The coronavirus pandemic has brought many challenges to growing children. Quarantine and stay-at-home mandates have closed the world off from inquisitive minds, with many schools shuttered and children cut off from much-needed social interaction with their friends, teachers and teammates. Children are still spending a lot of time on the go and in the car – they are just spending that time without the companionship of friends.
With COVID-19 still very much a threat, the way we travel has been limited. Whereas a plane or train would be an acceptable transit solution in the past, today more Americans are opting for the safety of their own vehicle instead. That means a lot of time in the car, and for your little passengers, that can be a time of restlessness and anxiety.
However, car time can also be a time of fun and wonder when you bring the right activities along for the ride. In addition to the entertainment factor, your kids will have the support of mindful and mental health-oriented activities that pass the time in the car with a ton of fun for the whole family.
When did the car start being a source of anxiety for kids?
There’s no doubt that coronavirus has been a significant source of anxiety for children. At Chicago’s Lurie Children’s Hospital, pediatric mental health visits are up by fifty percent. “Emergency department visits we are seeing for mental health conditions among youth have increased dramatically,” says Dr. Jennifer Hoffmann. “Every day, we see at least 10 children or more.”
The car can be an uncomfortable place, with passengers forced to wear face coverings when using public forms of transportation or a ridesharing service. This new reality of life with COVID is difficult enough for mature adults to understand, let alone the developing minds of young children.
When in the car with their parents, children are also more attuned to the mood and vibe of their companions. If parents are stressed out, anxious and fretting, then their kids will pick up on those emotions and take them on themselves. The frenzy over cleaning and sanitizing can make children afraid of diseases they can’t see. Worse, the limitations placed on school and other social activities force children to be alone with their own thoughts, which can be a scary place if your child isn’t in a healthy state of mind. That’s where mindfulness can help.
What is mindfulness exactly? HelpGuide defines it as “the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment—and accepting it without judgment.”
Instead of focusing on past or future worries, mindfulness is about living in the here and now so you learn to appreciate each moment. It has its roots in Buddhism, blending prayer and meditation into calming exercises designed to bring more peace to your life. Says HelpGuide, “Mindfulness is now being examined scientifically and has been found to be a key element in stress reduction and overall happiness.”
It has been proven to bring positive physical and psychological symptoms with users experiencing a positive boost to their health, mood and behaviors. In a study on second and third graders, mindfulness not only improved a child’s attention in school but also their social skills with their classmates.
A study from John Hopkins University shows that meditation and mindfulness can help reduce anxiety, making the car a more comfortable place for our junior passengers. Mindfulness has also been shown to decrease feelings of pain, with several studies showing that advanced meditators showing reduced activity in the areas of the brain where stimuli like pain are processed.
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Mindfulness can be used in several forms:
- Basic meditation
- Body sensations, or focusing on physical sensations — like an itch — until they pass
- Urge surfing, or replacing cravings with a positive thought or wish for the feeling to pass
These methods can translate to some really fun and entertaining activities for your kids to enjoy in the car.
15 mindfulness activities families can do in the car
The car is a great place for your kids to practice mindfulness, because this is a time when children truly have the space to relax and concentrate free from outside distractions. While the car is not ideal for some exercises like yoga, it can be a great place to meditate, collect your thoughts, and focus on your breathing before you continue on with your day. Mindfulness is something the whole family can enjoy together, especially when you are in the car, and your excitement and enthusiasm can quickly inspire your kids to join in on the fun, too.
Many newcomers often fall into the trap of overthinking mindfulness. This is not anything specific that you need to set your mind to but rather a way to stop the world for a moment and take the freedom to just breathe. Mindfulness is not meant to be a punishment or a chore, but rather a personal luxury and indulgence that re-centers the mind and balances your emotions for the rest of the day.
Much of the benefit of mindfulness is the timing. When your children are full of bottled-up energy, they’re not likely able to mellow out and relax. Instead, choose a time such as the morning, when your children are just preparing for the day or after soccer practice when they’re winding down for dinner, bath and bed.
These are some of our favorite exercises for an effective mindfulness routine.
- Belly breathing
Also known as diaphragmatic breathing, belly breathing is a way of deep breathing that slows the heart rate and relaxes the body. To help children focus, you can introduce a snorkel and ask them to visualize deep breathing on an underwater adventure.
- The mindful jar
Fill an empty mason jar with water and a scoop of glitter and glue, closing the jar and shaking to combine. It shows children an important lesson of how stress and negativity can pollute your thoughts, with the glitter serving as your thoughts lost in a whirling tumble of stress and anxiety. By remaining still, you can settle the chaos within and allow you to see and formulate your thoughts much easier.
