Stress Be Gone (Tips for playing away stress)

It’s no secret that kids experience stress.  Stress is triggered by illness, sleep deprivation, friendship issues, school (yes, even preschool), over-stimulation, over-scheduling, family problems, and various other factors.

Stress often manifests in the form of tantrums, regressed behavior, nightmares, difficulty separating, poor appetite, social avoidance, and excessive crying.

Feeling stressed can be scary for children.  It can cause them to feel out of control and helpless.  It can cause behavioral changes that others might label as “wild”, “out of control”, or even “depressed”.

Stress needs to be addressed.

The best ways to help ward off excessive stress include:  establishing consistent eating and sleeping routines, ensuring adequate exercise, avoiding over-stimulation, and avoiding over-scheduling.  When you have a solid schedule in place, it helps your child know what to expect and ensures adequate sleep and healthy eating.

There will always be triggers out there, and some will yield higher stress reactions than others.  Staying attuned to your child’s emotions and changes in behavior will help you to intervene more effectively when signs of stress emerge.

There are also ways to structure your child’s play time to include more relaxing, and stress-reducing activities.

Below are some tips for playing your way through the stress:

1.   Play dough:  The benefits of play dough are endless.  Regular play dough use improves fine motor skills and hand eye coordination, provides an outlet for creativity, and provides sensory stimulation to name a few.  But it’s also an excellent stress reducer.  Kneading play dough and forming it into shapes is similar to doing progressive muscle relaxation on the arms.  It causes children to tighten and release their arm muscles, thereby helping them relieve built up tension.  Hint for making it fun:  Make your own play dough to get your child more involved, add vanilla for a nice scent, add oatmeal, rice, or glitter for extra texture, mix various colors to make new shades, and use plastic cookie cutters to add new shapes.  *During transitions and following tantrums are great times to break out the play dough and relieve some stress.

2.   Sand:  There’s a reason the sand box is always packed toward lunchtime and at the end of the day.  It’s a great place for kids to decompress.  Running sand through their hands and pouring sand back and forth between cups provides a calming sensory experience, while building with it or drawing in it helps them check out and play quietly for a while.  Liam can often be found in our sand box just before dinner, after an exciting afternoon of running around and playing.  You don’t need a sand box in the back yard to use sand to calm your kids.  Consider filling a large plastic storage box with play sand (can be found at Home Depot) and few cups and spoons.  Mini sand boxes can also brighten the mood on a rainy day.

3.   Water:  Kids love to play with water.  They like to pour it, splash in it, water the garden with it, and experiment with it.  It’s one of the best toys around.  Water play can be very relaxing.  Similar to sand play, letting warm water run their hands and pouring it back and forth between cups, bowls, or pitchers provides a relaxing sensory experience (there’s a reason most spas have fountains everywhere).  Adding some soap and creating bubbles to blow using deep breaths also helps relieve pent up stress.  Hint for keeping it interesting:  Put six plastic cups of water on a tray and give your child food coloring and a small dropper to experiment with color.  Riley can spend an hour doing this at the end of the day.

4.   Drawing:  Markers and paper are always a great way to de-stress.  Stopping to think about or plan a drawing helps them refocus on a single goal (a great antidote for over-stimulation), while moving the marker across the page relaxes the senses.  In general, it’s best to let kids create what they want instead of trying to do art therapy, but prompting them with:  “can you draw how you’re feeling today?” or “let’s use the colors to show how you’re feeling” might help your child express herself non-verbally and give you an idea of how to better help her cope with her triggers.

5.   Play tools and gardening:  Children tend to carry their stress in their muscles because they often tense their muscles in response to triggers (tight fists, tight jaws, etc.).  Activities that cause them to tense and relax those muscles will help relieve some of that stress.  Play tool sets with hammers and “nails” can help them pound out some stress, while digging with gardening tools will have a similar effect.  Watering plants also provides a calming sensory experience.

6.   Bubbles:  When in doubt, blow bubbles!  Head outside and put your child in charge of the bubble blowing.  To successfully blow bubbles, kids need to take very deep breaths and blow the air out evenly.  Deep breathing is one of the most effective relaxation techniques around.  Please, save the automatic bubble blowers for birthday parties.  They need to use their bodies to make the most of this relaxing activity!

Adding a few de-stressing play activities into your day can help your child relieve some of the day to day stress that she experiences.

What playtime activities do you use to de-stress? 



About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)