Calming anxious kids through sensory play

Posted: 26 September, 2018

By: Marieta du Toit

Section: Education, Parenting

Calming anxious kids through sensory play

I consider myself one of the lucky people who experienced a mainly stress-free childhood. Afternoons were filled with valuable fun times spent with friends. After school and (a little bit of) homework, we’d ride our bicycles to the park, play on the slides and swings, climb trees, bake mud cakes, build imaginary castles in the sandpit, try to whistle like different birds, sing songs and literally smell the roses. Our parents allowed us to be bored and figure things out for ourselves. Home time was determined either by hunger pangs or the setting sun, whichever came first. And on the odd occasion, if you happened to hear the much-loved ice cream truck’s infamous tune and chase after it, there was dessert before supper. Life was good!

How things have changed…

Currently, kids are subjected to various daily stressors: crammed schedules, unrealistic academic demands, very little free time, multiple adult-directed extracurricular activities, emotional stress, limited exploration opportunities, to name but a few. As a result, our children’s stress levels are rising faster than inflation. We are finding that our kids are becoming more prone to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. That is just not right!

So, what can we do to turn back the hands of time and prevent children from becoming sad, depressed, anxious and eventually over-medicated human beings?


Our children need to experience what we were privileged enough to experience: contact with the tangible, magnificent world out there! Give them the opportunity to play, explore and learn through their senses. Engaging with their environments and thus experiencing life through sensory input results in neural pathways being formed… and before you know it, learning is taking place. When we learn through our senses, we use a bottom-up approach: input starts on a subconscious level and only relevant input gets registered on a conscious level. We are not consciously aware of each and every sensory input our nervous system receives. If we were, I believe we might all be diagnosed with concentration difficulties and having meltdowns might be a daily occurrence for most.

Even more importantly, play is a great source of happiness.
And who does not want to be happy?!?

Ideally, kids should “figure things out” for themselves and use their vivid, unique imaginations to come up with games to play. But to get the ball rolling, a few suggestions aimed at each of the 7 senses:

  • Movement
    – slide down a hill in a cardboard box
    – ride a bicycle
    – push your friend around in a wheelbarrow
  • Proprioception
    – play knee-soccer
    – tug-of-war
    – wheelbarrow walking
  • Tactile
    – collect different flowers, feathers, leaves and make bookmarks
    – build sandcastles
    – make mud-cakes
  • Visual
    – play “I spy with my little eye”
    – at night, go outside and look at the stars (with mom and dad)
    – have a treasure hunt
  • Auditory
    – play “the telephone game” or “Chinese whispers”
    – try to imitate bird sounds
    – identify sounds in nature
  • Smell
    – make playdough with different scents
    – help mom or dad with cooking
    – let kids choose their own shampoo in a shop
  • Taste
    – suck on different flavour ice lollies
    – bake cupcakes
    – have a blindfolded tasting competition

When our children get to play… not on tablets and watching tv, but REAL play like we used to do…  they get the opportunity to regulate their sensory systems and in turn their reactions to stimuli.   This is where they learn to listen to their bodies, take a break when less input is needed, and seek input opportunities when their systems need more.

A happy balanced sensory system will in turn result in a happy, balanced little human being.
Life can be good again!


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