Here, you'll find my writing as well as suggested reading and media.
1. Nature Mandala: best done in a natural setting where there are lots of safe bits and pieces of nature to explore
Whatever you find :)
You can begin simply introduce mandalas to your child by showing them pictures and pointing out the circular, radiating pattern that is common to mandalas. Explain the soothing nature of mandalas and, if you can, try to give cross-cultural examples while honoring the Hindu and Buddhist origins of this tradition.
Help your child collect items in your environment (shells, rocks, sticks, leaves, pine cones, etc.) You can collect all your materials first or collect as you build your mandala. Up to you!
You will begin the mandala with a defined circle, made from whatever you want. Bonus points if you can find a naturally occurring circle in your setting!
Your child will take their time. Give them space and time to collect items from nature and allow them to venture a distance away from you before returning to the mandala. This is a good way to help them build confidence and independence safely.
As your child returns help them create a radial pattern. If they don’t understand the concept or choose to create something totally different- that’s great! Encourage them to think freely!
Once you both agree that it’s complete, you may want to remind your child that this creation must stay in nature. It’s time to say goodbye to what you’ve created, take a picture of it or simply take a deep breath in with your child and move on.
The psychological benefits of mandalas have been well-documented. These patterns are meditative and naturally focusing for all ages. I’ve spoken about nature’s effects on one’s brain but I’ll mention here again- just being immersed in the outdoors is regulating to your child’s brain chemistry: their senses become engaged, distributing the cognitive load more evenly and brining them into the present without any effort. Our brains are designed to be creative and to interface with nature. Any activity that brings allows your child to be creative in nature will be beneficial. This activity also has a strong relational/attachment component, offering you the opportunity to praise your child, connect with them collaboratively and guide them to develop a sense of independence.
2. Sensory Box: this activity requires some forethought and planning. There are a wide variety of sensory-bins: wet, dry, shallow, deep. It’s up to you how much you want to invest. I’ll describe a bare-bones version here but feel free to elaborate and get creative!
A plastic bin or container with some depth- a shoe box could also suffice
A base material:
For a dry box: beans, rice, lentils (you could also use sand or any other material that might work)
For a wet box: shaving cream, water beads, water, cloud dough, etc.
Small objects with interesting tactile qualities such as:
-a piece of fun fur
The goal here is to help your child develop their ability to use touch to discern, and use their words to describe and use their imaginations to enjoy the mystery of discovering unknown objects within the tray.
Introduce the activity by telling them you’ve hidden some things inside beans/rice/lentils. Ask them to use their hands to try and gather clues about the objects. Invite them to tell you what they are feeling. They may want to close their eyes and as you ask them questions: is it hard or soft? Smooth or rough? Big, small, etc? When they make their guess they can pull the object out to see if they got it right. Either way join them in their curiosity and praise them for their discovery.
You can change out the objects each day and make this a sensory ritual at breakfast or after-school.
This activity is another opportunity to connect with your child as they develop regulatory skills. Our brains are so often overloaded with visual stimuli- asking a child to use touch to connect with their imaginal thinking is a great way to help them get grounded in their bodies, focused and calm. Because you’re with them through the activity you’re also helping them to develop a ritual of connecting with you in the present around a simple, fun, light-hearted activity.
3. Night hike: This one is best suited for those already comfortable with the outdoors.
None (maybe a flashlight!)
If you have a simple nature-walk you’re familiar with you can wait for a full moon and take your kids on a night hike. If you’re less comfortable with this, try an evening walk around the neighborhood. Let your child touch safe plant leaves or grasses. Their senses will be heightened- encourage their exploration and sense of adventure.
This activity is simple and it’s value lies in both the relational dynamic, sensory and nature-based elements. Beyond the brain science of nature-based and sensory immersions, this activity also invites your child to be a little courageous. If you are able to hold their hand through it- either literally or relationally- then this becomes great practice for them to learn that new experiences and tiny adventures can be fun and enjoyable.
