Early childhood educator Amanda Ralph still remembers a preschooler who, when he got really frustrated, would throw things. “I’d direct him to the Play-Doh area,” says Ralph, who’s based in Surrey, England. “You can really mess with it and destroy it. It’s something you can use to take out that urge.”
Soon other revved-up kids were flocking to the Play-Doh station to depressurize, It was so effective that Ralph started mixing up her own clays and other squashable substances, and even wrote a book about them: Creative Sensory Play Recipe Toolkit.
Right now, a lot of us can relate to those frustrated children thanks to the pandemic. “There’s a lot of stress with not knowing what’s going on now, not feeling safe, and not knowing when this will be over,” says Tracy Turner-Bumberry, a licensed professional counselor and play therapist in Milledgeville, Georgia. Add in the lack of playdates and ordinary human contact, and we all need a way to depressurize.
And it might come in the form of slime.
How squishy stuff soothes
Sensory input—the info we receive through our senses so we can learn about the environment—sends messages to the nervous system. (Learn here how sensory input can help your child focus at home.) Negative input like the sound of a scream can push kids into a fight-or-flight response. But positive or enjoyable sensory input can do the opposite. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of rest and conserving physical energy. As pediatric neuropsychologist Marie Briody of Healthcare Associates in Medicine on Staten Island puts it, “Positive sensory input is activating more of the parasympathetic nervous system so we feel that we’re OK.”
While all the senses can promote relaxation, the sense of touch might be a route to a meditative state. “There’s something about different tactile things that actually creates a sense of mindfulness,” says Turner-Bumberry, author of 2, 4, 6, 8, This is How We Regulate!: 75 Play Therapy Activities to Increase Mindfulness in Children. “It helps children hone in on what’s happening right now and tune out past sadness or future anxiety. They notice that right in that moment, they’re touching something that feels so good in their hands.”
Ralph adds that when kids are using sensory manipulatives, “the brain switches off. There’s no right or wrong way, so it doesn’t feel stressed.”
Plus, toying with sensory squishies, mushies, and gooshies can build cognitive skills and may even help kids with their penmanship. “Children’s hands aren’t fully developed until they're about six or seven,” Ralph says. “So by using manipulative materials, it’s actually strengthening the hands and giving them strength for a pencil grip.”
5 relaxation recipes to try at home
Not all sensations feel good to all kids, and you may need to try more than one of these squishy recipes. Ralph suggests letting more sensitive kids explore and touch each ingredient before mixing it in. Turner-Bumberry recommends a ‘one-finger touch.’ “One finger is less stressful,” she says, “while a whole handful might be overwhelming.” And feel free to get your hands in them as well. “They may help you decouple from stress,” Ralph says.