Teaching Mindfulness through Play

By Didi Dunin, CEI Intern

Play is a ubiquitous childhood activity, seen across all cultures and ethnicities, and even among those living under severe socio-economic conditions (O’Connor, 2017); but what is the real purpose of play and why do children like to play so much? 

While it may seem that play is just for fun, it is actually one of the most important elements in early childhood development. It is a way for young children to practice life skills by interacting with others and their surroundings.  

Benefits of Play    

It is well known that play has many benefits for early childhood development, including the development of motor skills, language, socialization, and learning ability. Yet, an often overlooked aspect of self, called mindfulness, can also be harnessed through play.  

Key facets of mindfulness include (Vago & Silbersweig, 2012):

  • self-awareness
  • self-acceptance 
  • self-regulation 
  • sensory awareness
  • perspective-taking 
  • empathy and compassion
  • self-transcendence 

Because play is intrinsically motivating for children, using play to teach mindfulness is a valuable strategy for teachers and parents to use as an alternative to lecture. 

Teaching mindfulness of the self (i.e., self-awareness, self-acceptance, self-regulation) lays the foundation for deeper perspective-taking skills and the ability to feel empathy and compassion for others. When children develop this skill through play, they can then apply it in their “real” life. It is then that children can feel a genuine sense of connection and oneness with the world.

Teaching Mindfulness of the Self through Play 

Toys can aid mindful play by making abstract concepts more concrete and easier for children to understand. 

A child and her caretaker working through feelings with a fox SuggleBuddy. Photo from Generation Mindful.

For example, Generation Mindful has developed specific toys and games, such as plush animals called SnuggleBuddies, that help children understand and become mindful of their emotions. SnuggleBuddies have four mood symbols tucked inside each one. Teachers or parents can ask children to pull out one of the symbols (happy, sad, calm, or mad/scared) at different times throughout the day, prompting them to think and talk about their emotions, thoughts, and feelings. 

An important part of mindfulness training is to provide a safe space where children feel comfortable to feel and label their emotions without judgment. Learning that it is okay to be sad or angry helps children accept and understand these emotions so that they feel less compelled towards aggression or tantrums when feeling upset. 

If children do misbehave or throw a tantrum, there are different options for discipline. While punishment-based discipline may lead to short-term compliance, it does not teach adaptive self-regulation or self-compassion (Gershoff, 2008). As an alternative, parents and educators can use positive discipline strategies, such as restorative discipline, to help children learn to self-regulate and calm themselves down. 

A child sits in the Time-In corner. Photo from Generation Mindful.

Setting up a cozy, inviting space in the corner of the classroom where children can go to when they feel upset or out of control can help these students feel empowered to respond to situations rather than react impulsively. It provides them with the opportunity to be present, reflect, breathe, let go of negativity, and play. For busy educators who don’t have the time to gather materials and create this space themselves, the Time-In ToolKit is a useful package. 

Educators and parents can make mindful playtime most beneficial by (Mooney, 2013): 

  • Offering children appropriate toys and props 
  • Providing a safe and supportive environment 
  • Providing validation 
  • When appropriate, asking questions or sharing ideas that could extend their play and self-awareness 

Teaching Mindfulness of Others through Play 

Once children have learned to be mindful of their own emotions, they can then learn to be mindful of others’ emotions too. 

Specifically, this process occurs as children mature through sociologist Mildred Parten Newhall’s six stages of play (Dellner, 2019). As children begin to play alongside others (around age 2), they start to become interested in other children’s behaviors, even mimicking those that seem useful or fun. 

Didi Dunin (aged around 4 years old in the photo) and her brother play together in their rug.

By the final stage (around age 4), children’s play becomes more cooperative and they learn that their playmates have different perspectives and emotions from their own. 

For example, playing board games allow children to try to understand things from an opponent’s viewpoint. Role playing is another form of play that children can learn to truly “feel” what it is like to be someone other than themselves. This understanding then leads to more compassionate behaviors such as sharing and helping. 

Some specific games and tools that teach children to be mindful of others’ emotions and develop compassion include: 

Lastly, bringing play outdoors can be a great way for children to learn mindfulness. Taking students on a nature walk where they can observe shapes in the clouds, play yoga games, or listen to the birds can all enhance children’s sensory awareness and their sense of oneness with the world around them.  

Children play together with a ball in a lush, grassy and tree covered area.

References

Dellner, A. (2019, May 14). There are 6 types of childhood play-how many does your kid engage in? PureWow.

Gershoff, E. T. (2008). Report on physical punishment in the united states: what research tells us about its effects on children. Columbus, OH: Center for Effective Discipline.

Mooney, C. G. (2013). Theories of childhood: an introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget, and Vygotsky. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

O’Connor, S. (2017, September 6). Kids and childhood: The secret power of play. Time.

Vago, D. R., & Silbersweig, D. A. (2012). Self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): a framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience6.

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