One of the most powerful skills we can teach our children is the effective use of breath. Calm, mindful breathing exercises are skills that all of us can cultivate when we simply slow down and pay attention to our breathing. Deep breathing can help us feel calmer, more focused, grounded, and better able to make thoughtful decisions when we need to decide what to do next.
Mindful breathing exercises improve self-control, problem-solving skills, self-awareness, attention, memory, and sleep. They also help to regulate our brains and nervous systems. Mindful breathing is more than just a self-regulation coping tool, it’s also a practice which helps to grow the thoughtful, prefrontal cortex part of our brain, a region that is still developing in our children until their mid- to late-twenties!
Most of us don’t breathe effectively when we’re distressed. When we’re distressed, our breathing becomes short and shallow. This short, shallow breathing is sufficient to keep us from fainting but not enough to relax our muscles. If our breathing is deep, slow and rhythmical, our red blood cells can carry oxygen to all parts of our body and cause our muscles to relax. If the muscles are relaxed then there is no message traveling from the body to the brain to request that cortisol (the stress hormone our body releases when our body is tensed and stressed to fight perceived threats) be released to fight the threat. If no cortisol is released, there is no fight or flight response, and if there is no fight or flight response, then there is no anxiety. You see, the more cortisol, the more anxious we feel; the more anxious we feel, the less likely we are to think logically and regain control. Our prefrontal cortex literally goes off line when cortisol is released.
The cool thing is, every time we engage in mindful breathing or other calming skill, our body encourages our brain to release the antidote to cortisol: oxytocin. Oxytocin is most well known as the “love hormone,” but it also has a calming and soothing effect, which is exactly what we want versus feeling stressed and wound up. Unfortunately though, the half-life of oxytocin is less than that of cortisol, meaning that we need to keep up our efforts to maintain control of our mind and our emotions.
This is where teaching and practicing mindful breathing comes in. Because oxytocin has a shorter half-life than that of cortisol, research shows that to remain our most calm and logical self, we need to be exercising good, deep breathing quite frequently, from the time we wake up in the morning to the minute we go to bed at night. Additionally, practicing these exercises frequently – even when we’re calm – increases the likelihood that we’ll remember how to breathe and what to do when an incident does happen that increases our body’s stress.
So, if practicing mindful breathing is most effective when practiced regularly and frequently, you can imagine that sometimes it can get a little hard persuading our kids to get into such a great habit. Additionally, many of us don’t practice good breathing techniques to begin with. Even when calm, most of us grow up breathing from our chest instead of breathing more effectively from our diaphragm (near our tummies). Ultimately, we could all benefit from practicing mindful breathing exercises and making this one of our regular, frequent habits!
Following are 26 of my most favorite ways to teach kids how to practice mindful breathing. Frankly, I like to use a variety of these in my own breathing exercise habit to keep things more exciting myself!
1. Belly Breathing
- Lie on your back or slouch in your seat, and place a small rubber duck or small stuffed animal on your belly.
- Breathe in deeply through your nose and feel the duck or stuffed animal rise, and then feel it lower as you slowly exhale through your mouth. (Your belly should expand outward as you inhale and lower as you exhale.)
- Rock the rubber duck or stuffed animal to sleep using the rise and fall of your belly.
2. Flower and Leaf Breaths
- Breathe in, pretending that you are smelling a flower.
- Breathe out slowly, pretending you are blowing a leaf.
3. Finger Counting
- Hold both hands comfortably on your lap, palms facing up.
- Touch each thumb to index finger, and slowly breathe in through your nose and blow out through your mouth. Try to exhale a couple seconds longer than the in-breath.
- Touch each thumb to middle finger and breathe in, then out.
- Touch each thumb to your ring finger, then breathe in, then out.
- Touch each thumb to your pinky finger, then breathe in, then out.
- Stretch your fingers, then repeat the process, but now go in the opposite direction (starting with thumbs to pinky).
4. Blow It Away
- Sit comfortably. Cup your hands together with your palms facing up to form a bowl.
- Imagine your worries inside your hands.
- Inhale through your nose. Exhale by blowing the worries out of your hands.
5. Bunny Sniffs
- Sit up tall and still like a bunny.
- When you breathe in through your nose, take 3 quick, short sniffs in a row.
- Pause for a moment.
- Slowly breathe out through your mouth.
- Do the Bunny Sniff several times.
6. Equal Breathing
- Sit in a comfortable position.
- As you breathe in, count in your mind, 1-2-3-4-5.
- As you breathe out, count in your mind, 1-2-3-4-5.
7. Firework Breath
- Lower yourself into a squat position while your palms are pressed together.
- Take a deep breath through your nose.
- Exhale while you jump and shoot your arms straight up and out.
