1. Finger painting: Painting in itself is a very sensory and grounding experience for children, and it is even more so when a child gets the tactile experience of feeling the paint and the page on her fingers. Finger painting helps kids be in the present moment and feel connected to their bodies, so it is great for those with a history of trauma or anxiety, who struggle with dissociating or with intrusive thoughts that pull them out of the moment.While the act of painting is already calming, you can further relaxation by making it a mindfulness experience; children can be encouraged to notice the cool, slipperiness of the paint, the texture of the paper, the smell of the paint, the brightness of the colours, etc., all to help them tune into their bodies in the here and now.
Finger painting can also provide an outlet for kids’ emotions. Children may choose to paint something specific or they might just make a painting of their anger or anxiety. They may find emotional release through their choice of hand movements: smooth or jagged, peaceful or aggressive. If the child wants, you can combine this activity with soft music, which may further help to create a calming atmosphere where she can express herself.
There is a lot of room for variety and creativity with this craft, so I am not going to provide specific instructions for any one exercise. If you are looking for specific exercises to do, check out this list of 100 art therapy exercises on the Expressive Art Workshops website, as many of these exercises involve paint.
2. Clay or Play Dough: Like finger painting, clay is another experience that encourages a child to be in the moment, connect with his body, and which provides a physical outlet for emotion. Children can be gentle with the clay or they may choose to pound the clay to show anger. They may choose to roll and squeeze the clay or may prefer to make their own sculptures. In any case, the exercise is tactile, mentally engaging, and allows for expressive movements that facilitate relaxation.
You may choose to include a mindfulness meditation exercise into the play to facilitate the release of tension; for example, the child’s attention can be drawn to the feeling of the clay in his hands, the smell of it, the texture, the temperature, and so on.
Another benefit is that the act of kneading clay involves the tightening and releasing of muscles in the hand, which helps to release tension. Playing with clay or play dough could provide a fun introduction to more specific muscle relaxation work and could be a launching off point for discussing the difference between tight and relaxed muscles.
3. Rice stress balls: These make great fidget toys for children who just can’t seem to sit still. If you’ve used a stress ball, you know that it can provide quite the workout for your hand. As you grip and squeeze, you tighten and relax your muscles like you would by doing muscle relaxation exercises. You could use this craft to help kids begin to recognize the difference between tense and relaxed states.
As an added benefit, for kids who typically display their pent up energy and tension in ways that get them into trouble (i.e., being disruptive in class), stress balls can provide a outlet for that extra energy and can help them to relax. Stress balls also provide a more socially acceptable outlet for energy for those that engage in nervous habits like nail biting, fidgeting, picking, etc.
The great thing about this craft, unlike finger painting or clay activities, is that a child can take the stress ball to school and can use it at any time when doing so would not be disruptive. It is a relaxation strategy that is literally at a child’s fingertips at all times.
Directions: All you will need for this activity is 2 balloons, a funnel, and some rice.
- Cut the tip off of one balloon and set it aside.
- Fill the second balloon with rice using the funnel (keep in mind that the ball you end up with should fit comfortably into the child’s hand).
- Tie the balloon and cut the tip above the knot off.
- Stretch the second balloon over the ball (knot side first).
Voila, a quick, easy, and very inexpensive DIY stress ball. A single bag of balloons and a bag of rice could make several balls so the child has a couple at home, one at school, one in the vehicle, and some spares because let’s face it, a balloon full of rice is eventually going to break!
4. Sensory Jar: While this last activity doesn’t provide the physical aspect of relaxation that the other crafts do, it can provide a sense of mental calm that will enable a wound up child to relax. Essentially, a sensory jar, or “Calm-Down Jar” as it is also called, is a jar or bottle filled with liquid and glitter. The contents swish around when shaken. A child who is over-stimulated can be given a sensory jar and encouraged to focus on the glitter inside. The act of watching the glitteris soothing, in much the same way as watching a lava lamp, a candle, or fish in an aquarium is calming. I have heard of people using this tool in place of sending kids for a more punitive time-out. Ideally, over time kids will learn to use their sensory jar themselves as a way of self-regulating. For a great explanation of how a “Calm-Down Jar” helps kids who struggle with self regulation, check out this post on Mama OT. Like the stress balls, a sensory jar can also travel, making it a great on-the-go tool for helping kids relax.
For detailed instructions on how to make this craft, check out 6 Ways to Make a Calm Down Jar on Preschool inspirations.
These are four of my favourite crafts to help kids relax. If you have other crafts that you like to use, or specific variations on these four, feel free to post them in the comments. Happy crafting!