Community and trauma counseling student shares activities to positively engage children.
Editor’s Note: Community and trauma counseling student Carson Eckard wrote this piece for Counseling Today. It’s reprinted below with permission.
To combat the toxic stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, I have created a list of activities to positively engage children during this time. The following list includes a description of what each activity is, what materials are needed (with an understanding that many families are under financial hardship) and the possible psychological benefits of the activity.
These activities are designed for entire families, including adults, to reduce stress and promote healing during the pandemic. Most of these activities can be done either inside or outside and can be tailored to individual interests, ages and ability levels.
Board Games and Card Games
When everyone is stuck at home, board games and card games are a great option for helping the entire family to connect. For younger kids, games such as Go Fish, Candy Land and Guess Who could be hits, whereas older kids may like Monopoly, Clue and Sorry.
If you don’t have any board games at home, use paper or cardboard to create your own. WikiHow has information on steps to take when you’d like to create your own board game. Make sure your child is part of the creative process of creating the game if you choose to make your own.
For more information on why board games are good for a child’s mental health, as well as a breakdown of age-appropriate games, check this link from Manhattan Psychology Group.
Materials: Cardboard, paper, markers, small toys, etc.
Psychological benefit: Playing fun games decreases anxiety and can increase confidence in children. Some games include aspects of problem-solving and can access the cortex for children who feel safe. Board games allow for healthy cognitive and social development for children.
This activity will get the whole family moving. Use objects around the house to get the family involved. This could include climbing under or over chairs, throwing a bundle of socks into a laundry basket, spinning, using paper strips in place of lasers and so on.
Inside, a slower pace can be taken to ensure that nothing gets broken and no one gets hurt. If you have access to an outdoor space or a sidewalk in front of your home, you can create an obstacle course out of chalk. Here’s an example.
This website includes a list of materials to use.
This slideshow has ideas for children in wheelchairs.
Materials: Whatever you have in the house
Ages: Toddlers and early elementary-age children
Psychological benefit: Obstacle courses can target many aspects of a child’s brain, including sensory input, motor planning, coordination, sequencing and problem-solving. They can also reduce psychological stress and anxiety. When more people participate, the teamwork and competition can provide some of the social interaction children have been missing from environments such as school.
This activity allows children to engage in imaginary play by creating plots to their own stories. When the story is written, have the child cast the characters in the story, find props (or imagine them) and direct the scene. If there aren’t enough family members to act out the scene, consider playing multiple parts at once or having the child draw the characters instead. Children may need direction and prompting but allow them to be in control of constructing their own narrative. Activities that could be added include constructing sets and props and making movie posters.
Materials: Whatever you have in the house—paper, markers, drawing materials and prop-making materials
Ages: Toddlers through early middle school age
Psychological benefit: During the pandemic, children may be struggling with an inability to control the situation. When they are able to control a scene and story in a healthy way, it can reduce their stress and promote individuality and resilience. Furthermore, creativity reduces anxiety and depression and can help children process toxic stress.
Mazes and Finger Labyrinths
Mazes and finger labyrinths are easily made at home. They are a great brain teaser for kids and can also be extremely relaxing. Finger labyrinths are just like mazes, but instead of drawing a line to the exit, a finger is used to follow the path. When paired with deep breathing exercises, this can have a meditative quality.
For help on constructing labyrinths made out of materials such as rice, Play-Doh, paperclips and more, go to this website.
The Labyrinth Society offers an online resource for downloadable and printable finger labyrinths.
The All Kids Network has many printable mazes for kids.
Materials: Paper, printer, something to write with
Ages: Whereas mazes are most engaging for children ages 3-6, finger labyrinths are a good mindfulness activity for children of all ages
Psychological benefit: Mazes offer many benefits to a child’s development, including problem-solving and motor control. Children will need patience and persistence to complete the puzzle and, once done, may experience a boost of confidence. Finger labyrinths originated in prayer but are also used as a grounding exercise.
Turn up your favorite songs and get moving. Be sure to build a playlist the entire family can move to. Only upbeat jams! Spotify is a free service you can use to build playlists if you establish an account. Spotify playlists that might make for fun dance parties can be found here. You may need to look around to find a playlist without explicit lyrics, but Spotify does offer an explicit content filter in its settings. Other free services include Amazon Music, Pandora, iHeartRadio and YouTube, but most have ads and can incorporate explicit lyrics, so be careful.