4. Shaving Cream Painting: HIGHLY MESSY AND FUN!
Water colors & brushes
Mixing stick (optional)
A pieces of cardboard (2 per participant)
A tarp/placemat to keep things clean
Get ready to get messy. I’ll go over the nuts and bolts of this activity but I’ll leave the messy part up to you. Some parents prefer to do this activity outside and then rinse hands off with a hose. You’re the best judge of your child’s capacity for cleanliness so- up to you!
Spray some shaving cream on a piece of cardboard. Don’t set your kid up to fail if they have impulse issues- spray it yourself unless you know they can restrain themselves.
Demonstrate and describe to your child the process of dripping watercolor paint into the shaving cream.
Once you have a few different colors in the cream, use the back of the brush or a mixing stick to swirl the shaving cream around. This should leave a fluid and swirly pattern in the shaving cream.
Next, gently press your piece of paper onto the shaving cream color-swirl.
Lift the paper up after a few moments and scrape off the shaving cream.
A beautiful image of the swirly paint should remain on the page.
This is a simple creative arts activity designed to engage your child’s senses and imagination. The more involved you are with this activity, the more positive feelings your child will have about the natural imperfections that arise during the creative process. Allow them to make a mess, don’t judge their final product: the process is the point. It’s the journey not the destination.
5. Nostril Breathing: A classic breathing exercise that’s great for both parents and kids to learn
Come into a comfortable seated position. I recommend criss cross on a couch.
Use your thumb to close one nostril.
Breathe in through the other.
Release your thumb to open right nostril, and
Use your ring finger to close your left nostril.
Breathe in (still left nostril).
Close left and open right.
Close right nostril and open left.
Continue this for several rounds. It may be best to introduce your child to this as a mirror game, describing the steps (breathing in, breathing out). You may also want to go over this exercise a few times when they are calm before introducing it during a time of stress.
This classic breathing exercise comes from the world of yogic breathing. These techniques have a well-documented impact on soothing anxiety, relieving somatic symptoms of stress and increasing happiness. Feel free to ask your kid about how they feel before and after- use a thumbs up, middle or down, or a feelings chart. If your child demonstrates no change, not worries, keep trying!
1. Roses & Thorns: Can become a ritual done after school every day
Begin by introducing activity, then you can ask:
Rose of the day? (best part of the day)
Thorn of the day? (worst part of the day)
Bud of the day (something that they’re looking forward to)
Kids will sometimes over focus on either their rose or thorns. If they’re anything like one little girl I knew, it was all about the thorns. A lot of kids stop over-emphasizing the thorns when they feel confident that the adult in their lives really sees just how rough they feel. So resist the urge to cheer up right away and just focus on validating.
2. The Weather Report: Straight out of Theraplay this game is about visualization and connection with a younger child. Soothing and relaxing for children.
Have your child sit in front of you with their back to you. Sit behind them, legs crossed criss cross applesauce.
Ask them if it’s ok for you to touch their back. If they give a yes, you may continue.
Theraplay is a method of attachment-based directive play therapy techniques designed for accessing a child’s most basic brain systems. While this is a modality that is usually used for highly dysregulated children, I find that most of their games and methods can also be applied to children who developed healthy attachments early in life. This game uses touch and guided visualization to help children calm their nervous systems.
3. Altered Magazine Art
Acrylic Paints or Pastels
Magazines- pre-cut pages of large-scale images (black and white are best)
Offer your kid the chance to deface some magazines! Black and white magazines are the best. Invite them to color over or alter the images they find. Allow your kid the chance to be a little deviant- just be careful not to condemn them for the weird, “inappropriate” or goofy stuff they come up with. You can join them with your own pre-cut magazine images or let them go to town on these magazines while you’re chatting.
The benefit of giving your child a sanctioned place to be naughty: you’re giving them a container for their dark side. Tagging or defacing images is a really common behavior and impulse for young people. By harnessing that impulse in a creative and non-judgmental way, you allow your kid to explore their id, their shadow, their darker side without becoming overwhelmed by shame or guilt.
