Seeking Mindfulness with Kids and Teens

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I am lucky enough to offer an after school club called “Crown and Shield,” to middle school girls in seventh and eighth grade. The CROWN symbolizes self-confidence, pride, and goal setting. The SHIELD symbolizes awareness and protection (physical and emotional).

I have spent the semester teaching self-esteem, empowerment, self-defense, relationship skills, responsible decision making, healthy lifestyle, yoga and mindfulness.

This week, we did a “Mindfulness Scavenger Hunt” outside on a beautifully unseasonable New England Tuesday. This is a great activity to do with your children of all ages, whether you are a parent, teacher, counselor, or school resource officer. Below are the details, and recommended practice to begin your activity:

Welcoming Mindfulness

It’s important to welcome your children to the practice of mindfulness if they are unfamiliar, or to reiterate the concept if they already practice.

Mindfulness is paying attention to your life, here and now, with kindness  and curiosity.
— Dr. Amy Saltzman

I love this definition because it simple enough for children to understand. Mindfulness is focusing on the here and now without judgement; not dwelling on the past, or projecting into the future. It’s approaching your life, and all situations, with kindness and curiosity. Curiosity is the practice of being thoughtful about our experiences. Curiosity helps us accept, understand, and have compassion for ourselves and others.

Dr. Saltzman explains why mindfulness is important our children:

You know that many of [your kids] are stressed. For some,  the stress is simply  living  in our fast‐paced, media‐saturated, multi-tasking world.  For some,  the stress is  performing, “succeeding,” and getting into a “good” college. For others, the stress  is surviving in extremely challenging, even traumatic, home environments and life  circumstances.  Children’s stress frequently inhibits their ability to learn,  and that  the emphasis on academics [only] is neglecting the development of the social‐emotional qualities essential for skillful world citizenry.  Students are being diagnosed  with depression, anxiety, ADHD, eating disorders, cutting, addictions and other self‐destructive behaviors at epidemic rates. Cruelty, bullying and violence are on the rise.  Most, if not all, children could benefit from learning to focus their attention, to become less  reactive, and to be more compassionate with themselves and others.

Link to Dr. Saltzman's Mindfulness Guide

It is essential we start introducing our children to mindfulness at an early age for the reasons listed above! Here is an activity you can start with:

 

Mindfulness Scavenger Hunt Overview

For Educators:

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This is a great activity for the classroom, after school groups, camps, small group therapy, sports teams, and more. You may invite students to participate alone, in pairs, or in small groups. The most mindful way to do this is alone, however, it can be interesting to observe the kids in groups and hear them talk about what they are noticing! If they're walking together in groups, make sure each student has his/her own scavenger hunt sheet. They are all required to make their own observations (even though they can travel together).

Note: Ensure students are using their technology mindfully. You might allow students to use their phone to keep track of the time and/or set a timer for their mindful minute activities. You may also allow their phones for safety purposes while in the woods, and/or to take photographs. I would stress that phones are not to be used for checking their Instagram, uploading photos, texting, etc. This defeats the purpose of mindfulness activities! With that said, it's important we teach our children how to use their technology mindfully; not by prohibiting it, but by showing the importance of disconnection, balance, and self-control.
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For Parents and Other Caregivers:

If you’re doing this activity as a family, it can be great to work as a team and talk about what you’re noticing as you’re noticing it! 

If you’re working with one child, or as a family, you can discuss the questions as you walk and find things. 

Logistics:

This activity can be offered at a park, in the woods, or another area in the outdoors.  If you are in an urban area and not surrounded by nature, you can still complete the activity with minor adjustments (see variations below).

Before you start, talk to your children about the definition of mindfulness. Talk about ways we can walk mindfully by simply paying attention to walking (the sound of your footsteps crunching the leaves, the feeling of the fresh air on your face, the sight of birds flying, etc). Tell the kids to focus on walking, and their surroundings, allowing any other thoughts to float away...just like the wind carrying a leaf into the distance. Since our minds are thinking machines, the thoughts will come! Simply allow those thoughts to float away like the leaf and bring your attention back to the present moment. Use the scavenger hunt as a tool for redirection.

Older children have an easier time with meditative walking. For younger children, I recommend keeping it light. This is a game…a scavenger hunt! The mindfulness comes in with each task on the list, so there is no need to encourage young ones to “be quiet!!” You simply want to invite the little ones to focus when it’s time to do so. Notice the word "invite." We can't force mindfulness, nor do we want to make it a labored chore. Mindfulness is noticing. It's play. It's fun. It's connection.

Below are the questions I used with my students. Feel free to copy, edit or add! Please comment on this blog if you came up with any unique ideas to add to list, or to share your experiences with this activity. 

