teach meditation to kids.
Emerging scientific studies show that meditation helps people:
At the very least, a brief meditative check-in can help kids be aware of what they’re feeling before it becomes an overwhelming problem. Are they hungry? Tired? In need of movement? As kids learn how to be aware of what is here and now, they’ll know what they need to do at any given moment.
Where to Start?
People tend to think about meditation in one way: Still sitting. A person sitting cross-legged with their eyes closed.
But, as anyone who’s tried knows, still sitting isn’t necessarily the best starting place for young kids. It can work, as meditation experts like Annika Harris have shown. However, more often than not, you can invite young kids to sit still all you want, and they’ll still find a way to wiggle, particularly if they’re in a group. One kid starts giggling. Then another. Soon enough, all hope for stillness is lost.
So what can you do?
We recommend starting with songs and games and working your way up to still sitting as they get older.
Meditation songs are an effective, low-stress way to help kids start meditating. Even if kids don’t immediately understand what meditation is, songs can clue them into the basics.
We recommend a number of songs from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village. Here are two in particular that you can informally introduce, perhaps at bedtime. If your kids are resistant to meditation, these songs can be particularly effective as they can be viewed just as lullabies.
Breathing In, Breathing Out
Breathing in, breathing out
Breathing in, breathing out
I am blooming as a flower
I am fresh as the dew
I am solid as a mountain
I am firm as the earth
I am free.
Breathing in, breathing out
Breathing in, breathing out
I am water reflecting
What is real, what is true
And I feel there is space
Deep inside of me
I am free, I am free, I am free.
When I Rise
And when I rise, let me rise
Like a bird, joyfully.
And when I fall, let me fall,
Like a leaf, gracefully, without regret.
And when I stand, let me stand,
Like a tree, strong and tall.
And when I lie, let me lie,
Like a lake, peacefully, calm and still.
And when I work, let me work,
Like a bee, wholeheartedly.
And when I play, let me play,
Like a breeze, fresh and cool, light and clear.
By introducing meditation songs informally over the course of several weeks, your kids will start to intuitively sense the basics of meditation.
Another way to introduce the concept of meditation is to tell your kids that you want to play a game with them.
Look at the Flame
For instance, you might light a candle and set a timer, inviting them to stay focused on the flame for a set amount of time. (Thirty seconds can be a good starting point.) Whoever can stay focused for 30 seconds wins. When you’re finished, you might read this line from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita: “When meditation is mastered, the mind is unwavering like the flame of a candle in a windless place.”
See Each Other
To play this game, you need two people. Each person looks into the other’s eyes. The first person to look away from the eyes even slightly loses. Alternatively, you can set a timer for 2-5 minutes and say that if you both can do it without looking away, you both win. (Note that this isn’t the same as a staring contest, as you can both blink without losing.)
You might notice that you both initially have a nervous reaction to the game, but as you stick with it, you’ll likely find that this practice improves the connection you feel between you and your child. Perhaps you’ll find that even though you’ve known this person their whole life, you’ve never seen them this way before.
There’s something powerful about seeing the eyes of another person. It can draw us closer to each other. Try it and you might find that you naturally want to give them a hug afterward. (Or you might find that they resist and run away! If that happens, roll with it and try again another time.)
Feel Each Step
Hop around the room in bare feet or with socks. The goal here is to give your full attention to the feeling of your feet on the ground. If you can go around the room three times without losing focus on what each step feels like, you win.
This game sets kids up for a foundational meditation practice: Whenever you’re too stuck in your head, notice your feet on the ground. This small shift in focus can bring you back to your entire body, which brings you back to the present. Try it the next time you’re doing a boring task, such as washing the dishes.
For more games, check out Mindful Games Activity Cards from Susan Kaiser Greenland, who runs the Inner Kids mindful awareness program and is the author of The Mindful Child, and Annika Harris, a meditation teacher and author of I Wonder.
