While we’ve talked a lot about mindfulness and how great it is for us as moms, it’s really important that we also discuss how vital it is to teach mindfulness to our toddlers. The great thing is, children (especially from 1-3) are really receptive to learning mindfulness skills, and these lessons will serve them throughout their lifetime.
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Play couches are one of my favorite toys for all my kids, from toddler to preschooler to big kid. It’s great for imaginative, open-ended play and easy to make play strews with.
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Not only are mindfulness skills amazing tools to help moms stay grounded, calmer, more patient, and present for their kids, they are also great tools to teach to children to help them develop their own toolbox for managing strong emotions. For this reason, I checked in with my friend Megan MacCutcheon, LPC, PMH-C, to learn more about how to teach mindfulness to toddlers, plus 5 easy mindfulness activities you can do with your toddler.
What is mindfulness?
First, let’s talk a little bit about what mindfulness and mindfulness skills are, and why they are so important. Mindfulness is simply being aware of our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations in the present moment. When life gets busy, we’re juggling everything on our plates, or dealing with stress, we tend to lose focus of what’s going on in the present moment within our minds and bodies—which can increase anxiety and magnify stress.
But when we stop focusing on everything in our head and instead get back to noticing the present moment – the ground beneath our feet, the sights and sounds around us, that’s mindfulness.
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The benefits to learning to be more mindful include decreased anxiety and depression, improved focus, and an increased ability to navigate the challenges in life. There are countless tools out there to help you calm your mind and focus your attention inward. Below, I will offer several skills that you can use both for yourself and for your kids. But first, let’s talk about how easy it is to teach mindfulness to your children.
How hard is it to teach mindfulness to toddlers?
Kids connect easily to mindfulness skills. After all, they’re naturally imaginative, plus they’re not yet overwhelmed by the stressors and mental overload that we face as adults.
Luckily, that means it’s really easy to teach mindfulness skills to kids. After all, your kids enjoy doing new things with you, and these tools are simple and fun. Present these tools as a game.
The bonus for you? As you teach mindfulness skills to your children, you practice being in the present moment too. What could be better than spending quality time with your child while also engaging in your own self-care?
How to teach mindfulness to toddlers
The earlier you can teach your kids to use mindfulness, the better. That’s why I love to start even when my kids are just toddlers.
To introduce these mindfulness skills to your toddler, start by telling your child, “I learned something new that can help me get calm and feel good. Can I teach it to you?” Try presenting mindfulness techniques at bedtime, since they’re already winding down. Plus, the practice itself can relax your child even more and help them fall asleep.
HINT: It’s best to first teach mindfulness tools to kids during moments when they are calm, instead of when they are already in tantrum mode. Teaching new things or trying to rationalize during a tantrum will backfire. At that point, your child is too far into a state of distress to reason or absorb what you are saying.
But the good news is, regular practice of these skills can help give kids ways to calm themselves before they get to the point of no return.
So now let’s talk about some actual mindfulness skills to teach your toddler.
Mindfulness skills for toddlers
Below I offer several mindfulness skills you can use yourself and practice with your toddler. They are simple yet very effective.
Looking for a short video full of mindfulness exercises for you and your child? Sign up for my FREE Mindful Mamas Mini Meditation Toolkit.
Grounding through your feet:
For adults, grounding is especially useful for when you’re overwhelmed by an out-of-control to-do list in your head or when you’re feeling anxiety.
If you are doing this with your toddler, ask them to stomp their feet a few times and feel the floor under them. Encourage them to feel how strong they are. Kids may laugh and giggle, having fun with stomping. You are teaching them to use their body and movement to decrease tension and feel more steady.
While you can teach your child to stomp and feel the ground during playtime, this skill can really show its power when your child is angry and on the verge of a meltdown. Teach your child that instead of hitting or scratching, they can stomp the ground instead. They might even start giggling and defusing their angry energy.
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As your child gets older, you can teach them to feel the floor while they’re still, whether sitting or standing. Press your feet firmly into the floor and feel the ground beneath you. This simple exercise helps to bring you into the present and helps you to literally feel more grounded and stable.
Five senses count-down:
Becoming aware of what you are experiencing through your five senses can immediately bring you back into the present moment and help evoke a sense of calm. This is a great tool for when you’re beginning to feel panic.
For adults or older children, look around the room and describe five things you see. Use your fingers to feel four different objects and describe the texture (even the wind in your hair, your jeans against your legs, or another subtle feeling can work). Name three different sounds you hear. Try to identify two different smells. Finally, notice whether you have any taste in your mouth.
