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10 Comforting Activities to Calm a Preschooler During Stressful Times

As a long-time preschool teacher, Ms. Meyers knows how to calm and comfort young children during stressful times and traumatic events.

Playdough is familiar and, thus, reassuring and soothing for preschoolers.

Playdough is familiar and, thus, reassuring and soothing for preschoolers.

Soothing a Child During Stressful Times

As a long-time preschool teacher, my thoughts immediately turn to 3, 4, and 5-year-olds when disturbing events unfold in the news. Whether it's a school shooting, violent protests, or life-threatening wildfires, I worry the needs of our youngest are getting ignored. Parents are understandably beset during these difficult times and can easily forget their child is also feeling overwhelmed and stressed.

Moms and dads, therefore, need to slow down and become more mindful of their preschooler’s anxiety during these trying periods. With a little thought, effort, and compassion, they can help their youngster manage stress with easy, fun, and developmentally appropriate activities. In the process, they’ll also reap the rewards of becoming more measured, living in the moment, and re-visiting favorite pursuits from their own childhood.

Practicing Acceptance Lowers Stress

We tend to think of stress as only an adult affliction. However, preschoolers can suffer from it, too. This is especially true when their normal routines get uprooted. As any preschool teacher will tell you, kiddos love having a regular schedule as they are reassured and comforted by knowing what will happen next.

During times of upheaval and uncertainty, it's helpful to keep in mind the words of the esteemed spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle. He said: “The main cause of stress and anxiety is wanting things to be different than they currently are. When you bring acceptance to all situations, despite your expectations, you instantly remove the need for stress and worry.”

If moms and dads practice acceptance during fraught situations, they'll bring serenity to their households. As such, they'll lower their child’s stress level as well as their own. With this in mind, here are 10 activities that will help parents create a comfortable routine for their preschooler, making them calmer and more content during traumatic times.


1. Playdough

When I taught preschool, playdough was a staple in my classroom just like crayons, paints, paper, glue, and scissors. I made it available for children to use every day for two significant reasons: 1) it's safe and familiar, helping them relax and feel in control and 2) it builds strong hands and enhances dexterity so they'll be able to hold a pencil correctly and comfortably when they get in kindergarten. As such, manipulating playdough is far more developmentally appropriate for preschoolers than doing workbooks, which can be tedious, cause frustration, and turn them off to writing.

To keep it fresh and exciting, a parent and child can vary the basic playdough recipe in many different ways. They can toss in glitter flakes and sequins to make it sparkle. They can add different spices to make it smell good. They can blend two food colorings to create new shades.They can throw in sawdust or salt to give it texture. They can collect materials found around the house and yard so they can make imprints, designs, and patterns: cookie cutters, bottle caps, straws, dried pasta, pebbles, feathers, twigs, pine-cones, and toy cars.

During difficult days, playdough can bring serenity to the lives of preschoolers. When stored in an airtight container, it will last for weeks and provide hours of enjoyment. I strongly recommend making it a part of a youngster's daily routine during stressful times.

2. Paper Bag Puppets

During distressing times, children engage in pretend play to make sense of the world. It's their way to understand what's happening around them, whether it's their parents' divorce, the death of a pet, or a fight in the schoolyard. Helping them create paper bag puppets and setting up a makeshift theater will give them an outlet to express their anxieties through their imaginations. It can also give parents valuable insight into what their kiddos are thinking, feeling, and fearing.

Moms and dads may assume their preschooler is worried about one thing when, in reality, they're concerned about something totally different. They can discover what's really bothering their child by listening to them play with the puppets. They may find out it's a conflict with a friend, tension with a sibling, or a longing to visit grandma and grandpa. With newfound insight, parents can address the issue and provide counsel and comfort.

Paper bag puppets are quick and easy to make. Kiddos, though, will need some adult help. The necessary supplies are paper lunch bags, glue, scissors, construction paper, and crayons. Let preschoolers get creative and make whatever characters they desire for their puppet show: a pig, a dog, a cat, a princess, a monster, or a superhero.

This video shows how to quickly make a paper bag dog and cat.

3. Shaving Cream

Preschoolers learn best through hands-on sensory activities. When they explore the world through their five senses (taste, touch, smell, hearing, and sight), they feel in charge, engaged, and content. While many sensory activities can be messy like painting and molding clay, playing with shaving cream actually gets a child cleaner. Plus, it's completely safe and the perfect prelude to a bath.

Generously spray shaving cream on a flat surface. It can be a table, a cookie sheet, a tray, the bottom of a bathtub, the bathroom floor, a window, or a glass door. Mix in a few drops of food coloring if you wish.

Then let children use their fingers, straws, and paintbrushes to write numbers, letters, words, patterns, pictures, and their names. Let them drive their Hot Wheels through the foam. Give them dinosaurs or farm animals for pretend play in the “snow.” Give them a bowl of water so they can drop dollops of shaving cream into it and watch it float.