Materials: A phone, laptop, tablet or any device that plays music
Psychological benefit: Dancing is both great exercise and a form of creative expression. Dancing keeps your heart healthy and muscles strong, improves coordination and balance, and provides an outlet for emotions. Music activates the cerebellum, stimulates the release of hormones that reduce stress and improves self-esteem.
On a similar note to a dance party, a karaoke party could be another viable option for the family. Because you want family members to sing, I recommend using YouTube and allowing each person to pick a song of their choice, unless you have a premium subscription for a music streaming service. As a finale, try singing a few songs that everyone knows together. For an added bonus, try creating a song by making your own lyrics and finding objects around the house to use as instruments.
Materials: A phone, laptop, tablet or any device that plays music; maybe a prop to use as a “microphone”
Psychological benefit: Singing releases hormones that reduce stress and make us feel happy, improves mental alertness and helps us control our breath flow, which can help us regulate. Singing also helps children’s communication skills and self-esteem. Studies show that singing stimulates the vagus nerve responsible for our senses, motor function, digestion, respiration and heart rate. When stimulated, the vagus nerve reduces stress, lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, and reduces inflammation.
Let your child become the expert and pretend to be a teacher of whatever they are passionate about. This can take a more “formal” approach by pretending to be in school, or it can be more informal, simply asking them questions about the things they are interested in. This helps children realize that adults don’t know everything and allows them to develop as individuals.
Ages: Elementary school age (Note: It is beneficial and important to ask children of any age about their interests to strengthen your relationship with them)
Psychological benefit: Taking on a formal “school” scenario involves imaginative play. Imaginative play allows children to experiment with different interests and skills. Furthermore, children who engage in pretend play are understanding social relationships, expressing and understanding emotions, expressing themselves both verbally and nonverbally, and practicing problem-solving skills. If imaginative play isn’t your cup of tea, have conversations with your child about their passions or interests. These kinds of conversations will help you and your child relate to each other more.
Although it may be difficult to practice advanced yoga poses with younger kids, it is possible to find something appropriate for their level. One of the most important aspects of yoga is breathing. Try doing the yoga poses with your child. Model a positive attitude and a willingness to try new poses, and compliment the child when poses are attempted. Make sure the poses are not too advanced for children or they may become frustrated.
Here is a free YouTube video of yoga poses that you can do with children. If you do not have access to a video device or the child would not benefit from structured instructions found in a video, you can find printable yoga poses from Kids Yoga Stories. If you and the child are new to yoga, it is vitally important to follow a guide to ensure that you are not hurting yourself or the child.
Materials: A guide to follow (either pictures or a video)
Psychological benefit: It is no secret that yoga has therapeutic qualities, such as offering a sense of calmness and relaxation. Furthermore, yoga enhances children’s flexibility, strength, coordination and body awareness. Doing yoga can reduce muscle tension held in our bodies and is another activity that stimulates the vagus nerve, which reduces stress, lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, and reduces inflammation.
This category can depend on whether there is space to move around and interact with each other, but there are options for small spaces too. Each activity is meant to allow children to have fun and can be created with multiple objects around the house.
The Fatherly website has many ideas, such as balloon tennis, for bigger spaces. Roll up some paper and make a ball or a puck to kick, throw or hit around the house. Use a balloon to play volleyball or keep-up. If you have a smaller space, perhaps finger football might suit your needs.
Materials: Anything you can find around the house
Ages: Early elementary to early middle school age
Psychological benefit: If your family doesn’t have much space to run around and play, even the simplest games such as finger football increase coordination. In addition, these sports need multiple participants, which assists in the social development of the child.
Many video games are not family friendly or age appropriate for children. However, many options are available for younger kids both online and offline. PBS Kids offers many educational games for young children. Older kids may benefit from playing games online with their friends. Among popular options are Fortnite, Roblox, Minecraft, League of Legends and titles usually found on consoles, such as NBA 2K and Call of Duty. Many of these games are not free (some can be very expensive), and many are not appropriate for all kids. Have a conversation with your children about what their friends are playing, and then set healthy boundaries around screen time.
There are also online video games that you can play with your family and friends. Popular options include Kahoot, Jackbox Party Pack, digital board games through apps, Mario Kart Tour and others. Many of these games require only your phone or another device with internet access.