An entire roll of tin foil
Optional: some unbent metal paper clips to help build a structure
Offer your kid the opportunity to build something out of tin foil. It may be helpful if you make something yourself, first. One way to begin may be to make an imprint of your own hand or foot or even face. Your child may have the compulsion to crumple this up- don’t be deterred! This medium begs to be squashed. Once they get interested in playing with it, let them go to town.
The tactile nature of tin foil can be really fun for kids and teenagers alike. This is a great way to engage with your children creatively and collaboratively.
5. Nature Sensing: our sense of vision is overly relied upon and it can be fun and engaging to try using the other senses to engage with the world.
None- though it helps if you’re outside in a nature-immersive area.
You can have them open their eyes once you’ve gone through several questions and ask them to name one thing they see for each color of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple.
These questions are all designed to help your kid tap into their sensory experience. This is basic mindfulness and because these questions are interactive and physically-oriented, your kid will not get bored. In fact, they may feel some pride in being able to tell you the answers. If they don’t get the answers right, or have trouble with the exercise, no worries. Just move on to a different game.
Playing with kids can be fun, creative, imaginative...
And sometimes- really boring.
All parents want to see their children happy and playful- but it’s not always easy for adults to join in.
One of the biggest factors in childhood success is their caregiver’s engagement. So if you want some activities that will engage you both- you’re in the right place.
Every week, here on the blog, you’ll a new list of Play Everyday: a therapy-tested game, art activity or even mindfulness method for each day of the week. Weekends you’re off the hook- I’m more interested in the ways you engage with your kid after work and school end, when it’s all too easy to turn on the tv and tune out.
To get started, here are a few tips:
Tip #1: If you’d like to make a regular practice out of this list, prepare your kid by telling them. Let them know you want to spend a little more time with them every day and then be consistent with the time of day you begin.
Tip #2: Pick activities that are right for your kid and match your energy level. Anything else would be a set up for failure. Have some ‘low key’ activities ready in case you’re too wiped to get out the art supplies tonight.
All of these activities are about having fun and some can be used therapeutically during a difficult moment. So…
Tip #3: It’s important to remain non-judgmental- especially if your child isn’t interested in participating, or if they do it don’t quite get it “right”. If your child is disinterested, try not to feel too rejected or frustrated. Accept their ‘no’ and if possible reflect their disinterest with neutrality and openness: “Ok you’re not so into this. I’d really like to do something fun with you today- how about (fill in the blank with a broad alternative category- ie art, go outside, play a game)?”
It’s surprising to many parents how vulnerable this kind of open statement can be. But even if your kids further reject your entreaties, you’ve just modeled open communication, vulnerability and self-acceptance of your emotional needs. Well worth your time.
Tip #4: Try it yourself first. Even if you just read through the activity ahead of time- your kids will be much more engaged if you’ve already done the activity. When you come into this with confidence and can tailor it to your own child’s needs, they notice.
Tip #5: keep it simple. If it’s stressing you out to go and buy paints or whatever is being asked of you- stop.
A quick note about using these activities when a kid is losing their shit:
When a kid is tantrumming or having emotional overwhelm the first step is ALWAYS CHECK IN WITH YOURSELF FIRST. It only takes a couple seconds: Are you about to explode? Are you feeling humiliated, ashamed? Are you so fed up and even angry at yourself? Are you this close to leaving this kid in the parking lot and never coming back?? Kids can be… triggering. And your need to feel contained is A NEED. Not an ideal state or preference: you not only deserve but NEED containment. So before reacting, whenever possible: try to contain yourself first. And if you’re not perfect- well, welcome to the club. See my list of parent self-care activities to get started on your containment tool kit. Remember: have fun!
Like what you see but you’re not sure if it’s a perfect fit? Email me to get a free customized playlist for your kids.
The Play Every Day List: Oct. 7th, 2019
1. Progressive Relaxation
Start practicing this daily so that the next time your child is overwhelmed or angry you can ask them to walk through this with you. *
Materials Needed: None. Just a quiet room.
Introduce the activity along appropriate developmental lines (see below). If your child is open, you may lead according to these steps:
Try it a couple times- make sure they progressively get tighter, not all at once.
