Experts swear by these popular anxiety relief toys
Things have been pretty anxiety-inducing lately. The past couple years have been both unpredictable and stressful, making for a pretty tough time to be a kid.
From birth into adolescence, giving kids self-soothing tools can be enormously helpful as they learn to manage their anxiety.
“Anxiety takes us out of the present moment," says Aisha R. Shabazz, a Philadelphia-based licensed clinical social worker and therapist specializing in anxiety relief. "One of the benefits of sensory toys is to bring us back to the present to decide what is actually happening, so that you can determine what to do next.”
We spoke with a handful of experts, from teachers to therapists, to learn which anxiety relief toys they most recommend. Here’s what they had to say.
1. Pop-It fidget toys
“The sound the [bubbles] make, the repetition, and the smooth feeling of the rubber all induce a feeling of calm,” she says.
Long used by therapists to help focus the minds of kids with ADHD, these brightly colored silicone toys come in various shapes like dinosaurs, popsicles, unicorns, and animals. Their "bubbles" offer a satisfying outlet to refocus and reset.
- Get the push pop fidget game by Dizhige at Amazon for $3.79
- Get the Pop It tie-dye sensory game at Target for $7.99
It turns out that this egg-shaped, squeezable TikTok sensation is actually terrific for proprioceptive input. Pelizzari says there is a good reason for the popularity Squishmallows have enjoyed with kids from preschool all the way through college. The soft fabric, the satisfying shape, and the huggable nature of these stuffed toys give a calming and satisfying tactile stimulation.
“A lot of my young clients love them because they can squeeze their fears into the animals,” she says. “They are cute and help children by giving them a companion that can help them pop their anxiety bubbles.”
3. Water beads
If you’ve never dipped your hands into a tub of water beads, you’ve never truly relaxed. Water beads and Orbeez are often used in calming sensory bins at preschools, but there is no reason they can’t be pulled out for a serene after school activity.
Several experts we spoke to recommended water beads either on their own or in a squish ball, which Pelizzari prefers. She says the movable, squishable balls are fun to use and make for a toy that’s both stress-relieving and meditative to use.
- Get the Orbeez non-toxic water beads at Amazon for $19.99
- Get the Elongdi water beads at Amazon for $7.99
- Get the Beadeez 3-pack of stress relieving balls at Amazon for $17.99
4. Nee doh stress balls
These color-changing stress balls are oozy, squishy, and groovy globs of anxiety- and anger-releasing gratification. Pelizzari says they are the ultimate stress-releasing ball. She recommends them to help mellow kids out with multi-sensory, colorful, and squeezable satisfaction.
- Get the Nee Doh Space Swirl 3-pack at Amazon for $19.99
- Get the Nee Doh Squeeze Ball at Walmart for $3
- Get the Nee Doh Atomic Squeeze toy at Claire’s for $6.99
Play-doh never goes out of style. You probably remember how satisfying it felt to squish fresh Play-doh between your fingers as a kid, and how you could spend hours manipulating it into fun shapes as you mixed the colors together. Likewise, it’s an unbreakable toy, so it's no surprise that it's recommended by experts for releasing frustrations.
“It proves time and time again to be a useful tool in releasing tension in the body. The kneading and squeezing helps immensely,” says Heather Bard, a parental consultant and teacher specializing in early childhood special education in New York.
Play-Doh, is a great choice for younger kids, but Bard says any modeling clay or putty is a good option. We happen to be partial to Land of Dough, for its smooth texture and its calming aromatherapy scents.
Engaging in your sense of touch is useful for creating moments of mindfulness. The tactile sensation of playing with slime can be a temporary distraction from stress and from big emotions. The next time your child has a meltdown, try giving them some slime, or making it with them as a family activity.
“Slime can help boost concentration for some kids, and help them feel more grounded,” says Bard. “The rich sensory experience of making slime can help these kids meet their sensory needs, and allow them to feel more focused and attentive.”
- Get the Elmer’s fluffy slime kit at Amazon for $12.90
- Shop Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty at Amazon starting at $12.95
- Shop Compoud Kings Glitzy slime 4-pack at Amazon for $29.99
7. Kinetic sand
Janika Joyner, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in Chesapeake, Virginia, has worked with children and adolescents diagnosed with anxiety for over 14 years. She is also a fan of the stuff and recommends it as a soothing manipulative to help reduce anxiety. She says the secret of kinetic sand’s success in centering a stressed out mind is that it allows for constant, calming, repetitive hand movements.
8. Water tables
For the smaller kids, Bard recommends a multi-sensory soother that combines two calming elements in one: sand and water. This sand-and-water combo table allows for lots of exploratory play and repetitive motions like scooping and pouring.
9. Finger painting
Sometimes the best thing for calming big feelings and getting emotions back on track is some messy, expressive art play. Bard loves finger painting but says that the benefits aren’t limited to the colorful canvas it creates.
“Children adore finger painting and the act of creation combined with the cool and smooth texture of the paint is comforting,” says Bard.
10. Breathing balls
Try one of these and you’ll have a hard time putting them down. Not only are they addictive to play with, the rhythmic motions of expanding and collapsing these balls can move with your breath to steal your attention away from the stressful thoughts of the day.
“These are so much fun,” says Pelizzari. “You can make all kinds of games with them to teach a child basic breathing techniques. Learning how to control and calm their breath is a key component for reducing anxiety.”
11. A Shashibo cube
Katherine Hill, a learning specialist and educational therapist in New York, likes another toy that helps kids focus on breathing, without even knowing they’re practicing mindfulness. The Shashibo cube is an award-winning, shape-shifting, magnetic box that can be manipulated into dozens of configurations. Playing with one is not only hypnotic, it also helps develop spatial awareness and hones fine motor skills.
“It allows kids to quiet their minds by creating spatially challenging configurations of the toy's magnetic sections,” says Hill.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.