5 Connections Between Mindfulness and Play in Children

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Posted By Alex Perez - Mental Health Writer, B.A.

Play is the business of childhood. It’s how your little one learns to interact with the world around them, test the limits of their abilities and explore their interests. It also has more to do with their cognitive and even spiritual development than many people think.

When you watch a child absorbed in play, you witness a study in mindfulness. They perfectly focus their awareness on the task at hand. This introspective activity moves their brain waves from active alpha to contemplative beta, helping them synthesize the constant bombardment of sensory information into their wee schemas.

Mindfulness and play in children, the five connections:

1. Playing Prepares Children for Adult Life

Talk to nearly any career coach and they’ll tell you that the play you most enjoyed as a child offers valuable insight into the type of work you’d like as an adult. Children often initiate such play. They need little more than a fake stethoscope to transform into doctors and nurses, advising family members how often they should exercise and take medications.

However, all that play-acting doesn’t only prepare them for a specific career field. It also teaches them valuable interpersonal relationship skills. A 4-year-old might not be able to articulate why you should follow your doctor’s orders — but they’ll still adopt an authoritative-yet-caring tone when advising you on when it’s safe to walk on a “hurt” foot. A little practice now means greater confidence when giving instructions later.

You can transform such play into teachable moments to share lessons on respect and the proper use of authority. For example, pay attention when your child plays “school.” How do they talk to their students when they play teacher?

Use this backdrop to ask your little one, “What makes a good teacher? How should adults talk to children, and how should children behave around adults?” You can open up the door to discussions about tough topics like emotional and verbal abuse and what your child should do if they feel targeted — without frightening your little one.

2. Playing Encourages Forgetting the Clock

mindful play

Business leaders love to talk about cultivating a “flow” state — that magical space where time ceases to exist, and you’re 100% enrapt in the task at hand. You might rarely if ever, achieve it at work. Adult minds are too often bogged down with intrusive worries about how to pay your bills and keep food on your table. Your children should be free from such concerns — play is their opportunity to find that elusive flow.

Of course, time matters — you don’t want to give your children the idea that it’s okay to space out and miss appointments. However, strive for balance while teaching time management. How? Let children know when their activities are time-bound, “We have 20 minutes at the park, but then we need to leave for your brother’s soccer match.” Do the same when they’re free to play to their hearts’ content. “The afternoon is yours — what will you play today?”

You’ll probably cut down on tantrums using this method as a bonus. If your little one knows they have to stop in a few minutes, they’re less likely to get as upset about it as they would if you suddenly yanked them away with, “it’s time to go now.”

3. Playing Creates Mental Space for Quiet

The greatest insights often occur not in noisy conversations but the still, silent moments between words. Your brain needs time to process new information — you’re bombarded with it every second. Likewise, your children need to integrate new data if they hope to retain it in their long-term memory.

Science supports mental quiet time for forming memories. Researchers had two groups learn a new motor skill, one of which participated in 30 minutes of deep breathing afterward while the other went about business as usual. Those who performed the breathing exercises retained the new knowledge much better after 24 hours.

Schools, too, can learn from this research. Instead of slashing recess to improve test scores, they should extend it to give young brains time to process those new reading, writing, and arithmetic skills.

4. Playing Soothes Overextended Emotions

mindful play

Instead of treating “go to your room” as a punishment for misbehavior, why not request your child retreat for some quiet sensory play? Discipline problems often arise when children become emotionally overwrought, but they might not know how to express big feelings. Suggesting a half-hour of peaceful coloring gives their psyche time to recharge — and might result in a bonus nap if tiredness lurked behind their mischief.

Please model this technique as an adult. For example, if you find yourself about to snap at your child or spouse, say, “I need a little bit of quiet to collect my thoughts.” Then, retreat to your room to read a novel, practice yoga, or sit in meditation until you’re ready to face your clan again with a smile or a cooler temper.

5. Playing Encourages Empathy

There’s a shortage of empathy in the world. Think of how lovely it would be if all nations modeled their educational systems after Denmark, with mandatory classes from 5 to 16. You might not sit on your school board, but you can teach this skill through play.

For example, use dolls to talk about how certain behaviors make others feel. “Did so-and-so character like it when the other dolls left without them? What emotions did they experience and how did they handle them?” Use a feelings chart to help the youngest kids put names to various emotions.

Connections Between Mindfulness and Play in Children

mindful play

Watching children engrossed in play is a study in mindfulness. Little ones can lose themselves in the moment, sensing nothing but the imaginary world they’ve created with their toys.

Mindfulness and play share many connections in children. Let your littles enjoy themselves and use this natural behavior as a springboard for teaching them valuable lessons.

National Library of Medicine: Effects of an Unstructured Free Play and Mindfulness The Power of Play

Mindful Play: How To Be Present When You Play With Your Child

Free to Be Mindful: Engaging in Mindful Play

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