Surprisingly Helpful Calming Activities for Super-Active Kids

{Slightly unconventional ideas for calming strategies when the usual suggestions don't work with super-active, sensitive kids. Helpful for emotional calming and after after-school meltdowns.}

I could tell the minute my third-grader came home from school it had not been a good day.

He already almost had tears in his eyes and an angry expression was on his face.

"What's going on?" I asked hesitantly.
"It was the worst day ever!" he said. He soon pulled the football out of his backpack and threw it across the room.

I knew I had to handle this situation carefully or it would end badly.

Surprisingly Helpful Calming Activities for Super-Active Kids

He went on to explain how the boys he normally plays football with at recess were not playing the way he wanted. They didn't throw the ball to him. It may sound unimportant to us, but to an 8-year-old, these are the interpersonal interactions that make or break a day at school.

He continued to be upset. We talked about it as much as we could but he broke down into an angry cry. After having a snack and relaxing for a few minutes, he seemed to calm down. However, as soon as I asked him to do one of his usual chores, he lost his temper and control again. That's when I knew the afternoon was a loss. I guess I just need to let him relax, I thought.

After a while, little brother (age 4) came to the kitchen asking to "make potions." Since it was cold outside and there was not much else for us to do, I agreed.

In our house, "making potions" means pulling out several big bowls, filling them with water and throwing in any spices, food scraps, food coloring, glitter, etc. that I will allow them to get their hands on. Soon my 8-year-old wanted to join in. I was surprised. I thought he would think this activity was too "babyish." He loved it! He made a different "potion" and the boys competed as to which one looked the grossest or smelled the worst.

Here's the best part: after this little potion-making activity, the 8-year-old's surly attitude had (mostly) turned upside down. He was chatting with his brother and making jokes. This simple calming activity had actually worked!

Related reading: 5 Parenting Lessons Research Taught Us in 2017

The Science Behind Emotional Calming

Why did this little session of "potion-making" work to help my son calm down and uplift his mood? As with most things, we can turn to science to help us understand this. It turns out that repetitive tasks, especially activities that don't require a lot of brain work, are especially calming. Scientists tell us that these repetitive tasks that often involve fine motor skills help focus our mind away from anxious or troubling thoughts, thereby reducing stress.

Other similar examples abound--some people knit or craft to cope with symptoms of PTSD; others paint or do crossword puzzles to cope with anxiety. Personally, I've found that baking helps me cope with stress. Something about the rhythmic motion of measuring ingredients, mixing and having a product to show at the end is relaxing (and yummy).

Calming Activities for Super-Active Kids
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Need help understanding your child's behavior? Download this FREE book--Understanding Your Child's Temperament. It's a game-changer for parenting.

The other aspect of this that amazed me is that it actually worked for my super-active son. He talks almost non-stop, he's always moving and so I've found that the typical calming techniques that many professionals recommend don't work for him. Many counselors recommend activities like reading, coloring books, or calm down bottles when kids need help with emotional calming. These probably work great for many kids, but for my super-active, always-on-the-go kid, they just caused frustration. He was just too overstimulated in most cases to make any of these strategies work.

Related reading: Gift Guide for Raising Kids Who Care

Calming Activities for Active Kids

This made me realize that other kids probably have trouble calming down too, especially after school. After observing my son's behavior over a few weeks, I've come up with a list of several activities that seem to work for calming super-active kids.

1. Legos. This is number one on the list for a reason--they are awesome for calming! We all know Legos are wonderful educational tools, but who knew they could be such a calming influence too. Even David Beckman agrees with me on the calming influence of Legos. My son will sit in his room surrounded by Legos on all side and just build for long stretches. When he finally comes out, he's usually refreshed and has some awesome creation to show us.

My younger son is just now getting into Legos. We got these great books from the great folks at Sofie and Nate to help him get started on learning to follow instructions. These simple, easy-to-follow books were perfect for him to learn how to build. Once he has these down, I'm sure he'll go on to build creations of his own design in a few years. The nice thing about these books is that they are simpler than typical Lego sets but still teach spatial skills, colors, and shapes. Now he is starting the use the calming (and educational power) of Legos.

Legos as calming activity for super active kids

2. Crafting (boy style). There is a stereotype that boys don't like crafts once they get past preschool age, but that is not necessarily true. My 8-year-old still loves working with his hands and finds it relaxing. The science behind this is real--for centuries people have used knitting, sewing, or painting to deal with everyday stress as well as serious trauma. Scientists describe the "flow" experience while crafting as similar to meditation in that time sort of stands still. This allows your brain to suspend the "fight or flight" feeling of stress. 

