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How to adapt meditation for little kids? It looks a lot like play.

Studies show incorporating meditation and mindfulness into our daily lives helps reduce stress and stave off depression. (iStock)

A few months into the pandemic, my spouse, Sabrina, and I noticed our 4-year-old daughter, Marty, was constantly cramming a fist of fingers into her mouth and seeking physical contact to such an extent that she nearly qualified as a fifth limb on either of our respective bodies.

As someone who struggles with anxiety, I knew the palpable sense of panic in our tiny Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment — from our desire to protect our family given Sabrina’s job as a hospital social worker, from my nerves about being a stay-at-home mom and full-time teacher — wasn’t helping her state of unease. We needed to do something about it.

In the earliest days of the coronavirus, I started reading world-renowned meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Full Catastrophe Living” and regularly meditating with the exercises accompanying the book. It helped steady my mind and terminally twitchy body. As much as I wanted to share my soothing practice with Marty, I knew from experience that peeling her off the highest point on our walls to sit in silent contemplation amid deep diaphragmatic breaths was going to be as successful as convincing her that yogurt is just like ice cream.

Last year, I created a nightly routine following bedtime stories that included three deep breaths, moments of silence and expressions of gratitude. At the time, I was working at a company dedicated to ending the epidemic of stress and burnout in our culture and learning all sorts of incredible things about the health benefits of meditation and giving thanks. Although the novelty of the routine amused her enough to attempt the practice — a few deep breaths, saying something she’s grateful for — it very quickly devolved (or evolved?) into giggles and wiggles and epic levels of sarcasm that made her seem more 14 than 4. When I’d do a deep sonorous “om,” she’d laugh her way through her own iteration which sounded like “ooooohhhhhhh.” When I’d ask what she’s grateful for, she’d say, “Ice cream and farts.” When she’d exhale too boisterously through her nose (not her mouth, like I told her to), snot would often surface on her face, unleashing spasms of utter joy.

“Where did I go wrong?” I asked Phyllis Cohen, a psychologist who specializes in child development.

“Well, you’ve got to meet them where they are. A little one like Marty is going to be in a place of fantasy and imaginative play and a lot of playfulness, and what they need is for you to join them where they are,” she said. If Marty likes to blow bubbles, Cohen explained, a fun way to teach her diaphragmatic breathing would be to pretend we’re holding a giant wand filled with the sudsy substance and invite her to inhale and exhale to create a make-believe bubble fest.

Although I’d wholly abandoned our meditation routine last year (to stop the nightly experience of being mercilessly made fun of by a girl far cooler than me), I decided I needed to bring it back in an age-appropriate way, as studies show incorporating meditation and mindfulness into our daily lives helps reduce stress and stave off depression. “It also helps us feel calm, reduces anxiety and enables us to have a different relationship to some of our experiences so there’s a little more space to respond as opposed to react,” added Maria Gehl, the project director of mindfulness in early childhood at Zero to Three, a nonprofit dedicated to helping babies and toddlers get a stronger start in life. In one study, it even helped preschoolers increase prosocial behaviors and decrease bullying, according to Daniel J. Siegel, founder of UCLA’s Mindsight Institute and author of “The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind.”

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While contemplating how I might roll out a new and more effective practice to shore up Marty’s psychological strength and well-being, I came across Scott L. Rogers’s SoBe Mindful Method, which is used in Head Start classrooms in South Florida and can be adapted to every age group. In the practice, core aspects of our bodies and selves correspond with core aspects of nature to emphasize our interconnectedness with the natural world: The sun is our conscious awareness; the wind is our breath; the tree is our body, and so on. When I got Rogers, author of “The Elements of Mindfulness” and director of the Mindfulness in Law Program at the University of Miami, on the phone, he kindly broke down how I could successfully reintroduce my daughter to meditation and mindfulness in a more fun and fruitful way. Here’s how it worked.

I am the tree

Marty and I initiated our practice in front of the many trees populating Sunset Park in Brooklyn. Rogers said doing so will help her see her interconnection with nature and turn the tree into an automatic signal to return to the present. The beauty of fostering that connection, according to Siegel, is it quells feelings of isolation or a frightening sense of aloneness, which many of us feel as we continue to quarantine and follow mandates to mask and distance ourselves from those we love.

With that in mind, Marty and I squatted down and pretended our fingers were the big bold roots of our respective trees. Then we slowly rose up and lengthened our bodies into erect postures. Taking a deep breath, we gently extended our arms over our heads, wiggling our fingers (leaves) and arms (branches) in a soft breeze, exhaling as we let them fall at our sides. “It’s not just imitation, but a real becoming,” Lisa Miller, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University Teachers College and author of “The Spiritual Child,” assured me. “The sensibility of the child is that they can truly be the tree. It supports their natural sense of unity.” Marty, so believable as a tree she’d make Stanislavsky proud, truly made the practice her own by tipping over in a gusty wind and pleading for my help.

I am the wind

Once Marty got back on her feet, we extended our arm-branches out at our sides (inhale), then pulled them back into the center of our chest (exhale), repeating Rogers’s refrain: “Branches out, branches in, breathing like the wind.” Then, of course, a tornado sent Marty hurtling through the park, and I had to chase her down for the last step in the routine.

I am the sun

When I caught up with her, we placed our hands, palms out, in front of our chests, with thumbs touching and fingers spread out in fan-like fashion. Next, we raised our hands up, then spread them like sun rays across the sky three times, wishing ourselves, then a loved one, then the whole world happiness. (And it wouldn’t be Marty if she didn’t throw in a wish that her best friend Ella get an Anna dress so the two can play Elsa and Anna from “Frozen” … and eat ice cream.)

Since we began our practice, Marty has returned to herself in many ways. I don’t know how much mindfulness meditation is to thank — the three of us survived covid-19, the cases in New York City continue to hover around 1 percent, and we’ve been able to start seeing family and friends —but I do know this early introduction will help her in bigger and clearer ways as she ages and her practice matures.

For now, our simple routine not only works better than the original practice I instituted — Be silent! Be still! Breathe! — it brings a fun and levity to our relationship and household that feels especially critical and urgent during this difficult and tender time.

Stephanie Fairyington is an New York City-based journalist who writes on parenting, gender and sexuality.

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