Here’s a sample:
Mindful Eating for Kids
One simple way to introduce meditation to kids is by eating one mindful bite at breakfast or dinner every day for a week.
To do this, gather together for a meal and invite everyone to pause. Look at each item in front of you. Then take one bite together, with the goal of paying complete attention to the smell, taste, and texture. After that, you resume the meal as usual.
Sometimes the experience of eating a meal can become so common we aren’t aware it’s happening. We rush through it, eager to get onto the next task in the day. If you find that this is happening in your home, you might try eating a meal silently together. As the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, “In order to aid mindfulness during meals, you may like to eat silently from time to time. Your first silent meal may cause you to feel a little uncomfortable, but once you become used to it, you will realize that meals in silence bring much peace and happiness. Just as we turn off the TV before eating, we can “turn off” the talking in order to enjoy the food and the presence of one another.”
A Mindful Meal
Here’s our guidance on how to have a mindful meal:
- Invite each person to practice noble silence — which is when you each agree to avoid all chit-chat unrelated to the task at hand so you can focus completely on the present moment.
- Ask everyone to participate in preparing the food, possibly by going to a store or garden and picking out the food together. You might pick out a food that no one has ever tried before, or go to a grocery store that has food from a different country.
- Prepare the food, including setting the table, together.
- Before eating the meal, take a moment to look at the food and smile at each other.
- Begin eating while still in silence, paying attention to each bite. It can help to set your fork down between bites so you don’t immediately move on to the next before you’ve finished the bite you’re on.
- Pause after eating and look at the empty plate, noticing that you feel full.
Whether you practice taking one mindful bite or whether you have an occasional silent meal, eating mindfully can be a pragmatic way to introduce meditation to kids.
By introducing songs, games, and mindful eating, you’ve already laid a strong foundation for teaching kids meditation. Another simple way to teach meditation is through a loving-kindness mantra, which is something you can practice at night before bed.
To start, simply have your child think of someone they love and repeat a simple, generous phrase such as:
“May you feel peace. May you feel safe. May you feel loved.”
After they’ve done that for a number of nights in a row, you can invite them to think of someone they feel neutral about (perhaps a classmate or extended family member they don’t know well) and repeat the same mantra with that person in mind.
And eventually you can invite them to think of someone they don’t have kind feelings for and repeat the same mantra for them.
This simple meditation can be a way to generate feelings of good will.
For a longer experience, you might have them listen to this Loving-Kindness Meditation from Greater Good each night before bed.
Choose three things that you’re grateful for and have them repeat the list when they feel down or anxious.
“I’m thankful for my family, my home, and the love in my heart.”
Letting Go Meditation
This meditation invites us to picture ourselves sitting on the banks of a slowly moving stream, watching autumn leaves slowly fall on top of the water and drift away. Just as the leaves drift away, we can let go of our thoughts and feelings, imagining them floating down the stream one by one.
This is a strategy practiced in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and it helps people let go of thoughts and feelings that aren’t helpful or useful.
The therapist Dr. Russ Harris describes the process this way:
- Find a comfortable position. Close your eyes.
- Imagine a stream, with leaves floating down.
- As thoughts appear, place them on the leaves and let them float past.
- Whenever you get hooked by thoughts, gently unhook yourself and carry on.
- Do this once or twice a day for 3 to 5 minutes.
Body Scan for Kids
Sometimes the simplest meditation is simply a reminder to focus on the entire body — a practice that’s increasingly important given that our modern devices too often turn us into a pair of eyes looking at a screen.
Merely reminding kids to notice their breath or shoulders or legs or feet can help keep them grounded in the present. In fact, it can help them start to sense into their own inner knowing about when they’ve passed a limit. Remind them to notice when their eyes feel dried out, their minds feel scattered, their legs feel numb from sitting. The more they learn to tune into their bodies, the more their want to naturally vary up their activities, which will prepare them for later in life when they don’t have rules around screen time.