8. Cookie Breathing
- Put your hand on your tummy, where your belly button is.
- Slowly breathe in and out. When you breathe in, your tummy should move out. When you breathe out, your tummy should move in.
- Breathe in and out like this and feel your tummy move in and out. Make sure your shoulders and chest are relaxed and still. Only your tummy should be moving.
- While breathing in, pretend you are smelling the aroma of freshly baked cookies.
- But they’re hot! So gently blow the cookies to cool them down while you breathe out.
9. Hot Cocoa
- Pretend you’re holding a mug of hot cocoa cradled between both of your hands.
- Bring the mug near your face. Take a slow breath in, and imagine that you are smelling the yummy chocolate aroma.
- Slowly, with gentleness, exhale, pretending to blow the steaming hot cocoa to cool it down.
10. Tire Breath
- Sit comfortably. Take a deep breath in through your nose, filling up your entire stomach like a big round tire with air.
- Pause and then slowly release the air through your teeth, like a tire with a leak.
11. Tissue Breathing
- Separate a 2-ply tissue so that you are left with only the 1-ply.
- Toss the 1-ply tissue into the air and blow gently to keep the tissue in the air. Don’t let it fall to the floor!
- Continue doing this, seeing how long you can keep the tissue floating in the air without letting it fall to the floor.
12. Trace Eight
- Pretend that your index finger is an imaginary pencil.
- As you breathe in, trace or “draw” the top part of the number 8 in the air, on the table, or on your leg.
- Trace the bottom part of the number 8 as you breathe out.
- If you have a Breathing Board, you can also use this to guide you. Or you can draw the number 8 on a piece of paper and trace the 8 with your finger if it helps.
13. Balloon Breathing
- Think of your belly as a balloon.
- Put your hand on your belly to feel it rise and fall.
- Take a deep breath in through your nose to fill your balloon.
- Hold your breath for 2 seconds.
- Breathe out through your mouth slowly to deflate your balloon.
- Repeat balloon breathing 4-5 times.
14. Rainbow Breaths
- Pick your favorite color of the rainbow.
- Paint the color in a rainbow in the sky while you take a deep breath in, then out.
- Continue painting the sky with the different colors of the rainbow.
15. Bubble Breath
- Pretend you’re holding a bubble wand in your hand.
- Take a deep breath in. Hold that breath for a moment.
- Slowly breathe out.
- Visualize shimmery bubbles floating into the sky. Imagine the bubbles carrying any worry away.
16. Sunshine Breath
- Stand comfortably.
- On inhale sweep your arms up in a big circle until your fingers hug above your head.
- Exhale as you circle your arms around.
- Sit comfortably.
- Inhale deeply as you sweep your arms out to the side and up overhead, bringing your palms to touch.
- Keep your palms together. Slowly slide them towards your head as you exhale.
18. Whale Breath
- Lie on your back. Place both feet flat on the floor with your knees pointing up. Extend your arms out in a “t” position.
- Take a deep breath in through your nose.
- Drop your knees to your right as you exhale.
- Breathe in as you move your knees up and exhale, dropping your knees to the left.
- Sit comfortably.
- Slowly inhale, saying the words, “Breathe in” to yourself.
- As you slowly breathe out through your nose, say the words, “Breathe out” to yourself.
20. 4 Beats Breathing
- Sit comfortably. Place your fingers on your pulse.
- Breathe in as you count your pulse beats, 1-2-3-4.
- Slowly breathe out as you count your pulse beats, 1-2-3-4.
21. Book Breathing
- Lie on your back in a comfortable position. Relax your whole body.
- Place a book on your stomach and begin to inhale. Watch the book rise.
- Exhale slowly as you watch the book push your tummy down.
22. Side Breathing
- Lie on your side and lean your head on your hand.
- Place your other hand on your outer ribs.
- Breathe deeply until you feel the ribs expanding in your hand.
- Exhale while you watch your ribs pull in.
23. Bumble Bee Breathing
- Sit comfortably.
- Place your thumbs over your ears and your other fingers over your eyes.
- Take a deep breath in while your belly expands.
- Exhale through your nose, making a humming sound.
24. Taco Tongue
- Curl both sides of your tongue, rolling it into a taco.
- Breathe in through the taco.
- Exhale slowly through your nose as you move your tongue back inside your mouth.
25. Dragon Breath
- Sit comfortably.
- Take a deep breath in through your nose while your belly pushes out.
- Open your mouth and let the air escape with an “Aaaaah.”
26. Dog Breaths
- Sit on your knees. Rest your hands on your thighs.
- Inhale through your nose.
- Open your mouth wide, stick out your tongue and use 3 quick exhales while making a “Haaa” sound.