A toddler may not have the ability yet to observe that many things in one sitting, but you can still use this technique with them. Explain to your child what you notice through each of your senses and encourage them to also notice what they see, feel, hear, smell, and taste.
A simple sensory game can also help your toddler switch from their “reptilian brain” (basically, meltdown mode) back into thinking and reasoning. For example, if your child is falling apart but you really need their cooperation (maybe when you’re trying to teach sharing), look around and ask, “Do you see something that’s yellow?” (Hint: Pick something that’s pretty easy to find.) When they respond and point out the yellow object, pick a few more things for them to find, and watch as your child calms down. Then, you can get back to what you need to do with them.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation for toddlers
Progressive muscle relaxation is great for any time you need to relax, and it’s one of my favorites for bedtime (both for myself and for my toddler).
To teach progressive relaxation to your child, have your toddler lay down and guide her to focus on each muscle group in her body, from head to toe or vice versa. You can help by gently squeezing each section of the body as you go.
Encourage her to tense up her face muscles, making a scrunching face. Hold for five counts then release. Next gently squeeze her shoulders and hold for five counts, then release. Repeat with her arms, torso, thighs, calves, and feet, encouraging her to squeeze, squeeze, squeeze then release each muscle group as you go (if squeezing doesn’t make sense to your child, wiggling each body part before relaxing it works well too).
This is a great exercise for adults to do as well. It helps you recognize where we are storing tension in our bodies and practice letting it go. While it’s great for right before bedtime, it’s also helpful before a stressful event, like a work presentation or a conversation you’re nervous about.
Deep breathing exercises for toddlers
Toddlers are great for learning breathwork. They tend to already breathe more deeply than adults. Have you ever watched your baby sleep and noticed the rise and fall of his belly? That’s how we are meant to breathe: By taking deep, cleansing breaths all the way down into the diaphragm.
But when we grow up and start experiencing the chaos and stressors of life, we tend to breathe more shallowly. You can learn to better regulate your own breathing as you practice with your toddler.
Here are some fun breathwork visuals your toddler will enjoy. Remember, giggles are great here!
Sniffing a flower: Imagine you are holding a beautiful, fragrant flower. Slowly sniff in the wonderful scent. Then release.
Pretending to be a snake: Take a deep breath in and slowly let it out with a “sssssss” sound.
Ladder breaths: Take a few short breaths in, imagining you are going up, up, up a ladder. Then slowly release.
Balloon breaths: Breath in as if you are filling a big balloon in your lungs and belly. Hold for a few seconds. Then slowly release.
Guided Imagery for toddlers
Guided imagery, or guided meditations, are another great tool to teach children at a young age. Because they have such great imaginations, kids have a much easier time than many adults at blocking everything else out and using their imagination to follow along. Try using this script with your child next time they have difficulty falling asleep. Read slowly and pause between sentences to let them imagine and visualize each prompt.
Lie down and get into a comfortable position. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Now imagine that you are lying on a soft, fluffy cloud. Imagine it gently lifts you up, up, up into the sky and takes you to a special place. It can be any place you’d like to go.
When you get there, imagine your cloud gently bringing you back down to the ground, so you can hop off and spend some time exploring this beautiful place. Notice all the colors you can see, any sounds you can hear, and any smells in the air. Spend as much time as you like exploring.
When you are ready, imagine yourself getting back on your cloud and floating back home. Imagine the cloud bringing you back to your room and tucking you into your bed, where you can rest and dream about your adventure.
If you want some nighttime guided imagery for your toddler that continues even after you leave the room, Headspace has an amazing set of “sleepcasts,” short meditations for kids, and more (plus amazing meditation series for adults too). Sign up for a free trial of Headspace here.
Conclusions on mindfulness for toddlers
While these mindfulness skills might seem simple, they can be profoundly effective for both children and adults. Remember that the more you practice and encourage your children to practice these tools outside of moments of stress, the more readily available they will become to use as tools to help you—and your child—cope during times of stress.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about using mindfulness wit your toddler. If you want more help, be sure to sign up for my free Mindful Mama Mini Meditation Pack, with activities you can do both alone and with your child.
More about Megan
Megan MacCutcheon is a mental health therapist and a mom of three. In her therapy practice, she constantly talks about the benefits of mindfulness and has found that the same skills she teaches to her clients have been really helpful in parenting her own kids.