Body scan meditations guide people to notice each sensation one at a time. As Jon Kabat-Zinn, veteran mindfulness teacher and author of Coming To Our Senses writes, “When we practice the body scan, we are systematically and intentionally moving our attention through the body, attending to the various sensations in the different regions. That we can attend to these body sensations at all is quite remarkable.”
Two-minute Body Scan
Here’s a two-minute body scan meditation script. Pause for ~5 seconds between each line on the list.
- Sit down and close your eyes.
- Notice the top of your head. Do you feel anything up there? Does your mind feel stirred up or calm?
- Now notice the muscles around your eyes. Relax those muscles. Do you feel tired or awake?
- Notice your breath coming in and out of your nose.
- Relax your shoulders and neck.
- Now notice your belly. Is it soft and relaxed? Do you feel hungry or just right?
- Be aware of your legs and your feet. What sensations do you feel there?
A simple body scan like this can help kids tune into their own bodies and also realize that some of their emotions might stem from a lack of awareness about how their bodies feel. For instance, they might not realize that their angry feelings are mostly the result of them being tired. As Marcus Aurelius writes in Meditations, “Nowhere can you find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in your own soul.”
Meditation can also help kids fall asleep. The key here is to choose something calm and relaxing and repetitive.
One simple sleep meditation is to do a sleep-related body scan. Here’s a possible script to follow after they get in bed:
- Take a long outbreath and let your body relax completely.
- Now return to your natural breath — in… and out… in… and out…
- Start by noticing any tension you might feel around your eyes. Relaxing that part of your body completely.
- Notice any tension in and around the jaw, and relax it completely.
- Relax your shoulders, letting them rest.
- Let your arms lay naturally, without any tension.
- Now relax your stomach, letting it feel calm.
- And finally, relax your legs.
- Feel your whole body at rest in the bed, and give a final long outbreath.
It’s also worth checking out sleep meditation stories, such as “Yuri and the Dragons” on Insight Timer, which starts by inviting the listener into a state of relaxation, tells a story about an explorer, and then fades into calming music without narration. And here’s another script from Mindful.org.
Still Sitting for Kids
Once your kids are well versed in the basics of meditation through songs, games, or mantras, you might introduce the concept of still sitting.
At the most basic level, start with posture. Keep the spine erect — not too tight and not too loose, but straight like a stack of coins. To do this, it helps to keep the legs lower than the hips (which is where a cushion or sitting on the edge of a chair comes in handy).
After the posture is locked in, you can help them in a number of ways.
First, you can try a simple breathing meditation. Invite them to count their breaths up to 10, going beyond 10 only once they’ve fully mastered getting to 10 without losing focus.
Second, you can follow a method called “noting” from meditation teacher Shinzen Young. In this exercise, they simply note whenever they see, hear, or feel something. For example, they might note, “I hear the sound of the fridge humming.” Then: “My leg feels itchy.” Then: “I see the soft glow of light coming in through my closed eyelids.” The goal is to simply note whatever they are aware of — nothing more. As you get more used to this process, you can simplify it by noting which sense you’re aware of in each moment (seeing, hearing, feeling). For example, as you meditate, just note which sense is aware each moment: “hearing,” “feeling,” etc. See our lesson on mindfulness (for members), where we cover this practice in depth.
Third, you can have them attune to their inner sense of peace and stillness. This helps them sense that that part of them is always present, and that they can call on it whenever they need to.
Here are just a few options worth digging into:
- Insight Timer has some free and paid meditations for kids.
- Headspace has a paid subscription, along with YouTube videos made in conjunction with Sesame Street.
- MoshiKids is an app specifically geared for kids.
- Mightier helps kids be more mindful of and manage their emotions.
- Waking Up from Sam and Annika Harris provides their kids meditations for free (along with helpful tips).
- Cosmic Kids Yoga also offers some meditation videos.
What else would you recommend? Let us know in the comments below.
To get more guidance into how you can introduce healthy spiritual and emotional development to your kids, join our mailing list for a free lesson sample and weekly insights.