So what crafts will boys actually do? Some things he's loved recently are origami, making anything out of cardboard, Perler beads (hello Minecraft creations), and comic-book making. He went through a phase with his friend where they actually spent most of their free time making origami swords, planes and fidget spinners--so cool!

origami as calming activity for super active kids

3. Sensory activities. Now you may think sensory bins are just for toddlers, but not necessarily. Older kids can enjoy them too if they help come up with the ingredients or ideas. Recently my boys enjoyed an afternoon of pouring and playing with dry beans. Now, I'm not going to lie--there was a fair amount of "bean wars" and potty jokes, but they enjoyed the sensory aspect too. Plus, now they are old enough to clean up the mess themselves. The potion-making activity was all of their own devising and they loved the smells and mess involved with that. When it's warm outside we often do mud pies or "panning for gold" with water, sand and hidden pennies.

Sensory items as calming activities for super active kids

4. Kid-friendly demo day. It may sound odd, but I let my kids destroy things. I never knew this was something they needed until they actually asked to tear up boxes. I thought it was silly, but why not? We all know that exercise can be a great way to release endorphins and release some stress. Those of you who do yoga may know the "woodchopper pose." Well, demo day isn't exactly yoga but they do use the same position which is great for releasing stress. Since it's been cold outside, we've been doing our own version of "demo day" in our house. Instead of tearing down walls, I let the boys tear up stuff from the recycle bin. They pull out their toy swords and rip up cardboard boxes, milk cartons, paper bags, etc. They have a blast every time and feel happy and refreshed afterward.

Calming activities for super-active kids

For sensitive kids like my son (and many others), school can be stressful. There are many interpersonal relationships to manage, school work to pursue and emotions to keep under control. It's not surprising that many kids "meltdown" after school. As pointed out in this lovely article, it is our job as parents to allow for emotional rest while they are at home. This need isn't always communicated to us in the most lovely way, but we can respond with love in meeting that need. These calming activities may seem silly but they can provide kids with a much-needed outlet to ease into a more peaceful emotional state. 

"When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it's our job to share our calm, not join their chaos." --L. R. Knost 

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Surprisingly Helpful Calming Activities for Super-Active Kids

Classic Baby Books that Boost Brain Development

Remember when you read to your baby for the first time? Maybe she was so little she couldn't even hold her head up. You knew he wouldn't understand much of what you were reading but you knew reading to your baby was important. Plus, he loved the sound of your voice.

What book did you read? I honestly do not remember what I first read to my boys. We had a children's book-themed baby shower for my oldest son so we ended up with TONS of classic baby books like Goodnight Moon and Pat the Bunny. I loved all of them and I loved reading to him.

Classic Baby Books that Boost Brain Development

Once they were old enough to be more aware of what I was reading, I was naturally attracted to "labeling" books. You know those board books for babies that label all the animals, cars, and shapes. Like most parents, I wanted my kids to be able to learn words early and labeling books seemed the obvious choice to help them. My boys did seem to enjoy these books, especially once they were old enough to name the objects themselves.

New research, however, shows us that another type of book might be even better for babies' brain development. A recent study of 6-9 month-old infants considered how babies learning was influenced by being read books that had either category labels (e.g., dog, cat, rabbit) versus individual-level labels (e.g., Jack, Pat, Cindy).

Now this distinction between category and individual labels may seem unimportant to us adults but to babies that are just at the cusp of learning language and understanding how words work, these categories represent different types of learning.
Want more information on common child development myths? Download this free cheat sheet: 5 Common Child Development Myths...Debunked. It addresses frequent questions about attachment, "spoiling" your baby and more.

You may wonder how scientists study babies learning since they cannot yet talk or even identify objects. Well, thanks to modern technology, researchers can use fancy eye scanning cameras to track how the babies' eyes move. For researchers, eye movements indicate what the babies are attending to and interested in. Similarly, researchers also use those cool caps with sensors to measure the babies' brain activity. This was another part of this study.

Which Books Help Babies Learn

If you are a science nerd like me the results of this study are pretty fascinating, but they have real-life implications for all of us parents too. The study showed that babies who were read books with individual-level labels (e.g., Jack, Pat, Cindy) spent more time attending to the images. Secondly, looking at the brain activity showed that these babies were more likely to be able to differentiate between the images after being read the story.

In other words, babies learned more from the books with individual labels than category labels. They could tell the difference between the images better. Pretty amazing for 6-9 month-old babies!

Related post: More Evidence that "Difficult" Babies are Most Influenced by Parents

Research-Backed Examples of Baby Books that Boost Brain Development
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What Talking and Reading Does for Babies' Brains

We all know that reading to children, even babies, is important. This research further delineates what the reading actually does for the babies' brains. In general, it helps them learn to put together an image and a word. Furthermore, any reading (not just individual-level labeling) helps babies by exposing them to lots and lots of words.