Older kids can be informed really directly about the purpose and benefits of this. In fact many of them might be interested to know about this ‘brain hack’. But little ones might need a story. Think about how your child might conceptualize their anger? One little boy I know called it “lightning inside me”. Another might relate to a reference to Star Wars. Modeling this one can be really helpful so give it a try first!
Progressive relaxation was invented in the 1930’s by Edmund Jacobson and has been proven to regulate the ANS (autonomic nervous system) which is associated with fight-flight-freeze responses and the release of cortisol and adrenaline. Here’s some more scripts if your child enjoys this technique: https://depts.washington.edu/hcsats/PDF/TF-%20CBT/pages/4%20Emotion%20Regulation%20Skills/Client%20Handouts/Relaxation/Relaxation%20Script%20for%20Younger%20Children.pdf
2. Scribble Chase: A great warm up activity to garner engagement and collaborative energy from your kid.
A piece of paper
2 different colored pens/markers
Adult begins by explaining that the child’s only goal is to keep their pen against the paper without lifting off, following your own pen’s line. Move slowly up and down, then side to side a times. Circles and figure eights can follow. Then- switch roles! Notice if your child wants to go super fast as the leader- this is common. Just lightly reflect that they’re having fun going faster than you.
After a minute of your child leading, you can stop and ask if they can find any pictures or images in the scribble. Regard the scribble with them. When they find something, encourage them to show you by coloring it in or making the images stand out. You can then ask them to tell you a story about the image.
A deceptively simple game- but I find it can often reveal all sorts of relational and developmental pieces. This activity is about waking up a kid’s engagement. It’s relational and somatic- which means it’s getting your kid plugged in on a number of levels including kinesthetic, cognitive, creative and relational.
3. Silly Answer Game: Best with at least three people but can be done with just two.
Begin by introducing the following steps:
“What is your favorite food?”
“Who is Pikachu?”
This silly little game encourages attachment and connection. Sometimes it’s also a great place for authentic expression. Kids and adults alike can share unnamable negative or ambivalent feelings without ever uttering a word. And then- feel supported through mirroring and validation from the people around them.
4. Hand Portrait: can be done after a disappointing experience or just a long day.
any decorations and glue you may have
Trace both hands on one piece of paper, with some portion of the hands overlapping. You can do this for your child, or perhaps they can show you how well they can do it for themselves.
The inside left hand represents what was hoped for. Your child can write words but it’s often better to just color and decorate. If you have a young child, you can ask them to color things that remind them of feeling happy and hopeful.
Within the right hand: what was disappointing or difficult.
The overlap: where you got what you needed. Even if it means it eventually ended: it’s important that your child recognize that the disappointing thing is over and that they’re safe now.
When they’ve completed the activity you can go over it with them, offering empathy and a lot of emphasis on the middle section.
A lot has been written in the art therapy community about containment activities. If your child is feeling frustrated or disappointed about something, they may need help holding, containing or conceptualizing their experience. It can be helpful for them to use their executive functioning skills to manage difficult feelings; and then find a silver lining without dismissing their authentic experience. This activity also engages bi-neural pathways in the brain, promoting regulation and development out of that rigid black-and-white thinking that so many kids have.
5. Scavenger Hunt & Art Project: best done outside in a space with trees and rocks, yet also far away from any poison ivy or oak :)
A pre-written list of scavenger hunt items: things you can find in nature
Optional: glue and paper for final art collaboration
Begin by having a list handy and ask the children to find the items.
I’ve purposely made the list vague- the goal is to have kids using their senses and get away from trying to “do it right”. They’ll be doing it right by showing up with what they consider beautiful.
Once the child/children have collected these things, ask them to make something together out of their materials. Join them by starting a mandala, a fairy cottage or even making a face out of the objects. Extra points if you can each take turns arranging objects. If not- so be it!
This activity gets kids engaged with nature as well as their prefrontal and limbic brain systems. The scavenging allows them to feel accomplishment and mastery while also sharing their ideas of what ‘beautiful’ and ‘strange’ look and feel like- what a self-esteem booster! And finally, the art component encourages cooperation and creativity.
