Health & Science

A week’s worth of fun mental health activities for kids

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Just like our children’s physical health is important, so too is their mental health. Rather than wait for those moments when your child is upset, nervous, anxious, or overwhelmed, you can spend some time now practicing a few fun mental health activities that can redirect your child’s mood, thoughts, and feelings towards something more positive. This way when stressful moments arise, they’ll have coping skills at the ready — and they’ll be better prepared to handle tough times so they pass more smoothly and quickly. Following are seven such activities — one for every day of the week!

DAY 1: Build a calming basket

Having a list of ways to feel better can be a huge help when your child is upset. It’s a great idea to think through some calming tricks and activities that work for them ahead of time, since none of us do our best thinking when we’re already stressed. 

Sit down with your child and write down activities that make them feel good in general, whether it’s listening to a favorite song, hugging a lovey, or taking a walk. Then toss those ideas into a “calming” basket. The basket could also contain art supplies if they find drawing or painting relaxing, soft pillows and blankets, fidget toys, or other comforting items. Younger kids may have more fun drawing pictures that represent the different activities, then placing the drawings somewhere where they can easily see them. Not only is the basket fun to put together, but this way they’ll have a ready resource to turn to the next time they’re struggling. 

DAY 2: Have a party

It might seem like a strange thing to do when you’re upset or nervous, but having the right kind of party at the right time can do wonders for your mood. One mom told us on Facebook that when the world becomes too much for her and her kids, they get together and have a dance party—or a cry party. It’s whatever the mood calls for. 

The mood-boosting benefits of an upbeat dance party might be obvious, but studies show that crying also elevates mood—it reduces stress, releases oxytocin and endorphins which ease physical and emotional pain, and might even help flush stress hormones from the body. The physical release of both a cry party and a dance party provides a great way to relieve stress while creating a safe environment to talk about emotions. Spend some time deciding what kind of party feels right for your family, and flip the switch to it from time to time to keep those feel-good hormones flowing. 

DAY 3: Swing

One mom told us that her family hung a swing from a tree in their yard and whenever someone in the family feels overwhelmed, “they swing for a bit.” It’s kind of like having a calming corner to go to when the world starts to feel like it’s closing in on you—or even when you just want to take a break in the middle of the day. The rhythmic nature of a playground or backyard swing has an incredible effect on the mind and mood, and even releases feel-good endorphins. “The repetitiveness of rocking is very soothing, it’s why we rock a baby,” says Kristen O’Rourke, a licensed clinical social worker and the owner of In-Home Child and Family Counseling in New City, New York, as well as the author of the children’s book There’s A Bully Inside My Brain. “The back and forth motion is also very comforting because it settles you down and helps you breathe slower.” 

Don’t have access to a swing at home or a nearby playground? All you really need to reap these calming benefits is that general motion—here are a few other ways to “swing,” without an actual swing.

  • Rock in a rocking chair
  • Balance on a yoga ball
  • Bend over at the waist, hold your forearms in each hand, relax your head and arms, and gently rock back and forth
  • Secure a long sheet around the top of a sturdy table, and small kids can swing in the “hammock” formed underneath
  • If you’re able, let them climb on your back while you’re on all fours and gently sway back and forth

However you do it, swinging is a great antidote to daily stress and anxiety.

DAY 4: Make a calm down jar

Kind of like a DIY snow globe, this simple, fun activity is the craft project that keeps giving and giving. Mix warm water, glitter glue, and glitter in a glass jar or plastic bottle. Then whenever your kiddo has a stressful moment, have them shake it up and watch as the glitter floats slowly to the bottom. “It is incredibly soothing and relaxing to watch,” O’Rourke says. “Encourage them to do some deep breathing as they watch as well to incorporate some mindfulness.” 

DAY 5: Play with water

Generally speaking, a fast heart rate aligns with upset, worried, anxious, or nervous feelings. Conversely, a lower heart rate can help induce a calm, relaxed state. Almost anything that involves water has the same effect—and promotes overall positive mental health when it’s incorporated into our daily routines, says O’Rourke. Research shows that even simply drinking water decreases anxiety! For some people, just gazing out at water can be incredibly soothing, so if you live near a lake, pond, or beach, making regular visits to those places can help. And even if you don’t, studies indicate that simply looking at pictures of natural settings or listening to nature sounds can boost your child’s mental health as well.

Here are a few other water-based activities to try:

  • Warm bubble bath
  • Sink play with containers, toys, dish soap, or sponges
  • Paint salt onto ice cubes to see them melt

DAY 6: Unleash your creativity

Coloring, drawing, or journaling can be very soothing to some children, so making creative endeavors a part of your overall routine can make a big impact over time. The repetitive nature and quiet concentration that’s required of activities like these can have a positive effect on how a child feels and what he thinks about. The best part is that there’s no limit to the ways children can get creative. One mom told us on Facebook about a new trend called diamond painting that’s sort of a mix of painting by numbers and cross stitching. “Honestly it’s been the best,” she says. “We haven’t had anxiety attacks or meltdowns and even [my son’s] penmanship has gotten way better.” 

DAY 7: Make a date

Connections with people are key to mental health. Now more than ever it’s important to maintain those connections for your child any way you can, especially if you’re distance learning. “In fact, incorporating that into your day-to-day life is important,” O’Rourke says. This can be more complicated during the pandemic, but it’s definitely possible! Whether it’s a phone, FaceTime, or Zoom call with a grandparent, a socially distanced play date with a friend, or a pen pal-type of situation that keeps them connected to a friend, there’s just no substitute for human interaction.

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.