Can a child learn how to meditate?

Kinderling News & Features

Shevonne Hunt hosts Kinderling Conversation every weekday at 12pm.

It’s 5.30am and my alarm goes off. My five-year-old daughter is asleep beside me, soft and warm.  I inwardly groan. It’s still dark outside, I have no crying children demanding my attention… so why did I set my alarm so early?

Paradoxically, or so it seemed at that moment, I was seeking peace and calm. Instead of attempting to meditate whilst my children crawl all over me, poke me in the ear, or holler from another room, this was my effort at getting in some quiet time before they even opened their little eyes.

Darcy stirred as I rolled out of bed. I sat on the carpet, lit a candle, and set my alarm for 15 minutes.

I’ve been interested in meditation for a long time. In a busy world it’s a time for stillness. It’s a time to be present before we rush off to the next drop off, the next meeting, the next appointment, the next play date.

Listen to Shevonne's meditation experience:

It’s also meant to help at times of emotional upheaval, teaching you how to find the calm in your own chaotic mind.

It sounds like the perfect skill for a child. The base from which all other skills can develop. From such a solid grounding surely all the challenges of learning about the world (from maths to complex friendships) would be easier to negotiate?

But can a child really learn how to meditate? I imagine that like many skills it’s all related to the development of their brain. And if my daughter can rarely sit still for a long period of time, could she really learn how to meditate?

Alison Hutchens is a meditation teacher, whose students include both children and adults.

She teaches at Studio You in Balmain, and I decided to sign Darcy up to her 'Zen Warrior' class. Her website says it would “help children develop the skills they need to maintain a healthy, happy mind.”

Alison says that children can start learning the principals behind meditation from around 5 years of age. She acknowledges that it’s not as straight forward as teaching adults.

“They’re little people, so we’re treating them exactly the same way, but what I find especially with the young ones their attention span is so short that I have to have lots of things up my sleeve. We mix it up, we teach them meditation techniques, we have lots of games, ask them lots of questions, a lot of interaction within the group and we make it lots of fun.”

But ultimately, she thinks that children can get the same benefits from meditation as adults, and that it is, in her words, an “incredible gift”.

I sat in on the first class. Each child had a yoga mat, a small teddy bear sitting next to a sign with their name on it, and a bubble wand.

A lot of the class was teaching the children how to breathe properly, something I still need to remind myself of as an adult. In the weeks that followed Alison taught the children about different emotions, compassion and kindness and the power of their minds.

I try to meditate every morning. I know, as an adult, that the only way I get the benefits of meditation, is if I practice it.

And Darcy often sees that. One week, in the middle of the course, she watched me do my meditation from the comfort of my bed. She then asked if she could do her own meditation. I lit the candle, and set the timer for 3 minutes. I ducked out of the room, and snuck in a few times.

She was wriggling about, but she didn’t get up. And she did her own little salutation at the end.

So did Darcy learn how to meditate after the course?

I have a feeling that at 5 years old, Darcy is a little young to be able to meditate. Which isn’t the same as saying she can’t learn how to do it. She’s got a lot on her plate right now, she’s just started school, she’s learning to navigate reading, writing, maths and lots of new people.

But, in those quiet moments in the morning, when her brother and Dad are still asleep, she can sneak out of bed and sit in my lap. She can feel me breathing, and watch the candle flickering. Now that she’s done the class she understands why I do it, and inadvertently she gets the stillness and peace of that moment as well.

I’m hoping that’s enough for her to start her own journey with mindfulness and meditation. Ultimately, it’s called a “meditation practice” for a reason. It’s about strengthening your ability to be in the present, to watch your breath, thoughts and feelings – one sitting at a time.

And that’s how I’m hoping to continue with her.

Alison’s top 5 tips on teaching your child meditation skills

1. Teddy bear breathing 
Get a teddy bear or soft toy, and ask your child to lie down on the ground. Place the teddy on their belly, and ask them to breathe deeply in and out. They should be able to see the teddy bear rise up and down. This teaches them to be mindful of their breath (and calms them at the same time!)

2. Bubble blowing 
Get a bubble wand (easy to find at Kmart or Target) and get them to blow bubbles, and watch the bubbles float away. Tell the child to imagine things that are bothering them floating away with the bubbles.

3. Glitter jar 
Get a jar and fill it with water and glitter (make sure the lid is on tight!) Ask the child to shake the glitter jar, explain that the glitter is like all their thoughts and feelings, and as they wait to watch it settle, that’s when the thoughts and feelings calm down. When your child is upset or angry, get them to shake the jar and watch the glitter settle.

4. Balloon blowing 
Get a balloon, and tell the child to blow all their unpleasant thoughts and feelings into the balloon. Then let the air out. Explain that’s what it’s like to let go of those thoughts and feelings that are unsettling you or making you feel bad and sad.

5. Gratitude exercise 
This is something that’s good for all of us! Sit with your child and talk about the things that you’re grateful for (or happy about). You can start to help them find ideas (eg I’m grateful for my delicious dinner/ breakfast). Studies show that repeated gratitude helps to redirect our neural pathways to a more positive place, and improve overall happiness.