“Can we do the sunshine thing again?”
It was a warm morning in early October in a hallway of the public elementary school where I worked as a counselor. Even as I turned to respond to the small voice, I knew who it would be. For several weeks I had been working with a very smart and very angry little girl, who had a propensity for hurling both insults and books at her teacher. Now shy and quieted, she stood before me requesting a guided meditation activity I had only just introduced to her. I smiled and led her into the sensory garden just outside the door.
Like almost all guided meditations, our sessions began with an invitation to notice her breathing. As she breathed in, I asked her to simply notice: notice the feeling of fresh morning air; notice how it feels as it travels from nose to throat to belly, then back out again. This simple noticing of breath forms the basis of mindful meditation. It also soothes the vagus nerve, a nerve responsible for fight-flight-freeze responses, emotional regulation and self-soothing. Breathing slowly, especially elongating the out breath, is a simple way for any of us to get out of the emotionally-drenched narratives we hold onto when upset, and get into the safety of a grounded and embodied here-and-now experience. With some children, I use games to help them stay aware of their breathing. Others require little to no guidance.
With this particular girl, I often used guided imagery to help her self-soothe: the fresh morning air can be imagined as blue light, traveling down into her belly, a place she had previously named as the location of her anger. Soothing, cool blue light in, carrying hot, red anger out. In and out, in and out. Visualization has well-documented effects on our blood pressure and decrease stress, so much so, that medical doctors often prescribe it prior to a major surgery. After years of using this technique, I’m still amazed at how much we can achieve by simply using our imaginations!
After several moments of this visualization, I asked my client to focus on the physical feeling of her feet on the ground, her bottom in her chair, her hands in her lap. Here, I am asking this student to take a step outside of her inner world and back into the physical world. Awareness of our physical sensations can be a major resource in managing emotional overwhelm, and kids can especially feel a sense of control over confusing internal experiences.
In our final mindfulness activity, I included nature to help us connect more deeply with the sensations provided by the outside world, while staying anchored in the safety of her body. In this fast-moving, sensory-overload world, connecting with the outside world (i.e. a loud and smelly cafeteria) isn’t always optimal. The world we live in often trains us to shut down. That’s why I use nature whenever I can.
“Let yourself notice the warmth of the sun on your skin.” (Here I may ask her where she can feel the warmth of the sun.)
“Notice how the sunlight looks through your eyelids.” (I might have her turn slowly to notice the difference in brightness depending on which way she’s facing.)
After a moment, I asked her to use her growing sensory awareness to find the sun’s location without opening her eyes. Smiling, she confidently pointed up at the rising sun. Using her body to stay tuned into the external world can be applied to many different natural stimuli:
“What direction is the wind blowing?”
“Can you name three different sounds you are hearing right now?”
“How does the ground under your feet feel?”
The sensory garden was full of plants with different textures, tastes and smells. At different points throughout the school year, this child would come and silently experience these plants, using her sensing body to soothe her anger. Eventually, she was able to simply imagine the smells of, for example, lavender, while in her classroom.
On this particular day, still early in the therapeutic relationship, she was able to simply use her own body’s sensations and imagination to self-soothe. At the close of our exercise, a deep sigh told me that this child was feeling ready to go back to her classroom. She had opened the door to self-understanding a little bit more that morning.
Anger, sadness and other difficult emotions can easily overwhelm a triggered child or teen. In my sessions, I try to follow a direct path that leads the client out of chaotic, often fear-filled emotions and thoughts and into the slow, calming dimension of sensory experience. This journey is not meant to replace or avoid the difficult emotions- indeed, the client discussed above required more depth and empathy than simple mindfulness could provide. Instead, we used those exercises to create a necessary base camp of calm from which to venture forth and explore the rocky terrain of shame, sadness and anger.
Nature plays a key role in this work: study after study shows us that natural, “non-human” settings soothe our weary, twenty-first century nervous systems. Because the truth is, our nervous systems aren’t made by or for the twenty-first century. Our bodies, brain and sensory-systems included, evolved to interface with the natural world and are largely the same systems that our ancient ancestors used to thrive in the natural world.