Printable Scavenger Hunt

Printable Scavenger Hunt, Urban Version

 

Mindfulness Scavenger Hunt

1.     This one is a BONUS: Try looking for a feather throughout your walk. If you find one, bring it with you or take a picture of it.

2.     Find something that makes you smile, and write/draw it below.

3.     Describe a tree you find in detail! Use all of your senses to describe it.

4.     Find something that smells wonderful to you. Write what it is below:

5.     Find something that is your favorite color. Write what you found below:

6.     Find somewhere to sit in nature. Take one mindful minute to listen to the natural sounds outside. Select one sound you heard (and liked) and write what it is below.

7.     Find a leaf and use your senses to describe it (sight, sound, touch, smell). Write descriptive words below for each sense:

Sight –

Sound –    

Touch –

Smell –

8.     Find something in nature that is broken. What is it? Write or draw it below.

9.     Reflect: Write about a time you felt broken, or something you notice that's broken in the world.

10. Find somewhere to sit quietly for one mindful minute, allowing your mind to “go blank.” Simply focus on the feeling of the air or sun, the sensations you feel on your body, the temperature, the sounds, etc.  Write about how you felt (senses, feelings, emotions).

 

Variations:

1.     Questions 8 and 9 may be difficult for younger children. Feel free to omit these questions, or modify them as you see fit (more on this in the debrief below).

2.     Add in some more mindfulness by sending children out with colored pencils or watercolors to paint a scene (tree/leaf).

3.     Have children retrieve a rock and take them back to paint positive messages on the surface (think: Kindness Rocks Project).

4.     Add items to the list for kids to retrieve such as leaves, sticks, flowers, grass, etc, to make a nature collage upon return.

5.     Have children write a poem about their experience.

6.     For urban areas: ask children to find shapes/pictures in the clouds, find someone to thank or show gratitude towards, find a positive word written somewhere, find someone smiling, describe what the air feels like on your skin, list how many different colors you can find, listen to see if you can hear music.

 

Debrief: Bringing the Group Back Together

If you’re working with a group, it’s important to set a time limit and to allow approximately 15 minutes to debrief the activity afterwards!

Bring the children back together and sit in a circle. Have each student participate in the discussion by going around the circle sharing answers to each question. It’s fascinating to see what the children noticed! Remember to “pepper in” mindfulness as you’re talking. Use phrases such as, “that’s such a neat observation!” “I’ve never noticed that about trees before.” “Isn’t it amazing what you notice when you’re paying attention?” “How did the sunlight on your face make you feel?” “That is such a happy thought.” "I'm grateful for our custodians too!"

Regarding question 8: With older children, you can ask them how they felt seeing things broken in nature. You may find some students observed parts of a forest that were cut down for a new housing development, or damaged by a fire. In my group, my students were upset there was so much trash in the woods, so they decided to organize a clean-up! (Proud teacher moment!) You never know where these conversations will go, or what it will spark!

Some of my students said they couldn’t believe how many things were “broken” in nature (branches/trees/flowers) that they never noticed before. I was able to respond by telling them the following (which is the point of this targeted question!)

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“Isn’t it interesting how much of nature is broken that you don’t often notice? You first noticed the beauty, and all the amazing things you found in the natural world. The brokenness is just a part of nature, just like brokenness is a part of life. There are ups and downs, highs and lows, and it is okay! There are times we feel broken, or see things in the world that are broken…however, our life, and our world, is not broken. In fact, the broken things are often mendable through kindness and curiosity…compassion for self and others.”

 

 

Variation 1 : You can ask your children or students to share their experiences. What is something that almost broke them, but didn’t? What was something difficult they have gone through? What is something they have seen in the world that seems broken?

Variation 2 : As a less intrusive way of facilitating conversation, you can simply provide the blurb above, and see if any conversation sparks. You can offer examples; “we all feel broken at times, whether you got a bad grade on your math test, or your parents are getting divorced. Mindfulness helps us focus on the present moment, and know that negative emotions are okay (and that they will pass!) We can accept, breathe, and continue (please see the ABC's for negative emotions below).

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In my group, I asked the girls to reflect on our world and identify "brokenness." They rattled off a list of things they had seen on social or news media; some were unique to their lives or their peers at school, and some talked about politics, and Parkland. Unfortunately, their world can seem so small (and broken!) when it's held, electronically, in the palm of their hand.

I responded, "What if we choose to see and experience the good like we did in the woods just now? (We will find there is more good if we simply notice what we're noticing!) What if we choose mindfulness (paying attention to the present moment with kindness and curiosity)? What if we choose to make a difference?" 

The girls grinned with a knowing smile.