A fun and effective pre-bedtime meditation is the “Body Scan”. Children of any age can practice the following body scans. It would be helpful at first for the parent to provide guidance until such a time when the child is confident enough to do the guidance for the group or silently for themself.
- The head to toe scan: This body scan takes the practitioner’s attention one area at a time starting with the crown of the head and ending with the toes. It should take about 20 minutes and can take even longer if the practitioner wishes. Starting at the top of the head, using breath and focus, attention is placed on the crown and then moved down the body. With awareness, curiosity and mindfulness feelings or sensations are welcomed. As the body scan progresses, attention is placed one area at a time: the face, forehead, eye area, nose, cheeks, mouth, and chin. The same kind of breathing and focus is placed as attention is moved down the body: back of head; shoulders; chest; mid back, hips, thighs, knees, calves, ankles and feet, ending with the toes.
- The toe to head scan: This body scan is the same as #1 except for the direction of the focus. Starting with toes, attention and breath is directed upward through the legs, abdomen, chest, shoulders, back of head, face, crown.
- Tensing and releasing body scan: This body scan can be effective at helping a person fall asleep as the body parts being focused on are tensed as breath is held and then released as the breath is expelled. The act of alternately tensing and releasing muscles is an effective way to encourage relaxation.
With all of these body scans, the key is to go slow and to keep the focus on using breath as an anchor of attention. The mind directs its attention to the body parts while the breath connects with these parts and encourages release of tension and relaxation. The reason body scans can release and relax is because in meditation, we use the breath as our anchor of attention. As our focus is directed, so does the breath and between attention and breath, the formula leads to relaxation through mindfulness of intention.
The article that follows explains more in detail the kinds of meditation as well as specifics according to age.
How to teach children meditation: The attention span of a child is much shorter so we do shorter meditation practices. Also, the brain of a child is not yet developed in the frontal cortex area where focus and attention and emotional regulation takes place. When teaching children meditation, directions need to be very simple and imaginative. Since breath awareness is the most basic mindfulness practice, it is where meditation we start instructions for any level of practice. When teaching breath awareness to young meditators, we explain that the breath in the belly is similar to a balloon that is inflated when we breathe in and deflated on the exhale. Using a visual anchor is easier for young children to grasp. Also, young meditators are more likely to feel the breath in their belly than in the other anchor areas such as the chest or the nostrils. In my years of teaching mindfulness in classrooms most students enjoy sitting and focussing on the breath. It’s the first anchor that is taught although it is something they most likely have never done and they enjoy using their imagination as well as the resulting relaxation. Focusing on the inhale and exhale of the breath allows young meditators to get in touch with physical sensations which they may not have ever considered. Closing eyes is optional with young children and at-risk populations and I’ve found that hyper-active children do better lying down than sitting up. With young children and elementary-age students, we start with 1 minute and work towards 5 minutes of meditation.
The benefits of mindfulness for kids: This is where I am especially passionate! Mindful Frontiers, whose mission is to teach meditation skills to families with young children encourages them to incorporate mindfulness into their family’s daily routine. By teaching meditation to young children, meditation teachers believe this stress-reduction skill will be implanted in their brains early and as they grow and mature they will always be able to go back to it in times of stress. It’s a social-emotional learning skill that has long-term benefits. For example, even if a young person lets meditation go during adolescence as they pursue independence and autonomy, someday when they find themselves in a stressful situation, they can remember that as a child they learned this relaxation skill called mindful awareness and they can pick it back up. I would even say that a stressed out teenager who is thinking of suicide or, worse, using a gun to let off anxiety, would remember what it felt to meditate and decide to do that instead. Doing so would save lives!
Specific considerations by age: Toddlers and preschool age kids can listen to a bell / chime and focus on the sound from start to end. This age can also listen to sounds around them, gaze intently at an object, dance mindfully around a classroom. For breath focus, they can notice their belly inflate and deflate with the breath. With practice, a toddler could sit for a minute in silence.
Older children (elementary school age) can learn to focus on their breath, listen to a bell/chime as well as listen to sounds as meditation anchors just as the younger children. The difference would be the length of time this age could aspire to sitting still. I would start with 1 minute of silent and guided meditation and work up to 3 minutes in about a week and then try to get to 5 minutes within a month. (Mindful Frontiers has videos on the meditation page targeting this age group).
Middle-school age and high school age is interesting. The brain of an adolescent is particularly active and believe it or not, the prefrontal cortex is developing at such a fast pace that it is as if they are toddlers again! The same kind of practice is done with this age group. What is different is that I start out with a story, a poem, or a video and then move on to the actual meditation practice.