Between a global pandemic, an unprecedented economic crisis, and an uncertain back-to-school season, we’re all stressed, and kids are no exception. The difference is, unlike adults, kids often lack the language to articulate their stress and the skills to self-soothe. In addition to movement, talking with a calm and non-judgmental parent, and, if necessary, getting professional help, stress-relief toys can help kids express themselves and self-soothe.
Kids’ stress may manifest in different ways, says North Carolina-based psychologist Caroline Hexdall, Ph.D. — from irritability to trouble sleeping or refusing to complete normal tasks and activities. Psychologist Regine Muradian, the author of Franky and the Worry Bees, agrees: Stress in kids, she explains, can look like nail-biting, fidgeting, excessive playing with the hair, stomach pains, nausea, rapid heart rate, diarrhea, and shortness of breath.
Kids work through stress differently from adults, though, and toys can be an important tool in the stress-relief toolbox.
“Playing is the language that children really understand,” Hexdall says. “It doesn’t require a whole lot of in-depth thinking, it can be more spontaneous, and often when we’re playing, we may express ourselves in a less inhibited way. We really get a sense of how kids are feeling through play. We can kind of communicate our message to them in a way that it’s sort of speaking their language,” Hexdall says. Muradian adds that toys are “helpful for distracting the mind and redirecting stress and anxiety to the toy.”
There’s a big market for stress-relief toys and activities, from the classic stress ball to therapy dough (aka rebranded play dough) stress-relief coloring pages, and meditations. Hexdall says parents should choose stress-relief toys based on their child’s interests: Go with “whatever they’re drawn to. If it’s sports, maybe finding a stress ball that matches the theme of the sport.”
Toys that require a lot of touching and encourage movement can be particularly useful for stress relief, Hexdall says. “Toys are often tactile, which helps release more emotion through movement. Anything that they can kind of sink their hands into is something that kids really seem to enjoy,” Hexdall says. In her office, she uses things like putty, stress balls, pipe cleaners, and other fidget toys, as well as something called a Hoberman sphere. Though the name might not sound familiar, Hoberman spheres are classic – they’re that spiky plastic and/or wire spheres that can contract and expand. Hexdall will sometimes use them with clients as a metaphor for big emotions or as a visual for breathing techniques.
Adults can join in on the fun too. Muradian says play can be an effective means of stress reduction for adults, as it releases endorphins, and research shows that more playful people tend to be less stressed and have healthier coping mechanisms. It makes sense: Stealing your kid’s lavender silly putty beats reaching for the booze. Here are some great stress-relief toys to start with.
The Best Stress-Relief Toys for Kids
Despite their similarity, this 'therapy dough' has the opposite of the chaotic energy elicited some play dough sets. It comes in lavender, eucalyptus, orange, peppermint, and a scent called north woods pine. It's handmade in Portland, Maine, with just a few simple ingredients.
This dog tag necklace offers a more kid-friendly style of chewable necklace made from nontoxic materials with a breakaway clasp for safety.
This fidgety keychain features two silicon buttons for all of your popping needs.
Stress balls of any shape will do, but this sloth one is extra cute.
The Buddha Board is kind of like a zen Magna doodle. You paint on the board with water, and within minutes the water evaporates and your drawing disappears, leaving a blank slate behind. Appreciate your masterpiece at the moment, and then practice letting it go.
This smaller version of the Buddha Board doesn't allow for quite as much freedom of movement but is much more portable.
Movement is a powerful tool for relieving stress. These dice gamify it, making yoga playful and approachable for kids. Each of the seven dice correlates to a different chakra, but all kids need to know is that they roll them and then replicate the moves printed on the side that's face up.
Twisting these into different shapes can by oddly soothing and make for tons of different crafts.
This classic stress relief toy is simple but addicting. Expand and compress the ball and watch your stress melt away.
The bright colors and big textures of these sensory balls can help kids focus and have something to do with their hands.
This card deck includes 50 illustrated mindfulness activities for kids that help them manage their emotions. They feature short enough activities to keep a kid's attention and include modifications for children of all abilities.
This adorable keychain lets you pop the edamame in and out of their shell. It's a fidget toy at its cutest.
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