Imagine a child who’s frustrated, angry or agitated. Normally, she might throw a tantrum, speak sharply to a friend or sit in sullen rebellion, refusing to participate in the activities around her.
But what if this time, instead of reacting to or internalizing her feelings, she retreats to a quiet corner of the room. She picks up a water bottle full of glitter and shakes it. She breathes slowly, in and out, while watching the glitter slowly settle to the bottom of the bottle. How does this make her feel?
Responding to the emotions of children and teens can challenge the most seasoned educator or camp director. Whether dealing with common frustrations or a life-changing trauma, kids need help learning how to cope with the pain and disappointments of life.
Mindfulness has become an increasingly popular tool for helping kids deal with stress of all kinds. It usually involves practicing an awareness of yourself and your surroundings, without judgment.1 Focused breathing also is a core mindfulness practice. I particularly like the way one school counselor defines the term: “Paying attention, with kindness, to myself, others and the world around me.”
Here are some games and techniques rooted in mindfulness to help children and teens cope with their emotions and increase empathy for others.
Settling your glitter
A child needs to be taught the above exercise for how to “settle his glitter.” The Momentous Institute explains how to walk children through this simple technique.2 You also can find lots of instructions online for how to make glitter water bottles, but it only takes a few minutes with a clear bottle or jar, water, glitter and glue.3
Finding space for calm
A calming center is a small corner of a room reserved for kids to retreat, voluntarily, for a few minutes when they’re upset. When their emotions feel overwhelming, they can step away from usual activities to settle down. A calming center can include a bean bag or floor pillows, a lamp for soft lighting, art supplies, glitter water bottles, books about emotions or stuffed animals.4
For this technique, a child lies on her back with stuffed animal friend resting on her belly. The child slowly breathes in and out as she watches the stuffed animal gently rise and fall on her tummy.
This and other breathing techniques can be used for children in groups to help them settle down or transition to a quieter activity. “Deep belly-breathing signals the nervous system to relax, which then lowers stress and reduces the heart rate and blood pressure,” says Chris Bergstrom, co-founder of BlissfulKids.com.5
Balancing on one foot
We’ve all balanced on one foot some time or another, but this game can be fun for kids while helping them focus on their body. This activity might be an idea for kids who are waiting, tired or bored. It also could help kids transition from a loud, outdoor activity to a quieter, indoor activity. Try doing it with deep breathing exercises, and see how that affects your balance.6
We used to call this “counting our blessings,” but no matter how you say it, cultivating thankfulness is scientifically proven to improve health. According to Forbes, “Grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and they report feeling healthier than other people, according to a 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences.”7
To practice gratitude in a creative way, challenge kids to write down or photograph the things they are thankful for throughout the day or week. You could even have themes or categories for each day, like friends, family, school, camp, nature or food. At the end of the week, students can use their photos or handwritten cards to create a collage, or even a group Instagram presentation.8
Empathy guessing game
This game helps kids observe others and think about how they feel. It can become an ongoing conversation with your students in all kinds of settings. Here’s how it works: You describe a person’s body language and facial expression and ask the student to guess how the person might be feeling. To play this game, you could observe those around you or people/characters in stories, videos or photos. This is a great description of the game from Momentous Institute:
“You could do this guessing game anywhere. At the mall: ‘That woman is walking very fast. What do you think she might be feeling? She seems to be in a hurry. I think she is feeling anxious. What do you think?’ At home: ‘Your brother is throwing his toys. What do you think he might be feeling? I think he is angry that it is bedtime.’ At the library: ‘That little girl is sitting with her arms crossed. What do you think she might be feeling?’”9
Writing down thoughts and feelings
One group therapy leader says that writing can come much easier than talking when it comes to helping teenagers express their feelings. He offers the idea of writing questions about school, family and self on index cards and asking students to draw a card and write a response.
“Writing their answers to these cards got the kids thinking. Since they didn’t have the pressure of being put on the spot to come up with an answer in front of everyone, they were much more likely to reflect on the question and write down a thoughtful answer. I asked them all to share one answer if they wanted to, and most did.”10
Not Just for Kids
All of these activities and games can be easily incorporated into a camp or classroom routine while helping kids identify and share their own feelings, develop coping strategies, and grow in their ability to observe the feelings of others.
And it might help you, too!