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.
Crumbly Cloud Dough
Just mix 8 parts flour with 1 part oil to create a fluffy substance. For scented sensory input, “using baby oil instead of corn oil gives it a really nice smell,” Ralph says.
Storage: keeps indefinitely in a sealed bag or container
4 cups play sand
2 cups corn starch
1-3 cups water
Food coloring (optional)
A few shakes of your favorite strong spices, such as cinnamon (optional)
Mix all ingredients together in a tray. The sand will hold together. If mixture dries, add water to reconstitute.
Storage: keeps indefinitely in a plastic bag or sealed container
2 cups baking soda
1 cup corn starch
1 cup warm water
Mix all the ingredients in a pan and warm through on moderate heat, stirring regularly until the sauce thickens, comes away from the sides, and resembles mashed potatoes. Just after this stage, when it looks like a play dough, turn off the heat and turn the clay onto a surface or into a bowl, and let it cool a little. When you can comfortably touch it, knead until it is smooth and pliable.
Storage: wrap in cling film or a plastic bag and keep in an airtight container to prevent it from drying out
Edible Finger Paint
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup flour
2 cups water
Whisk sugar, flour, and water together in a pan. Heat until the mixture thickens and lumps disappear. Divide the “paint” into jars and add food coloring as desired.
Storage: keeps about two weeks in the fridge
2 tablespoons psyllium powder (available in health food stores or online)
1 cup water
Whisk all the ingredients together in a saucepan until it’s lump-free. Cool over medium heat, whisking constantly until the mixture starts to bubble. Then turn down the heat and continue to whisk and cook for 3-5 minutes until the mixture no longer sticks to the whisk. Let the mixture cool completely. Add water for thinner slime.
Storage: keeps for several weeks in a plastic container in the fridge