Mindfulness for toddlers: How to get started
Mindfulness for toddlers is something I get asked about often. In fact, some variation of, “How do I teach my toddler/baby/preschooler mindfulness?” is probably one of the most frequently asked questions I receive. And it always makes me smile a little. Not because there’s anything wrong with the question – I happen to think it’s a great question. But I also happen to think we’re asking it the wrong way around!
Because toddlers actually have a lot to teach us about mindfulness. We’re often just too busy to pay attention to the lesson.
You see, toddlers are naturally pretty mindful already. Sure, mindfulness for toddlers looks different to mindfulness for adults, or even for older children. But if you’ve spent any amount of time with one recently, then you’ve likely already witnessed their mindfulness in action. You’d know that they’re curious, and they love to explore everything. That they like to take their time, savour experiences, feel emotions fully (and with passion!), and they notice everything (even when you don’t want them to). They delight in the simple things and living in the moment is the only thing they know how to do.
So while there are certainly some specific techniques we can teach them, mostly, teaching toddlers about mindfulness is not so much teaching, as it is providing opportunities for them to do their thing. Our goal as parents and educators is to help them understand their feelings and how they can manage them with mindfulness, but its’s also to try not to get in the way of their natural ability to be fully in the present.
Here are 6 simple strategies that promote mindfulness for toddlers.
How to get started with mindfulness for toddlers:
1. Validate their feelings
Mindfulness is about being fully present in the moment, and paying attention to what is happening both within and around us. This means being willing to experience ALL emotions, not just the pleasant ones.
If we want our children to be able to do this, we need to send the message that all feelings are ok. We do this by responding with empathy and kindness when our children express their emotions, even if the way they are expressing those emotions is not ideal.
Next time your child is upset, resist the urge to tell them, “You’re ok”, or “It’s not a big deal.” Instead, offer empathy and let them know that their feelings are ok. Try saying, “You’re sad because mummy said no cookies. I feel sad when I can’t have what I want, too.”
2. Name your own feelings
Talk to your child about your own emotions as well as the thoughts and physical sensations that go along with them. This will help your child understand both their own feelings, and the feelings of others.
Help them understand that while we can’t control what we feel, we can choose how we respond to those feelings. This is the essence of mindfulness: choosing to respond intentionally rather than react mindlessly to emotions and experiences.
Next time you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or frustrated, say something! Let your child know how you’re feeling, and how you’re choosing to respond. You might say, “Wow, I’m feeling really frustrated right now, I can feel my head pounding. I’m going to walk away and take 3 deep breaths to calm myself down.”
3. Play in nature
Using our senses is a great way to remain grounded in the present. And there’s no better way to connect with all of our senses than by spending time outside in nature. Feeling grass beneath your feet, smelling a flower, finding a colourful bug on a leaf, hearing birds chirping in the trees – this is mindfulness!
Go on a “noticing walk”. As you walk along with your child, simply point out things you can see, touch, smell, hear (or even taste!). If they are old enough, ask them what they can see, touch, smell, hear or taste too. My daughter and I have been doing walks like this since she was a baby. And at almost 2 years old, she now loves to point out the different things she notices as we walk – dogs barking, an airplane in the sky, birds chirping, flowers in the grass, even tiny bees collecting pollen on the flowers.
You can find a version of this activity for slightly older children (plus lots of other fun mindfulness activities for children aged 5-12) in my Mindfulness Activity Book for Kids.
4. Be curious explorers
I’ve already mentioned that kids are naturally much more mindful than us adults, particularly very young kids. They know no other way! But often in this fast paced world we live in we inadvertently discourage this sense of mindfulness in our kids.
We rush them through activities just to get them done, tell them to hurry up often, sigh and roll our eyes when they stop to look at that bug, or pick the flower, or inspect that puddle. But to be curious, is to be mindful.
Next time you’re out and about with your toddler consider whether you really need to rush. Can you allow your toddler to just be? To move at their own pace? Resist the urge to say, “Hurry Up!”. Instead of sighing when they stop to inspect that leaf, kneel down with them and notice its pattern. Run your fingers over the ridges and notice how it feels. Be mindful with them.
5. Mindful Breathing
The breath is a simple, but powerful way to practice mindfulness. And you can absolutely introduce a toddler to mindful breathing from around the age of 2 or 3. It’s important to have realistic expectations though – they may not get the technique exactly right just yet, but they will improve with practice! At this stage, it’s more about laying the groundwork and understanding that we can use breathing as a tool for managing how we feel.
There are lots of different ways to introduce mindful breathing to children. But I never met a toddler who didn’t enjoy blowing bubbles! My toddler would blow bubbles all day if I let her, and it’s a great way to get her to practice the correct movements with her lips as well as get her to do big, long exhales.
Breathing in through the nose can be a little harder for young kids to understand, but I like to ask my daughter to pretend she is smelling a flower (another activity she loves to do!).
Remember, they don’t need to get the technique exactly right, we just want them to understand the ideas. By the time they are closer to three, most children will able to do this quite well.
Looking for more fun ways to introduce mindful breathing to your kids? You can find lots of different breathing activities for kids (including your toddler) in my Mindful Little Breathing Cards.
6. Practice mindfulness yourself
Children learn by watching us. If you practice mindfulness yourself, your children will grow up seeing mindfulness as a normal, every day part of life. And if you’re using mindfulness to manage your own stress and overwhelm, then you’re able to more present with your kids and help them to manage their own, too.
Use a visual cue to “anchor” you and remind you to focus on the present during the day. It could be an affirmation card on your fridge, a meditation stone on your buffet, or a post it note on your laptop screen. Whatever it is, every time you pass by it, stop. Take 3 deep, slow breaths and notice any feelings in your body. Are you holding tension in your shoulders? Do you feel worried about something? Are you tired? Acknowledge how you’re feeling, and then continue about your day.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.