From the October 2019 issue

DIY Sensory Toolbox Ideas to Help Kids Self-Soothe

A local early education teacher's DIY sensory toolbox concept helps little ones with special needs navigate big emotions – and it's easy to create one.

One day, a little girl in Caryn Finkelstein’s preschool class in Dearborn became very upset after a conflict with a classmate. So she went to the “take-a-break spot” – a designated area in the classroom where kids can take time away from the rest of the group, to deal with their emotions.

Here, she hugged weighted pillows – just one example of many items Finkelstein keeps in her classroom’s “sensory toolbox.”

“After three or four minutes, (she) came to me and said, ‘My body is calm now. Can I go play?'” says Finkelstein, who’s lead teacher at the Early Childhood Education Center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, a preschool that includes children with special needs. “I asked her, ‘What happened to make you so angry?’ We worked together to come up with solutions if this same situation happened again.” Then, the girl joined her friends to play.

Having the right tools can be especially helpful for children with special needs. It’s something Finkelstein has learned in her 22 years with the ECEC, which serves kids ages 1-6. Last year, she taught three children with special needs, which can include autism, speech delays or unidentified developmental delays.

“We spend a great deal of our day solving social problems, learning how to work together as a group and talking about how our actions affect others,” Finkelstein says. “Many of the materials in the sensory toolbox will assist the children in calming down when big emotions overwhelm them and help them identify a range of moods and emotions.”

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Now, she’s taking her toolbox concept even further, thanks to a grant she recently received from The Terri Lynne Lokoff Child Care Foundation. It’s actually her second grant from the foundation since 2012.

“My project was based on a need in my classroom,” she explains. The kits kelp kids identify feelings and emotions and help them self-calm during meltdowns.

Although geared at children with special needs, Finkelstein’s DIY sensory toolbox benefits all kids, she says, and it’s easy to create. You can pick up most items – some ideas pulled directly from Pinterest – at a local thrift store, craft store or on Amazon.

“Each parent can tailor the materials to their child and their child’s needs,” she says. Here are some tips and ideas.

1. Calming bottles

How to make them

Fill clear bottles with glitter or small objects and water (add a few drops of food coloring to give it another colorful dimension). Be sure the cap is waterproof and screws on tightly to avoid spillage.

Purpose

The movement of the glitter and the objects in the liquid can capture a child’s attention and entrance her. As a result, her breathing slows and she feels calmer.

2. Weighted pillow or neck wrap

What they are

Two square or rectangle-shaped pieces of fabric stitched together with rice and, if you choose, lavender inside. Don’t sew? Check Amazon for retail options.

Purpose

The feeling of a weighted pillow in a child’s lap or draped around his neck can bring comfort, helping youngsters self-soothe and calm quickly. For kids on the autism spectrum, who are often more sensitive to touch, it provides these benefits without the risk of overstimulation.

3. Sand timers

How many to get

Finkelstein recommends purchasing multiple timers set to different amounts of time (one minute, three minutes, five minutes and more).

Purpose

Similar to the calming bottles, Finkelstein says sand timers work with a child’s visual sense. Watching the sand fall through the timer can help a child slow their breathing and feel calm more quickly.

“Sand timers also provide a concrete, visual object for time,” she adds. “When I ask a child to complete a task, I might say, ‘You can do it now or in five minutes.’ If the child says ‘five minutes,’ I would place the timer close to where they are and say, ‘When the timer is done, it will be five minutes.’ (This avoids) a prolonged period of negotiation with the child.”

4. Books

Great contenders

Try titles like The Way I Feel by Janan Cain, The Feelings Book by Todd Parr, It’s Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr and Glad Monster, Sad Monster by Ed Emberbley and Anne Miranda.

Purpose

These books, which Finkelstein uses in her classroom, help children better understand and deal with different emotions.

5. Play dough

Materials to round up

Scented or unscented play dough (store-bought or consider making your own with common kitchen ingredients), sealed plastic baggies and rolling pins.

Purpose

Children benefit by examining the texture of the play dough. Squeezing, pressing, poking, rolling, pounding and squishing the soft dough can help a child calm down.

6. Kinetic sand and silly putty

Make it or get it

Snag a recipe on the web or take Finkelstein’s lead and buy them on Amazon.

Purpose

Each has a different strength and texture and feels different to the small fingers that squeeze, roll and push them. It’s a good use of large muscles, too.

“While children are using fine motor skills to interact with the materials, they are also learning about the properties of the materials,” Finkelstein adds. “Putty stretches; play dough and kinetic sand don’t.”

7. Handheld mirror

What you’ll need

Just a small mirror – try a dollar store for various options.

Purpose

Children can use the mirror to practice different facial expressions.

“Many children at this age (3 and 4) are familiar with happy, sad and mad,” Finkelstein says. “By introducing or practicing facial expressions with different emotions, we are giving children terminology they can incorporate into their own vocabulary to better express themselves during a conflict.”

8. Color mixing timers

What they are

Similar to the sand timers, these timers feature droplets of oil that drip and drop through water, hourglass style. Pick up a few on Amazon.

Purpose

Finkelstein says the act of watching the gel-like bubbles sink can be extraordinarily useful to help a child calm down if he or she is feeling upset or agitated.

The actual ‘toolbox’

While there’s no hard rule for how to stash your sensory tools, Finkelstein likes to use wicker baskets to house her collection of calming items. The baskets allow for easy access for the children in her preschool classroom, and they’re placed on a low shelf in a designated area – the “take-a-break spot.”

“This area is ideal for children when they are dealing with big emotions and need some time away from the rest of the group,” she says. “The materials are available for the children to use when necessary.”

Finkelstein says the purpose of the spot – which consists of a small rug and the shelf – is to make kids feel safe while simultaneously slightly detached. At home, parents can set up a small tent in the corner of the family room, Finkelstein suggests, or an open space under the stairs. Allowing children to take a break can help when they are feeling overwhelmed.

“It is small enough so a child will feel he or she is ‘hiding,’ while open enough so (parents) can still see what is happening,” she explains. Encourage kids to use the spot when “they are having difficulty calming down, (feeling) so sad that they are inconsolable or simply overwhelmed by large emotions.”

She adds, “We reassure the children that their feelings are OK, but also try to have them use some of the materials to begin to self-soothe. I often sit near or next to the spot and let the child know I am ready to talk when they are.”

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