I was standing on the front stoop of our school, chatting with students as they arrived for the day in various states of sleepiness or excitement. A visitor was going to attend our Morning Meeting, which includes a student-led, 3-minute meditation, and so she asked the students for any tips on the meditation. One of the kids replied, with a tone so casual that she might have been giving directions to the bathroom. She recommended that the visitor start by just following her breath, maybe counting breaths, and then notice any thoughts that come up. If they do, then just accept them and then go back to the breath. That's it. What else?
Of course I was grinning like a fool next to this student, because it felt to me like the perfect affirmation that our students "get" meditation. What she said could have come out of the mouth of a meditation teacher; simple, distilled, and representing enough personal experience to be said with casual definitiveness. She was speaking from the conviction that meditation was obviously doable and valuable, a kind of mental hygiene as basic as brushing your teeth.
So yes - kids "get" meditation. I've experimented with teaching it to kids as young as three, and I think it has value at each age, in different ways. I can speak most clearly about teaching it to adolescents, for whom I think it quickly becomes an essential practice. Adolescence is, to put it mildly, a confusing time. As adults we probably can't appreciate what it feels like to wake up each day with your body changing, new emotions and insights emerging, your intellect tapping into new fundamental capacities. What better capacity can we give them than the ability to re-center themselves when they are confused or distracted? The research on peer pressure - well described in Laurence Steinberg's book Age of Opportunity - tells us that adolescents consistently make poor decisions around peers, yet if they use mindfulness or other techniques to come back to their own centered, focused place, they can make wise judgments that seem well beyond their years.
How to teach meditation is a topic for a far longer post, or great books (Chade-Meng Tan's Search Inside Yourself is a wonderful start) or training organizations like Mindful Schools. But if you're wondering if it's possible, I want to give an answer with the same casual, definitive tone as that student on the stoop - of course it's possible. This is part of the vast untapped potential of young people. Wait until you see a 12 year old, or a 7 year old for that matter, sitting among peers with a concentrated focus, watching their breathing, calming and centering themselves, emerging looking refreshed, and you may wonder like me, what would happen to our world if everyone knew how to do this?