How to explain mindfulness to kids (so you can actually teach it!)

Jan 24, 2022

I am sure you have heard many definitions of mindfulness and have a fair idea of what it means. One classic and often cited definition is from Jon Kabat-Zinn. “Mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally.” 


Imagine explaining that to a class of 7-year-olds! 


Harder still? Seeing the word mindfulness in your central idea or curriculum and trying to figure out precisely what you should be teaching!


So, how do you explain mindfulness to kids? How can you define it in a way that is accessible for the students and helps you design engaging classroom activities?


Here it is - a kid-friendly definition of mindfulness that explains why mindfulness is a valuable life skill. 


First up is the definition. I define mindfulness for my students as “paying attention to what is happening right now, in your inner world and outer world.” 


Let’s break that down further. Your inner world is everything that you are feeling and experiencing inside your body. Your inner world includes emotions, thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations (such as pain, sickness, or tightness). 


Your outer world is everything you experience outside of your body through your senses. What can you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel? We use our eyes, nose, ears, tongue, and body to make sense of the world around us. Paying attention to our senses grounds us in the present moment to notice what is happening right now. We can’t use our senses to experience the past or future. 


Paying attention to what is happening right now, in your inner world and outer world.


This definition of mindfulness is much more accessible for children. It allows them to inquire into the aspects of their inner world (imagination, ideas, feelings) while giving them a concrete way of connecting to the outside world (through their senses). Many fun mindfulness activities can develop an awareness of both the inner and outer worlds. 


Now comes the classic student question: Why? Why should we develop these skills and learn about mindfulness?


I like to answer this by breaking the topic of mindfulness into six smaller parts, each with its benefits to the students (and you!). Looking at these six pillars of mindfulness is sure to broaden the scope of mindful activities you can teach in your classroom. 



Mindfulness helps us to create a pause between a stimulus and our reaction. By pausing to notice how we are feeling in that moment, a little bit of space is created for us to consider a consequence or prevent ourselves from overreacting and saying something that we will regret. We can practice taking a deep breath before reacting, which gives us more control to make the right choice and respond more thoughtfully.


Classroom activities: Role-playing responses to situations, practicing communication skills and words to use when you are feeling upset, breathing techniques 



Mindfulness develops emotional literacy. The ability to recognize, identify and describe your own emotions. Being emotionally literate helps lead to self-regulation and behavior management. Emotions can have a physical effect on the body, and mindfulness asks children to describe these feelings and consider where those emotions can be felt in their bodies. This is a skill sometimes referred to as “name it to tame it.” Describing the strong emotion lessens the physical and mental effects and makes it more manageable. Awareness of our own emotions also helps develop empathy and compassion by identifying those same emotions in others. 


Classroom activities: Increasing vocabulary around emotions, exploring emotions through language, physical movements, or artistic expression.



Focus. Concentration. Awareness. We could all benefit from a little more of this! Attention is like a muscle. The more we use it, the stronger it will become. Mindfulness, by definition, is about paying attention. We can pay attention to what we are feeling inside, pay attention to our senses, pay attention to our breath. The more we practice the skill of attention, the longer we will be able to pay attention. An increased ability to pay attention helps out in all aspects of life, including academics, sports, and social interactions. 


Classroom activities: Focusing on our senses for an increasing time, checking in to notice how we are feeling inside, concentrating on breathing. 



Thoughts are just thoughts. They are not facts. At this stage, we want children to notice that they have different types of thoughts that pop into their heads at different times. But these thoughts are not facts; they are not always true. Thoughts can affect the way we feel. Positive thoughts can motivate us, while negative thoughts like worries can make us feel anxious and upset. We have some power to change our thoughts, but the first step is recognizing that we have them. 


Classroom activities: Growth mindset lessons, categorizing different thoughts (worries, memories, daydreams)



Mindful movement involves paying close attention to the physical sensations in our bodies as we move. When we stretch, we notice that it can feel good to move our body. If we push too far, we see that some part inside hurts. Mindful movement can also mean matching actions to our inhales and exhales as we breathe. Developing body awareness helps students increase skills in sports and hobbies and helps them identify and describe when something doesn’t feel right. 


Classroom activities: Yoga, dance routines, breathing exercises 



You know those warm-fuzzy feelings you get inside when you experience kindness and caring? That’s heartfulness. It is the happiness and positive emotions that come from gratitude and appreciation. These feelings help develop relationships, connect and bond us together, and positively affect our mental and physical well-being. An essential aspect of mindfulness is kindness toward other people and treating ourselves and our emotions with kindness. We can develop compassion for others alongside compassion for ourselves. 


Classroom activities: Gratitude lists, appreciation notes, random acts of kindness 


The next time you see mindfulness on your curriculum or a student asks, “what is mindfulness?” think about this definition and the six pillars of mindfulness for kids. You will feel much more confident in your answer and ability to teach it!

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