Materials: Games to play and something to play on
Ages: Any (as long as you monitor what games they are playing)
Psychological benefit: Your child is likely missing their friends from school and other environments. Allowing children to play video games with their friends online can help them stay connected and have fun. With all ages, video games offer an outlet for motor development, the release of stress relief hormones, social interaction, problem-solving, development of leadership skills and increased alertness.
If you’ve ever been to summer camp, call-and-response songs will be familiar to you. These songs are started by one person and imitated by another person or group. For children, particularly those with special needs, transitions between activities may be challenging. (Side note: I worked at a summer camp with children with autism spectrum disorder, and mealtimes were one of the most stressful parts of the day for them. Singing a simple song such as, “We put our foot up on the tree, we put our foot up on the tree, we put our feet up on the tree so that we can eat,” makes these times less stressful for all.)
Performing a quick redirect activity, such as a call-and-response song, can lighten the mood and offer a fun incentive for completing an activity. Although there are already call-and-response songs that you can utilize, you can also make your own (or change the words to an existing song) to suit the child’s needs. This activity could also be paired with dance moves or even a camp-themed day.
Go to Ultimate Camp Resource for a list of call-and-response songs. Design Improvised has a great list of themed summer camp ideas to use if you’d like to host a camp-themed day at home.
Ages: Toddler through elementary school age
Psychological benefit: Singing has profound mental health benefits. Singing forces a person to control their breathing. If someone is anxious and having trouble regulating their breathing, singing can help. Singing also improves mental alertness and confidence.
The purpose of a grounding activity is to refocus on reality. It is particularly effective for children who suffer from anxiety, high levels of stress, trauma, dissociation, self-harm tendencies and suicidal thoughts. When children experience these events, they are more likely to enter a state of fight, flight or freeze because they feel they are in danger. Grounding techniques help move the brain from survival mechanisms to a calm state.
Although grounding activities are used in circumstances of higher emotion, they should be practiced often (and even when children are feeling happy) to ensure that children can perform them while in a dysregulated state of mind. You should take time out of the day for all family members to practice these skills together.
Sound search: Sit calmly in a comfortable position. The person lists the sounds they hear. Focusing on other senses helps bring the child back to safety and stabilization.
Coloring break: Although this is most effective for younger kids, it can be used for any age. Even if you do not have coloring pages, encourage the child to draw or color on a piece of paper. Support whatever they need to create in the moment. Crayola has printable coloring pages both for kids and adults.
Sensory bin: A sensory bin is a container filled with materials to stimulate the senses. You must know what types of sensations the child feels are soothing and what sensations may make the child excited. When used with soothing objects, such as water or sand, a child may be able to focus on the container instead of overwhelming thoughts. The good thing about sensory bins is that they are easy to make and easy to store when needed. This technique is used mainly with younger kids, but a child of any age may appreciate a sensory bin if it is filled with the appropriate objects. Go to Your Kids Table for a list of ideas on what to put inside a sensory bin.
Positive affirmations: Building a mantra, based on a child’s strengths, that the child can repeat when they are feeling overwhelmed may be beneficial. The idea of having a child repeat a positive mantra when overwhelmed is to help the brain focus not only on the words they are saying but also on the breath needed to form the words. Whenever a family member or friends see the child becoming overwhelmed, they can support the child by guiding the child through the mantra.
Breathing techniques: You can teach children to utilize many different breathing techniques. Breathing exercises calm the brain’s reactions to threats by getting more oxygen. The adult should make sure the child has no anxiety about breath retention and that the child is slow and intentional instead of hyperventilating. If the child is hyperventilating, try to get them to exhale longer than they inhale. Model the techniques for them. Repeat the technique for as long as it takes the child to calm down. Breathing techniques take many forms, such as:
- Sniff the Flower, Blow Out the Candle: The child imagines holding a flower in one hand and a candle in the other. The child must focus on breathing in through their nose while bringing the “flower” to their face, as if sniffing it, and then exhaling out the mouth while bringing the “candle” to their face.
- 4-7-8 breathing: The child should breathe in through the nose for 4 seconds, hold their breath for 7 seconds and exhale out their mouth for 8 seconds.
- One-nostril breath: The child should place their finger over one nostril and breathe in deeply. The child should then switch to the other nostril and breathe out.
Carson Eckard is a community and trauma counseling student at Jefferson. He graduated with his B.S. in psychology from Jefferson in December 2019. He’s passionate about advocating for clients, particularly LGBTQ+ youth.