A neighborhood safari is an excellent way to keep kids entertained during a long drive. Stimulate and focus their senses by challenging them to spot as many dogs, birds, bugs or other species. You can even supply checklists for them to use, checking their finds at the end of each car ride to see what new delights they discovered on their travels.
- The five senses
Work through the five senses by counting backward by naming five things you can see, four that you can feel, three that you can hear, two things you can smell, and one that you can taste.
- Mindfulness apps
Today, there are a ton of digital solutions all designed to help you practice mindfulness in everyday life. Explore apps like Smiling Minds, Calm, DreamyKid and Breathing Bubbles.
- Pinwheel breathing
Use a pinwheel to further explore your breathing. Breathe hard and fast at first, watching how the pinwheel moves and observing how you feel – whether you are calm or feel the urge to move around. Then breathe slowly and see how your mood and your feelings change.
- The breathing board (explanation for how to use here)
A breathing board is another way to visualize the kind of breathing that you do, using the provided map and shapes to guide your breathing.
- Discuss gratitude
It’s hard to stay centered with social media providing an endless stream of content, but a daily gratitude exercise can help children stay grounded and feel secure even in spite of a changing and uncertain world.
- Guided meditation
It can be hard to find focus sometimes, so guided meditation can help the entire family relax and recenter. Enjoy a free 10-minute meditation exercise on YouTube with videos like Daily Calm, Daily Happiness, and Goodful.
- Positive affirmations
Much like daily gratitude, positive affirmations are helpful and confident sayings that root out stressful and negative thoughts that may be lurking. When you strongly assure yourself that you will have a good day, it’s far more likely to happen.
- Mindful journaling
Sometimes it can be hard to hold onto mindful thoughts, so writing them down can be a great way to stay centered and focused on the positive aspects of daily life. Journal prompts are an easy way to get started, and you can even turn journaling into an arts and crafts project with your children customizing their own personal journals.
- Mindfulness books on audible
Instead of the same old songs on the radio, turn on Audible for a mindfulness audiobook that the whole family can enjoy together. There are some great titles available, such as Mindfulness for Kids, Kids Meditation Bundle, Guided Meditations for Kids and Enchanted Meditations for Kids.
- Squeeze and release
Squeeze and release is a fun game for kids to play in the car, using animation to keep kids engaged while tensing and subsequently relaxing specific muscle groups. There are several YouTube videos that can help, such as Progressive Muscle Relaxation for Kids, Butterfly Body Scan, Rainbow Breath, and Breathing Techniques with Miss Erin Doctor.
- Mindful words
Challenge yourself with words by concentrating on the things you see, hear, feel and smell. Then put them into words, using adjectives and synonyms to find exactly the right descriptions for what you experience with your senses.
- Car ride glitter jar
These are an easy way to calm stormy emotions and refocus thoughts on something more soothing and relaxing. They’re a fun activity for the whole family to make together, using glitter glue and distilled water to make your own custom creation for your next car ride (provided it’s leak-proof).
Other ways to create a safe and calm environment in the car
As a parent or caregiver, there are some things that you can do to help minimize your child’s discomfort and anxiety.
- Provide nourishment.
Make sure that there are plenty of snacks and beverages available so children are not distracted by the hunger pangs of an empty stomach or scratchy dryness of a parched throat.
- Sing a tune.
There are tons of fun sing-alongs for entire families to enjoy together. They’re available on popular platforms like Pandora, Spotify and YouTube so you can find the format and theme that best works for each voyage.
- Consider entertainment.
There are a lot of fun activities kids can do in the car, like children’s books, coloring books and apps all designed to provide the kids with positive, upbeat entertainment during car rides.
- Drive safe.
Road rage is counteractive, so instead, drive slowly, take your time and remain calm even if another driver cuts you off. Your children are listening and will subconsciously absorb the emotional climate of the car, so instead work to stay upbeat and positive.
- Stay calm.
Safe driving doesn’t only help to keep you safe and give you cheap car insurance. It also helps improve the overall mood of the car, with passengers feeling more relaxed when the driver is also relaxed.
The bottom line
Regardless of the pandemic, we are a culture that spends a lot of time on the road. This means that as our constant companions, our children spend a lot of time on the road with us too. Travel is only made worse for those children who find boredom or anxiety awaiting them within the car. However, your daily commute does not have to be a time of angst and negativity.
Just as mindfulness as proven effective for adults, it can also help to keep children healthy, happy and entertained throughout your daily travels. Digital advancements regularly deliver a fresh new treasure trove of exercises, games, audiobooks and other activities for the entire family to enjoy.
You may just find that car time is among the very best times that you spend together.