Children are complex little creatures aren’t they? Desperately overtired, yet bursting with energy. Starving hungry, yet refusing to eat. Adorably cute, yet an occasional monster. For every parent who ever wished their child came with a control switch, the solution may lie in meditation.
A growing number of parents are switching on to the idea of encouraging their children to switch off, with benefits found to include improved behaviour, attention, sleep patterns and performance in school.
Clinical Psychologist and mindfulness consultant Dr Richard Chambers explains that much of our brain operates in default mode, where we dwell on the past and worry about the future. In meditation, we practice paying attention to the senses and notice when our attention wanders, bringing it back to the present moment without judgement or criticism. Each time we do so, it strengthens the connection to and actually grows, the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the area which controls emotional responses and helps us better handle stress and impulsive reactions. “Even small amounts of practice per day will change the brain and literally rewire it for attentiveness and happiness,” he says.
In many cultures around the world meditation and mindfulness is a practice encouraged from birth. “Children find it very easy to be in the moment and be present,” says Meditation Teacher and Creator of www.childrensmeditation.com.au Julie Bond-Rowe. “A child who meditates is better able to move out of a bad mood and express themselves more clearly. We find they become creative problem solvers and have the tools to cope with the many changes in their life as they grow.”
It’s little wonder then that meditation is starting to make its way into the school system. Quiet Time is a meditation based program run in a number of schools in ‘at-risk’ communities across the US and around the world. Students practice fifteen minutes of meditation, or quiet reflection, twice a day. Reported results include a 10 per cent improvement in test scores, an 86 per cent reduction in suspensions, a 65 per cent decrease in violent conflict and anecdotal evidence of greater happiness, focus and self-confidence.
Don’t wait until the kids start school though. Meditation, mindfulness and focused breathing are life skills that can begin being developed at any age. “Young babies are in an almost meditative state anyway, it’s an easy concept to introduce,” she says. Bond-Rowe suggests meditating next to a resting or sleeping baby for a beautiful transfer of energy.
Toddlers are famous for their brief attention span, so when starting out three to five minutes is acceptable. Bond-Rowe says a good guide is one minute of meditation per age. “As the child gets more experienced with meditation you can expect them to extend longer. By primary school age, ten minutes is great.”
Forget peacefully zoning out in the lotus position, meditation for kids strips back the traditional structure. Bond-Rowe says that in the younger years gentle breathing exercises and introducing the concept that it’s okay to be quiet and still in order to let the body slow down is what’s important to convey.
Drawing or moving meditation are great places to start and are perfect for parents and children to practice together. “Put on some soft instrumental music to get in the zone of doing something that’s fun and free. It’s very meditative to have a single point of focus even though eyes are open, your brain wave pattern is still focusing on one task,” says Bond-Rowe. In drawing meditation it’s just about the process of creation, not setting out to draw any particular object. Moving meditation mimics the actions of animals or trees. Bond-Rowe recommends both as being great ways for children to transition into some quiet time after a period of activity.
The form of meditation best suited to children is guided visualisation, where with eyes closed children are asked to imagine a series of scenarios or images. Specific audio recordings can support children into a relaxing night’s sleep, feel relaxed in times of stress or affirm feelings of love and belonging. Children imagine their favourite colours, places and things to do, the perfect cure for bad dreams. “Most parents come to me to help problems with sleep and then see the benefits in other areas of the child’s life,” says Bond-Rowe.
Regardless of how you go about bringing meditation into your family, the experts agree that for it to be a success, it’s a case of monkey see monkey do. Dr Chambers says the best thing parents can do is to embody mindfulness by giving children their full attention, even if it’s for ten minutes at a time. “Take the kids outside and get them interested in observing nature and instil in them the art of listening and paying attention as opposed to being distracted and multi-tasking. These are the informal practices that form the foundation of meditation.”