The goal of the Thought Jar activity is to introduce the concept of mindfulness (I first described this activity in my book Arts Activities for Children and Young People in Need). Using an empty glass jar half-filled with water, participants take various colored beads and bobbles, which represent thoughts and feelings, and drop them into the jar one by one. Everyone can take a turn and express out loud what their bead represents (you will have to go around the group a few times). For example, Pete put a shiny blue bead into the jar because he felt sad today when his best friend didn’t want to sit with him at lunch time. When I do this activity with someone one-on-one, we’ll go back and forth until we have enough bobbles in the jar. Each young person in a group can have their own jar or a group jar can be used for this activity. When you have enough material in the jar, have everyone take a turn swirling and shaking the jar (represented in the picture below on the left).

As you’re shaking the jar, have a discussion about how we feel when we have many thoughts and feelings all swirling around in our minds (like a tornado) versus how we feel when our minds are calmer and more focused (when the objects have settled to the bottom of the jar and we can see what’s inside). It is more difficult for us to make good choices and decisions when we are not feeling calm and focused. Mindfulness is introduced as a practice that can help us understand what all the beads swirling around in our minds are. With a better ability to focus and pay attention to our thoughts and feelings, we have a chance to build self-awareness, which in turn can lead to making better choices and decisions rather than acting out a feeling.

In our experience, many young people like to take the jars home with them as a reminder to practice mindfulness, and we often refer back to the Thought Jar in a group to remind them about the purpose of an activity. The jar also becomes a way for the children to explain mindfulness to their family members and friends.

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I also use this activity in my practice with individual children and youth. Recently, a 13-year old girl explained to me how she established a Thought Jar at home with her parents as a way for them to discuss their feelings together. For instance, when someone needs to talk, they take the jar and drop bobbles into it to indicate how a variety of events made them feel during the day. Just by looking at the jar, it is evident if the person had a predominately ‘good’ or ‘bad’ day. This is a variation of the original activity but a creative and useful one for this family that enables ongoing communication about feelings.