Sometimes the suggestion to take care of ourselves is just another reason to feel guilty. We’re not doing enough, or we’re not doing it right. The modern mindfulness movement has a ton of great energy and research behind it… and yet for parents it’s another thing to add to our to-do list.
Good news! Being playful and creative with your kids is actually a mindful thing to do.
Developing skills like deep breathing and emotional self-regulation sound so serious, but here are three games – preschooler and parent-tested – that develop both. Each can be adapted for older ages, as noted.
1 | Listening Button
Embody a person or animal who has trouble listening, maybe you’re on a pretend phone. Be challenged to listen until your child finds the ‘correct’ button – possible locations: under the ear, on the nose, on your big toe. Maybe the button moves around. The mindful result is self-awareness and, of course, greater attention to what it really looks like and feels like to listen to someone else.
Elementary student version: Perhaps you’ve asked your 2nd grader three times to come to the breakfast table. Instead of yelling or threatening, get physically close and declare ‘Oh! I must’ve forgotten to turn on your listening button this morning!’ Then push a ‘button’ dramatically and with a wonderful sound effect. Even if they don’t immediately come to the table, this is certain to get their attention and move you both past the temptation of turning it into a power struggle. Or try this: Make a listening button together with markers and a piece of paper. The listening button can randomly appear, and a child can use it on parents too!
2 | Your Belly’s Voice
During play give your belly a voice. Let it speak its truth. Is it hungry? Empty? Achey? Quiet? Loud? Have your belly talk to your child’s belly and ask it some life questions, like its favorite color or book. Just give it a voice and see where it goes.
The mindful result is tuning into your body and appetite. On a basic mindfulness level that’s awesome, but it’s also a nice communication tool for when it is meal or snack time. You can ask your belly questions about hunger levels and food choices. For picky eaters I find that this can help shift the energy away from power or rules and toward curiosity and exploration. For exploratory eaters it can provide more body awareness around hunger cues and variety in diet.
Elementary student version: Look your child’s belly in the ‘eye’ and ask it what it wants to eat. Play naive and ask it to teach you about growing foods versus snack or treat foods. Be sure to be playful with it, rather than trying to control the content.
This is about developing communication around eating and body awareness, not about getting your point across. Or: Draw on your or your child’s belly (apparently there are temporary tattoos for stomachs). Give your belly as much personality as you would a puppet or character in a book.
3 | Breathe to the Sky
Find a quieter moment and introduce a character who really wants to visit a cloud (or moon). Ask your child for help. You both lie down on your back. Show your child how to breathe in through their nose to collect as much air as possible – it helps to visualize a balloon in your stomach – then breathe out through the mouth, lips pursed to focus the breath. Together you breathe in and out, blowing your friend up to the sky.
Do eight to ten breaths for best engagement of the relaxation response. Create a visual story, talk to your child between breaths about the progress your friend is making – above the trees, above the rooftops, next to a bird. Having clear markers makes it easier to visualize the next time you want to encourage deep breathing.
The mindful result is the physical sensation of deep breathing and noting the relaxation response, as well as teaching a skill that can be used for emotional self-regulation.
Elementary student version: This doesn’t need much tweaking for the older set, just a different imagination to tap into whatever engages your child. The older kids might want to know why or need a motivation to do it. You can ask him what he does when he’s feeling scared or angry. You can let him know that you like to practice this because it helps you when you’re having a difficult time or need a little break.
The more you can frame it in a way that is playful for them – like, a Star Wars character who might need this sort of training to become more effective in their fighting – the more motivation and engagement you’ll discover. It’s all about trial and error. If it doesn’t work the first time it doesn’t mean it won’t work – keep trying! This is a life skill that is as important as eating well and exercising.
No more of this mindfulness guilt! Play authentically with your values and whole-person skills that matter to you, and so much mindfulness happens.