Noticing our bodies and selecting “wholesome” sensory input such as sunshine or wind and birdsong, is inherently comforting and relaxing for human beings. Practicing this skill can lead to deeper experiences of self-knowledge and self-soothing when we hit rough moments. The little girl I worked with had never been camping and was not aware of the regional park system in the Bay Area. She had little common knowledge of nature and almost no experience with it. But day after day she requested time in the school’s sensory garden, time in which she could engage with her senses and nature and “do the sunshine thing again.” Whether you’re 8 or 80, tuning into your body and it’s connection to nature is one of the simplest and most effective ways to feel good about where you are.
What is play therapy?
Rather than use words, children use play to act out their emotions, past experiences, hopes and fears. Therefore therapists working with young people usually use some type of play therapy to help their clients manage difficult emotions and behaviors. There are several forms that play therapy can take but child-centered play therapy is non-directive, allowing the child the be the source of direction and growth. In this style of treatment, the therapist follows the lead of the child using empathy, reflection, unconditional positive regard and attachment principles to create an environment of acceptance and safety. Within this therapeutic context, children have the opportunity to express their anger, hostility, longing and loneliness and receive acceptance, encouragement and recognition. Most play therapists regard behavioral problems in children as failed attempts by the child to make their needs known. Within the therapeutic room, these maladaptive attempts to be true to themselves are accepted and eventually transformed through the play and the relationship with the therapist. A similar process can be seen in adult talk therapy, by which self-expression and examination lead to understanding, acceptance and transformation.
Does my child need play therapy?
If you’re interested in play therapy, chances are you have a child in your life you’re seeking help for. Play therapy might be right for your child if they’re suffering from emotional distress, caught in a negative behavioral cycle, are suffering from low self-esteem or if you’re anticipating emotional distress from an upcoming disruption (i.e. divorce). While many parents understand that their child is in distress, it can be difficult to know how to handle difficult behavior, depression, anger and hostility, anxiety or hyperactivity or withdrawal from normal behaviors. Often, parents are not completely sure why their child needs therapy and that’s ok- play therapy is as diagnostic as it is curative. Play therapy offers children a safe container for emotional distress and help kids develop a strong sense of self-esteem, the opportunity to learn positive communication skills and the chance for creative self-expression. For a more personalized assessment, please feel free to contact me.
What psychological traditions did it arise from?
Anna Freud and Melanie Klein were some of the earliest thinkers in the child psychology domain. Freud believed that play could reveal a child’s unconscious mind and create a mutual understanding between adult and child. Klein also viewed play as a sort of substitute for adult verbalizing. It was Virginia Axline that emphasized the importance of the therapist-child relationship, pointing out the imperative of giving a child “freedom and room to state himself in his own terms”.
What kinds of tools does it employ?
Play therapy uses a wide variety of toys and art supplies including: dolls, puppets, toy food, doctors kits, costumes, trucks and trains, blocks, clay, paint, markers and other art supplies. One child may use art materials to convey his need for boundaries where another child may use dolls to express rage towards family members. Truthfully, one of the best parts of my job is that every child is unique and plays in highly individualistic ways. In play therapy, a child is given free reign to pick up and play with whatever they are drawn to. Some of the richest therapeutic moments occur when a child invites the therapist to play, assigning a puppet or toy to interact with their own. In fact, one of the only universal themes within psychology occurs at the beginning of the process when most will begin by testing the therapeutic relationship for acceptance and encouragement. In response to such tests, the therapist’s use of unconditional positive regard and attachment will give a child permission to emote and explore that which had been previously fearful or chaotic territory.
Why is it effective?
Play therapy offers children psychological freedom to express themselves. The impact of this experience cannot be overstated. Freedom to express oneself is dependent upon the relationship and environment created by the therapist: one of empowerment, safety and acceptance. Much as in adult talk therapy, this helps children internalize a positive self-acceptance around emotions that are previously rejected and dis-owned. Empirical studies show us that play therapy is effective in helping children manage their emotions and experience relief from a wide variety of mental and emotional health symptoms.