How slimes and squishies soothe children in times of stress

From moon sand to cloud dough, these DIY recipes will help kids relax and decompress at home.

Published 19 Oct 2020, 12:10 BST, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 04:57 GMT
Photograph by StockRocket / Getty Images

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. “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 depressurise. 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 counsellor and play therapist in Milledgeville, Georgia. Add in the lack of playdates and ordinary human contact, and we all need a way to depressurise.

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. (Flower power: Combining science and art to get kids exploring.) 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.

1. CRUMBLY CLOUD DOUGH 

This “dough” is more like magical powder that holds together when it's squeezed, then softly crumbles apart. It can be great for kids who crave delicate, soft textures.

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

2. MOON SAND

Kids who crave more intense sensory input may be drawn to the gritty texture of sand. Depending on how much input your child likes, you can try finer or rougher sand. This recipe can scratch tables and floors, so Ralph recommends this one for outside play.

4 cups play sand

2 cups corn starch

1-3 cups water

Food colouring (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

“Toying with sensory squishies, mushies, and gooshies can build cognitive skills and may even help kids with their penmanship.”

3. WHITE CLAY 

Clay is firmer and tougher than dough, and can be great for kids who want to pound, tear, and pull. This one can be good for kids with allergies, as it’s free of scents or colorings.

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

4. EDIBLE FINGER PAINT

Ralph explains that this paint is great for “process art,” which means it’s not about making a picture—the fun is in the doing! Kids can enjoy the pudding-like feel of this paint (especially when it’s chilled) and get satisfying visual input from bright colors. Plus it’s safe for even the youngest users.

3 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup flour

2 cups water

Food colouring

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 colouring as desired.

Storage: keeps about two weeks in the fridge

5. EDIBLE SLIME

Ooey, gooey—there’s nothing like the feeling of slime! If your kid can’t get enough of this squelchy sensation, try this simple recipe.

2 tablespoons psyllium powder (available in health food stores or online)

1 cup water

Food colouring

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

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