Have you heard of the "word gap?" Studies have shown that one of the primary reasons for the disparity in academic achievement between low-income and higher-income students is due to the amount of time parents spend talking to their young children. In a 1995 study, researchers found that low-income children heard about 600 words per hour, compared to 2,100 words per hour in a higher-income family. It became clear to researchers that exposure to language was one of the key factors to help close the achievement gap they were seeing in these children years later.

It turns out that besides reading, one of the best things we can do for babies is just talk...a lot! Many parents do this naturally--we talk to our babies all day long about what we are doing, what we are seeing, etc. Some researchers have called this "dialogic living." In other words, we narrate our day to our child. 

This too, is why studies indicate that babies vocalize less when playing with electronic toys compared to books. With books, parents are prompted to read and discuss the pictures. With electronic toys, parents tend to let the toy do all the "work" and they don't talk as much. Now that's food for thought!

Imagine, however, if you are under a lot of stress, your mind is racing with how to get to your job or how to pay the bills. Do you think narrating your day (or your stresses) to your baby is on the top of your priority list? Maybe not. This is just one example of how the stress of poverty impacts children, even the littlest babies. Fortunately, many programs have begun across the country to help low-income families learn more about talking to their babies in this playful, narrative way. Hopefully, these, along with equitable access to preschool with help alleviate these economic disparities. 

Related post: The Power of Words

Brain-Boosting Baby Books

I've done (some) of the work for you by searching through lists of baby books for ones that use individual-level labels (rather than category-level). These are just a few examples, but also be aware that any reading with your baby is beneficial. These books might just help add to the variety of your growing library. Enjoy reading these classic baby books with your kids!

Pat the Bunny--the classic tale loved by many babies. It has all those cool "touchable" pages with different textures.

Is Your Mama a Llama?--Lloyd the llama is on a search to figure out if other animals have a llama for their mama. Nice rhyming and a lovely story.

Jesse Bear, What Will You Wear--like all little ones, Jesse Bear has some trouble figuring out what to wear (and how to put it on). Great for toddlers who want to do all the dressing themselves.

Corduroy--who doesn't love this book! A sweet story of a bear's search for his missing button and a home. (Plus it's super-cute to hear your toddler try to say "Corduroy!")

My Very First Mother Goose--these may seem "old-fashioned" but there is a reason they have stood the test of time. Babies love the rhythmic sounds and fun characters. Still a must-have in any children's library.

Gossie--kids can help Gossie the gosling find her bright red boots.

The Snowy Day--a simple, beautiful book about young Peter exploring the snow. Plus it's one of the first children's books featuring an African-American lead character in an urban environment.

Blueberries for Sal--another classic that maybe you read as a child. Kids love the "kerplunck" sound as the berries fall into the bucket.

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Research-Backed Examples of Baby Books that Boost Brain Development

5 Parenting Lessons Research Taught Us in 2017

Well, the year 2017 is officially in the history books. Along with it, shelves full of parenting research become part of history too. Fortunately for us, a few gems of research made it out of the universities and into our lives this year.

As I did last year, I spent the last few days of 2017 going through the major themes in parenting research to see what new pearls of wisdom we learned this year.

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1. Minimalism is not just a buzz word; its benefits are backed up by research. We heard a lot of talk about minimalism this year in the media. On the heels of the popular book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, more parents were cutting the clutter, scaling back toys and limiting junk around their homes. Their efforts are not in vain, according to research. Studies this year pointed out that having fewer toys actually helps encourage creativity in kids. Similarly, we saw more evidence that simple, classic toys are more beneficial for youngsters than those fancy electronic ones.


Want to learn more about research-based parenting? Download this FREE cheat sheet--5 Common Child Development Myths. It delves into the research behind common myths surrounding attachment, spanking, spoiling kids and more. 

2. Kids' intense interests are awesome. Bring on the little paleontologists and toddler train lovers! Most of us who have been parents for a few years, know that our kids can go through phases where they are intensely interested in one topic--whether it be dinosaurs, trains or butterflies. I've always been fascinated by this and why it happens. 

Well, this year research answered our questions and informed us that our kids' intense interests are a great sign. It turns out that those intense interests are a great learning tool for kids. It's often their first experience with delving deep into a topic, finding answers and developing mastery of a topic (e.g., they know ALL the dinosaur names). Research tells us that kids who have intense interests tend to have higher cognitive and information-processing skills as well as executive functioning skills like attention span. You can get on board with your kids' interests by visiting museums that feature their favorite topic or find books that discuss it. It's a beautiful sight to see a child so engaged in their own learning.

Why Kids Love Dinosaurs

Looking for resources/products that relate directly to these 5 lessons? Check out my Shop to see resources that can help common parenting challenges like self-care and managing technology.

3. Self-care needs to be on our priority list. We all know that self-care is important but it often gets pushed aside amide our long to-do lists. This year research showed us just us the consequences of lack of self-care for our parenting. Symptoms of insufficient self-care, like inadequate sleep, actually mimic some symptoms of depression making us less able to be patient with our kids. The result is often short temper and possibly yelling at our kids (and we all know that is not effective with our kids).