Playing with shaving cream lets kids escape from the stresses of today's world. It gives them a chance to be creative, carefree, and totally absorbed in what they're doing. If parents join the fun, they will find it engrossing and liberating as well.

4. Blocks

When parents ask me to recommend a game, a kit, or an activity that promotes STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), I answer with one word: blocks. Decades before STEM became the latest rage in education, preschool teachers were using them in their classrooms on a daily basis to promote a wide array of skills in math, literacy, motor development, and social skills.

Blocks are a fun, developmentally appropriate tool to enhance math skills in little ones. Kiddos discover so much about measuring, comparing, balancing, and counting while playing with them. To further enhance their kids' learning, moms and dads can ask questions now and again in an organic, non-intrusive way such as:

  • How many blocks did you use to make that tower?
  • How many circle blocks did you use for that castle? How many square ones? How many rectangular ones?
  • Which block is wider? Which one is longer?
  • How could you make that house's foundation stronger so it can withstand an earthquake?
  • If you gave me four blocks, how many would you have left?

Every home with a preschool-aged child should own a quality set of wooden blocks. By adding Hot Wheels, dinosaurs, and marbles, kiddos can play for hours. They can get lost in their imaginary world, a welcome reprieve from the sometimes harsh realities of their lives.

This video explains the infinite learning possibilities that blocks offer.

5. Scavenger Hunts

Kiddos benefit enormously by being outside, spending time in nature, and getting fresh air when feeling overburdened. It's essential to their overall well-being: mentally, emotionally, and physically. Dr. Mehmet Oz notes that the sun is the best source of vitamin D but a whopping 75 percent of us are deficient in it. Yet, it's crucial to our health as it helps us fight off depression and bolsters our defenses against illness. Just 15 minutes outside each day has a positive impact.

Some preschoolers, though, find walks tedious and tortuous even when they're taken in beautiful surroundings. That's why creating a simple scavenger hunt for them is so effective. It keeps their minds and bodies occupied so they're not whining: “When will this be over? I'm so tired! I want to go home!”

Scavenger hunts can be done in a local park, your neighborhood, your yard, or a nearby nature trail. Just write down on a piece of paper between 10-20 items you want your child to find. Draw a picture next to each word. Items could include: a feather, a pebble, a twig, a flower, a butterfly, a worm, a bird, a cloud, and the sun. Customize your scavenger hunt to optimize learning. For example, if you want your preschooler to know the parts of a tree, create one with items such as bark, roots, trunk, branches, sap, pine-cone, and leaves.

Then make an easy “clipboard” for your child with a piece of cardboard. Tape the list to it. Then poke a hole through the cardboard, string yarn through it, and attach a crayon. As your child spots an item on the list, have them X it out. When everything is found, you can offer a small reward such as a sticker.

6. Collage

Making collages is an example of open-ended art (also known as process art). Unlike craft projects with their step-by-step directions, open-ended art is a powerful and liberating way for kids to express themselves. Instead of all the projects winding up looking the same, each person's art is different and reflects who they are.

Moreover, with open-ended art, the process of making it takes priority over the finished product. The creative journey is a joyful and soothing experience unto itself. In addition to collage, open-ended art includes drawing, painting, printmaking, and clay molding.

Collage and other forms of open-ended art are important for kids because they promote the three i's: imagination, initiative, and independence. During stressful times, open-ended art is crucial for the overall well-being of preschoolers. It lets them express themselves even though they lack an extensive vocabulary. Plus, they can do it with little or no parental involvement. However, if moms and dads choose to join the fun, they'll experience the relaxing benefits as well.

Collage come from the French word, coller, which means “to glue.” One of the most common things to collage is paper. Kids either cut or tear pictures and words from magazines that catch their eye and are meaningful to them. Then they glue them on a piece of construction paper, poster board, or cardboard.

They purposefully arrange the pictures in a pleasing way, overlapping them as they go. When they're done, they brush over their creation with a combination of glue and water to make it shiny. Other items to collage include wrapping paper, greeting cards, and tissue paper. Non-paper items to collage include a wide assortment of items from your home or yard: buttons, leaves, stickers, ribbon, beads, feathers, fabrics, and lace.

This video shows a lot of options that are available when creating collages with little ones.

7. Books

Nothing will bring more peace to a preschooler during a stressful period than cuddling with a parent while listening to a story. It's the ideal time to bolster the connection between books and feelings of love, warmth, and comfort. This is far more effective and developmentally appropriate for young children than flashcards, workbooks, and computer programs. There is no better way to promote literacy skills in preschoolers than reading aloud to them.

Unlike teachers with 20 plus youngsters, parents can focus on just one. Therefore, they have the ability to link the book to their kiddo's own unique life experiences. They can pause to discuss what's happening in the story, check if their youngster is understanding the plot, and ask questions about the characters.

