On the spectrum of active to calm, our three boys have all been somewhere between very active and off-the-chart active. It varies for each one at different chapters in their growth and development. They have all sat beautifully for reading time, and there are moments of peace when they will sit reverently for a short prayer or lay in child’s pose or find a quiet corner for a few minutes rest, but there are times when it seems that sitting still is for them (especially at the toddler stage) a physical impossibility.
Our two-year-old is at one of those points now. It often seems that as long as he’s awake he’s climbing or dismantling anything he can get his hands on. It’s a wonderful developmental stage – his mind is creating new synapses and linkages and understandings at breakneck speed – but it makes being at home exhausting because it’s just constant cleanup behind him while trying to prevent him from squirting diaper cream in the tea pot or whatever other interesting activity his mind cooks up.
Our older two kind of get the idea of mindfulness, but a two-year-old has only developed so much metacognitive awareness, and so may only grasp a glimmer of the idea. Given the aforementioned issue of locomotion, he can’t exactly sit still long enough to be mindful in the meditation sense. So how can a two-year-old practice mindfulness?
For preschoolers and even in the early elementary years, the secret is a deeply-focused tactile experience.
It helps that they are programmed to seek that out. That’s a big part of what our two-year-old is seeking as he’s wreaking havoc on our pantry. His mission is exploratory (discovering new places, new things, new ways to get to places, how things fit together and work, etc.), kinetic (he is growing so fast and has so much energy that he simply can’t be still much of the time; he is developing balance, strength, and coordination – and all that movement is also crucial to his cognitive development) and sensory (experiencing textures new and old, heat and cold, wet and dry, soft and hard, etc. – also critical to cognitive development).
There’s no sense in trying to stop him. He’s hard-wired to do these things, so trying to make him stop is like asking him to stop breathing. Instead, we try our best to channel that energy into meaningful experiences that provide the stimulation he needs while remaining within acceptable bounds of safety. (And we try to hide things we simply can’t allow him to dump or fling.)
One such activity that he engages in pretty much daily at this stage is water play. We set up a step stool so he can play in the kitchen or bathroom sink, provide a few funnels and plastic cups and bowls, and he can be engaged for half an hour. We just require that he keep the water in the sink. He insists on keeping the faucet running for most of that time, which is terrible for our water bill and is not very conservation-minded, but we’ve decided that it is a small price to pay for his physical development and education, not to mention for half an hour of relative calm for the parent on duty.
It doesn’t always go smoothly. Like the time he discovered that squeezing a small funnel against the faucet created a water canon that could soak anything in the room. But this is all part of the learning process.
One day he spent probably three hours engaged in water play of different kinds: at the kitchen sink, at the bathroom sink, at a water table on the back patio, and in the bath. Sand is another magical substance and can be wonderful whether in a sandbox or a sand table or just in some bowls on a porch or in the yard. Flour is great, too. There are tons of great options (dried beans, uncooked rice, cooked rice, mud, beads, etc.), depending on what works best for you and your child at that particular time and place (e.g., we wouldn’t do sand or uncooked rice inside at this stage because it would be everywhere).
For a young child, this kind of tactile activity provides what I imagine to be their truest, age-appropriate version of mindfulness. They are experiencing flow, that magical feeling of being at one with an activity, that feeling reported by long-distance runners and soulful musicians. Purposeful tactile activity is crucial to young children’s cognitive development, and in the process, it brings them peace.
What’s more, we realized that this peace, this mindful focus, is one of the best ways for a young child to re-center himself, to fill his inner cup. In practice, we’ve found that even an overtired and cranky toddler beginning to melt down can often find his peace again given the chance to have some water time or similar deeply concentrated tactile activity.
When younger, most babies and toddlers welcome being in the arms of their parents, whether to nurse, cuddle, or run their fingers through your hair, important physical contact that provides the re-centering, peace-finding moment a child needs when feeling out of sorts. As children mature, they still welcome the hug of a parent when they feel off, but they are in the lifelong process of developing other ways to center themselves — their own ways.
Parents can be guides on that path, and a focused tactile experience is one excellent strategy for toddlers on up through elementary age. Older preschoolers can even begin to have the mindfulness required to recognize in themselves when they are approaching a melting point and they can learn to excuse themselves from the moment to go find their peace with a tactile activity or other re-centering strategy.
What a wonderful gift to give our children, the adults of tomorrow.
Imagine if we could all recognize when we are reaching our own melting points and politely excuse ourselves from the moment to step away and find our peace [link to my Mindful Parenting post]. Honestly, if even a large minority of the peoples of the world could master this skill, it might tilt the balance away from violent confrontation or even from confrontation at all.
The peace within really becomes the peace without. Pretty wild to think that teaching this skill to our children could be a big step toward lasting peace between nations.
And it can all start with a little water play.