Why meditation can be great for kids, too

Plus, some techniques from around the world to get them started

Megan Sweet and her 12-year-old son, Malcolm, have been going on a lot of walks during the COVID-19 pandemic. During these treks, they stop and smell flowers during the day or watch the sunset at night. “We stop walking and just appreciate that moment,” she says.

Sweet and her son aren’t simply taking a break—they’re practicing a form of mindfulness meditation, a technique to pay close attention to thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they arise in the present moment in order to control and calm thoughts and emotions.

People have been practicing mindfulness meditation for centuries. And it’s especially popular now. In fact, according to the Global Wellness Institute, the number of people practicing some form of meditation has increased by a whopping 2,900 percent since the start of the pandemic.

But the practice is also gaining traction with children like Malcom—and has been even before the pandemic began. According to data from the National Health Interview Survey, an ongoing study from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, yoga and meditation practices among children four to 17 years old more than doubled between 2012 and 2017. Many schools even offer meditation classes or dedicated meditative spaces to students.

“Meditation can be as beneficial for kids as it is for their parents,” says Sweet, senior director of program and impact at Mindful Schools, an organization that trains educators on the benefits of meditative practices. For example, after analyzing 13 studies, researchers in Queensland, Australia, found that mindfulness practices improved attention and executive function—the cognitive skills necessary for managing self-control and regulating behavior—in adolescents. Another analysis published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies in 2019 found that mindfulness can also increase empathy and compassion in kids.

Besides boosting mental health, a 2017 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics cites research showing that mindfulness practice might improve kids’ physical health, too. Slow, focused breathing has been shown to calm the nervous system, decrease stress hormones, reduce blood pressure, relieve gastrointestinal symptoms and headaches, and improve immune function.

Throughout history, people all over the world have used meditation to enhance both spiritual and emotional health, and most of the techniques used in the West today can be traced to ancient cultures in the East. Here’s how some of those practices might’ve made it into your own meditation routine—and how you can incorporate them into a mindfulness routine for your child.

From prehistoric campfires to yoga mats

Today’s most popular meditation practices can usually be traced to ancient religious cultures in Asia. For instance, the earliest written evidence of meditation dates to around 1500 B.C. in India, when it was described in the Vedas, the earliest Hindu sacred texts, as a religious practice.

But people likely meditated long before that. Some scholars think meditation goes all the way back to the Paleolithic period over two million years ago, when our hominid ancestors and their shamans sat around fires and focused their attention as a part of spiritual and healing ceremonies.

Sometime between 600 and 500 B.C., Buddhist meditation traditions—such as samatha meditation, in which the practitioner focuses solely on breathing in and out—developed in India. “The influence of Buddhism prompted Confucians in ancient China to adopt meditation,” says Mabuchi Masaya, a former professor at Gakushuin University in Tokyo and an expert on the history of meditation. Neo-Confucian meditation practices—such as jikei seiza, in which one sits quietly and maintains reverence—were developed as a secular alternative to Buddhism and took hold in Japan.

By the first century B.C., travelers along the Silk Road had brought meditation to the Middle East, eventually as far as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Buddhism first came to wide attention in the West at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions, when Buddhist leaders from Japan and Sri Lanka spoke about their religious practices. Then as more people from the Asian continent—especially those who practiced Buddhism and Hinduism—emigrated to Europe and North America in the 1950s and ’60s, meditative practices became more incorporated into Western culture.

Meditating with kids

Most meditation routines today simply focus on the “technical” aspects. “By this, we mean following the breath or chanting a mantra,” says Halvor Eifring, professor of China studies at the University of Oslo and an expert in the cultural histories of meditation.

But they also likely adapt some aspect or end goal of these ancient practices. Mabuchi says that’s exactly what Confucians did when they adapted Buddhist meditation techniques. Though both Buddhists and Confucians might sit quietly and take deep breaths while meditating, Buddhists attempt to clear the mind by stopping the flow of rational thought. Confucians instead choose to think deeply about their current situation to achieve what they called “full realization.”

Mabuchi says that as a secular culture, Confucianism was considered something lay people could practice. In that way, it’s similar to today’s mindfulness meditation—and is suitable for kids. But other cultures can be incorporated into a family practice as well. “I don’t see much danger of co-opting cultural traditions if you choose to make a practice your own,” says Joan Halifax, founder of the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

Here are five ideas.

The practice: Raisin meditation
Origins: A variation on traditional Buddhist and Hindu practices
What it is: A form of mindfulness meditation that encourages focus
Use it when: Your kids are fidgety and unfocused
How to make it your own: Give every family member a raisin. Hold the raisin between your forefinger and thumb and observe it very carefully, noticing all the grooves and whorls and the way it feels in your fingers. Then take a little time to notice how it smells. Put the raisin in your mouth, but don’t chew yet. Just feel it on your tongue and pay attention to the taste. Then slowly chew, noticing the texture as well as how the taste changes as you chew. Lastly, swallow the raisin. Encourage your kids to take their time, then ask them to explain what they noticed about the raisin after they’ve swallowed it. (These tactile DIY recipes—slime, anyone?—can help soothe fidgety kids, too.)

The practice: Metta
Origins: Inspired by several Buddhist traditions
What it is: Metta is also known as “loving-kindness meditation.” Its goal is to develop and direct feelings of love and kindness to oneself and others.
Use it when: Your kids want to practice kindness
How to make it your own: Think about someone you love, someone you feel neutral about, and someone you actively dislike. (Your kids may start with their grandparents and end up with the school bully.) As you think about each person, say (or think) something like, “May [this person] be happy, may [this person] be free from suffering.” Practicing these words in their mind can help kids relieve stress and anxiety.

The practice: Vedic chanting
Origins: Hinduism
What it is: Verses from the Vedas were often chanted during religious rituals.
Use it when: Your kids are feeling a little too vocal
How to make it your own: Choose a word or phrase that has meaning for your family, or something more general like “peace,” “love,” or “happiness.” Repeat the word aloud together. You might even notice that as everyone chants, all the voices converge on the same pitch.

The practice: Hoʻoponopono
Origins: Native Hawaiian culture
What it is: A forgiveness practice, the name hoʻoponopono loosely translates to “to make right.”
Use it when: The kids have been fighting
How to make it your own: Sit quietly and think of a person you feel the need to forgive. Begin by reciting the phrases “I’m sorry” and “Please forgive me.” This establishes that we all make mistakes and helps us see the person who has harmed us as being like us. Then imagine you’re speaking to the person and say “I love you” and “Thank you.” The idea is to generate feelings of forgiveness and gratitude toward yourself and those you might not be getting along with. (And if your kids still won’t stop fighting, check out this article for help.)

The practice: Neiguan
Origins: Taoism
What it is: Known as “inner vision” meditation, neiguan encourages practitioners to visualize the inside of their bodies.
Use it when: Your kids are feeling curious and getting into everything
How to make it your own: Have everyone sit or lie in a comfortable position with their eyes closed. Ask everyone to imagine the inside of their bodies. Slowly and quietly name the major organs—heart, lungs, brain, etc.—allowing for a few minutes for everyone to visualize each one working inside of their body. End with the skin, the body’s largest organ, and encourage everyone to think about how their skin connects their bodies with the rest of the world.

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