Similarly, research this year pointed out the mental load that moms carry (and yes, it is mostly moms). Although dads have increased their responsibilities for child care and household duties, it is still moms who carry the mental load. What is mental load? Things like remembering who is at what activity at what time, keeping up the grocery list and remembering who will run out of clothes if we don't do laundry today. We all know mental load and feel it. Just another reason that self-care needs to be part of our lives. Need some realistic ideas for self-care that offer some mental space: check out this post.


4. Managing technology is one of the biggest parenting challenges of our era. This year was full of research and media on how parents and kids are dealing with technology--together. Numerous reports emerged on how tech leaders are not giving their kids smartphones or iPads until they are almost adults. This, along with the Wait Until 8th movement, has opened parents' eyes to the dangers of too much technology too soon for our kids. The challenge, according to research, is that we parents love our smartphones too.

New studies showed that parents who are hooked on their devices are more likely to experience "technoference" in the relationship with their kids. In other words, the device interrupts the parent-child interaction or relationship in some way. Device-distracted parenting is the new challenge facing our generation. This technoference seems to impact our kids as well. Early research indicates a link between technoference in parent-child relationships and negative behavior among kids.

kids and technology

Need ideas for keeping technology reigned in? Check out our mantra called In Our Home (bottom of the post) that can help keep priorities in perspective.
Last year's research roundup: 4 Parenting Lessons Research Taught Us in 2016. 

5. This year's revolution in gender relations affects parenting too. The end of 2017 saw a seismic shift in how we discuss gender relations and sexual harassment with the development of the #MeToo movement. Although those of us with young children may feel a little out of the loop with current events (when do we have time to watch the news!), this movement will no doubt affect our parenting. Compelling articles and research pointed us to look at how we raise the next generation to deal better with gender relations in schools, workplaces, and families.

The most compelling work I think focuses on how to raise children (especially boys) with a full emotional toolbox so they can be prepared to deal with people of all genders, races, beliefs, etc. In past generations, children were often taught to stuff their emotions down. However, our generation of parents is focusing on raising girls that are strong enough to speak up and boys who are strong enough to be vulnerable and emotionally available. This takes work, patience and a change of mindset for many of us. Fortunately, research can help us. Studies showed us this year that how we speak to our children about emotions matter. Discussing how others feel really does help children develop a strong sense of empathy. Empathy, of course, is one key to helping kids look beyond their own self-interest and become adults who do the same.

emotional intelligence

Related article: The Hidden Way that Kids Learn Empathy (and how parents can help)

Well, that is a quick summary of parenting research for 2017. Based on this, I think my parenting goals for 2018 are clear: focus on empathy, managing technology, fostering interests, and simplify.

What are your parenting goals for 2018? I'd love to hear about them in the comments!

Thank you for reading The Thoughtful Parent in 2017! I look forward to sharing the parenting journey with you in 2018.

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A Day in the Life of a Child Under 4: New Guidelines for Kids' Sleep, Movement and Screen Time

Let's face it--there are many demands on our time and the time of our children. For us, it's work, chores and daily care of our kids. For our kids, it's school, playtime, sports, and screentime all vying for their attention.

With all these competing demands, it's difficult to manage sleep, movement and screen time guidelines for our kids. New guidelines from Canada just helped parents get a full picture of how all these guidelines fit together. As parents know, how kids spend their time sleeping, moving and using screens are all related. A tired kid is more likely to gravitate towards a screen than go outside to play. Similarly, an active child is more likely to sleep better.

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Finally, an organization has combined all the guidelines together into one comprehensive guide for parents. This guide offers recommendations for what a healthy 24-hours looks like for a child under the age of 4.

Personally, I was excited to see such a comprehensive guide. Before this, all the guidelines were separate and not related to one another. Now, with one look, parents can see how all these recommendations relate.

This type of guide is not meant to make parents feel guilty, but rather to help us all understand the needs of our kids. Most of us instinctively know when our kids get too little sleep, just based on their grumpy behavior, but keeping these guidelines in mind can still help. There are always days when these plans go array, but understanding what type of routine help meets kids' needs best is always helpful. One of the authors described it this way,
"There's no need to fret over these exceptions, Tremblay says. But what we do need to do is think more fully and clearly about everything in our children's lives that make up a healthy day. That's what the new guidelines are there for."

I was so excited about this that I made a helpful PRINTABLE GUIDE that parents can post on their fridge to remind ourselves of these guidelines. It might even help our kids to see it too!

Grab your helpful guide by clicking below:

More resources for limiting screen time and keeping kids active:

Hands-On Activities for Toddlers

hands-on activities for toddlers

A Day in the Life of a Child Under 4: New Guidelines for Kids' Sleep, Movement and Screen Time