Mindfulness has become a bit of a buzzword as of late, and for good reason. Learning the skill from an early age can have lasting benefits throughout a child’s life (adulthood included). “Mindfulness is paying attention to your life, here and now, with kindness and curiosity, then choosing your behavior,” Mayuri Gonzalez, the program director at Little Flower Yoga (and a mother of two) says. Little Flower is an organization dedicated to bringing yoga and mindfulness to schools and families throughout the greater NY area. We caught up with Mayuri to learn more about the relevance of mindfulness in the life of a toddler (spoiler alert: it can be a game-changer).
Tell us more about what the term “mindfulness” really encompasses. While mindfulness is often talked about in connection with emotional regulation, it’s a misunderstanding to think of it as learning to control your emotions. It’s an exploration of living with all emotions and thoughts, and developing a more compassionate relationship with them. It’s about present-moment awareness and the lens that you choose to examine the present moment with.
What kind of impact can teaching this have on a toddler or preschooler? The practices of yoga and mindfulness offer tools to become more fully present in the world, with a greater capacity to recognize our own needs, challenges and strengths. Through mindfulness, children can become more aware of their environment, more aware of their own needs and more aware of the people around them. Increased awareness is the foundation of self-management, choice making, and impulse control.
Around what age can we start to teach these practices so that they’ll have an impact? Mindfulness can really be taught from birth through the perspective and attention that parents bring to their everyday interactions with children. The parents in effect serve as their baby’s “surrogate nervous system,” as Chris McKenna from Mindful Schools likes to say. We can soothe our babies and help them feel safe by bringing our mindful awareness to them and the lives we’re sharing with them. Adopting a mindfulness practice as parents can help us to remain calm, compassionate, and attuned to our children’s needs in the moment.
So, it sounds like part of instilling mindfulness in our children is embracing the practice ourselves. Research from Dr. Georgia Witkin at Mt. Sinai hospital showed that the greatest source of childhood and adolescent stress is not school work, extracurricular activities, or peer pressure, but parental stress. So as parents, one of the best things we can do to decrease our children’s stress is to decrease our own stress.
What are some specific tactics for teaching mindfulness to toddlers? One of the first things we teach children is to be mindful of their breathing. We invite them to notice the felt sensation of their breath—the way their body moves when they breathe in, feeling of the expansion of the in-breath, the stillness between the in-breath and the out-breath, the release of the out-breath, and the stillness between the out-breath and the in-breath. They can use a “breathing buddy”—place a small stuffed animal on their stomachs. As they breathe deeply, they should feel the animal rise and then fall when they exhale. Tell them their job is to rock the stuffed animal to sleep using the rise and fall of their stomachs. You can also try “pinwheel breathing.” Have the child take a full breath through their nose. Then, release the breath by blowing a pinwheel. The pinwheel naturally slows down the exhale, which can support the engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system. Robot relaxation can be extremely beneficial when it’s time to fall asleep. Have your child close his or her eyes, be very still, and imagine themselves as a robot, made of metal. The lights on their arms, legs, and stomach are flashing brightly. The robot also makes all sorts of beeping and bleeping noises. Now, see if they can switch the robot off, and make every part of their body completely still. Finally, establish a gratitude practice. Teach your children to appreciate the abundance in their lives, as opposed to focusing on all the toys and goodies that they crave. “My family does this at dinner when we each share one thing we are thankful for,” Mayuri says. “It is one of my favorite parts of the day.”