To enhance comprehension, they can stop at various points in the tale and ask their child to predict what will happen next. They can have their youngster draw a picture of the best part of the story or create an alternative ending. They can have their kiddo draw a picture of their favorite character or design their own original book cover.

Preschoolers find solace in hearing the same stories again and again. Favorite authors such as Dr. Seuss, Jan Brett, Eric Carle, Margaret Wise Brown, David Shannon, and Maurice Sendak are like old friends who children want to re-visit. Reading a book series also brings comfort. Some good ones to consider are: the Berenstain Bears by Stan and Jan Berenstain, Little Critter by Mercer Mayer, Curious George by H. A. Rey, and Clifford by Norman Bridwell.

8. Sticker Stories

Sticker Stories are another way for preschoolers to express themselves during stressful times. On a white piece of paper, they create a picture using stickers. Then, they add details with crayons, markers, and colored pencils. When they're all done, they dictate a story about their picture to their mom or dad who writes it on the back.

Some kids may dictate just one or two lines. Others will want to dictate a whole elaborate story. Either way, it's important that parents write down exactly what the child says word for word. This makes the youngster feel empowered, thrilled by the idea that they're a true author.

Sticker Stories are terrific to post on the refrigerator or place in a binder to make a collection. It's wonderful idea to read them aloud to the family during dinner. Not only are they fun and developmentally appropriate, they promote fine motor skills, the pincer grasp, and dexterity. These are all important for handwriting in kindergarten.

9. Monster Toast

Preschoolers delight in pretending to be chefs while creating recipes in the kitchen. However, it's understandable that moms and dads don't want to take on big, messy cooking projects during hectic, stress-filled days. That's why monster toast is the ideal treat for kiddos.

Making monster toast (also called rainbow toast) is quick, easy, and requires little supervision. Plus, the clean up is minimal. Best of all, only 3 ingredients are needed: bread, food coloring, and butter (sugar and cinnamon is optional).

Here's how to do it:

  • Pour a little water into 4 cups and add a drop or 2 or food coloring. Stir.
  • Using small art brushes, paint the face of a monster on the bread (or something simpler like a happy face, a rainbow, or a heart).
  • Put into the toaster.
  • Butter lightly (if desired, add a little cinnamon and sugar to make it a sweet treat).
  • Enjoy with some orange juice, milk, or hot chocolate!

This video shows you how quick and easy it is to make monster toast.

10. Games

Playing games together is one of the best ways for preschoolers to learn. According to the educational researcher, Dolores Dickerson, a game format is 30 times more effective for grasping new concepts than paper-pencil tasks. Yet, some parents may wonder which games are developmentally appropriate and will impart the skills that their kiddos need.

With that in mind, here is a list of terrific games for preschool-aged children along with the concepts that they teach:

  • Hi-Ho! Cherry-O – enhances pincer grasp, teaches counting, numeral recognition, adding and subtracting
  • Hedbanz Junior – encourages decoding, word recognition, and early literacy
  • Don't Break the Ice – promotes fine motor skills and the pincer grasp
  • Pop-Up Pirate! – improves fine motor development, dexterity, and hand-eye coordination
  • Don't Spill the Beans – enhances the pincer grasp, teaches about balance, planning, and placement
  • Uncle Wiggily – promotes early literacy, teaches rhyming words and counting
  • Boggle Jr. – teaches the ABC's, letter sounds, spelling, blending and decoding

© 2020 McKenna Meyers


Denise McGill from Fresno CA on June 12, 2020:

What great projects and advice. The clay and toast appeal to me. I could get into that! Haha.



McKenna Meyers (author) on April 02, 2020:

Thanks, Venkatachari. My thoughts are with families everywhere around the world, sharing spaces in good and not so good situations. I hope everyone can have the peace of mind to make something good of this opportunity. Stay well!

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on April 02, 2020:

It's a good topic discussed by you here about the importance of keeping kids engaged and joyful. Most of us may never feel that kids are also prone to stress and depression.

Kids always want their parents to pay attention to them and caress. If the elders are themselves worried about tensions and day-to-day problems of life, their kids may feel lonely, depressed, and in want of their love.

McKenna Meyers (author) on March 31, 2020:

Thanks for the kind words, Pamela. I was motivated to write this article upon hearing that child abuse is on the rise during the pandemic. If a parent's expectations are out of whack, they can definitely get stressed and take it out on a youngster. Hopefully, this article will give moms and dads a good idea of what's reasonable to do with preschoolers. Take care!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 31, 2020:

We don't always think of preschoolers having stress. I love your suggestions. Getting out in the sunshine and cuddling up with a parent listening to a story are both great activities that are even good for the parent. This is an excellent article to care for preschoolers.