For adults and children alike, sometimes we all need a major TIME OUT. Whether just to take a breath, get some clarity or just plain calm down: we all need it. Time outs remind us to practice mindfulness and take a step back from the situation to bring ourselves back into balance. This can be difficult in the heat of the moment for adults let alone children. So just how can we get children to find peace and calm in those full-on meltdown-to-the-ground moments rather than seeing it as punishment? How can we avoid defiant behavior when a child needs to regulate themselves? One solution might be a sensory space.
For children with extreme behaviors, therapists will often implement these sensory-calming rooms or stations for kids to regulate their own emotions in a safe space for short periods of time as needed. Sometimes even 5 minutes of quiet time can make all the difference. Here are a few ways to set this up:
1. Find the right space with your child.
Setting up an outdoor sensory space might be a good option, depending on your child's age and level of emotional development. Being outside can be grounding and sometimes hits the "reset" button on our emotions. Setting up an outdoor time-out space from spring through fall is a great option for kids to recharge their batteries when the weather is nice. When finding a good time-out space outside for your child, provide an outdoor cushion, some shade and perhaps plant a few calming herbs or flowers with calming colors such as lavender. You can also setup bird feeders or butterfly feeders nearby to add interest. If your child is afraid of bugs, make sure the seat has some space away from the plants and is elevated off the ground. It is important the space feels safe and calming to the child.
When setting up an indoor space, allow your child to have some input into where the space will be. Consider a space that won't have too much foot traffic and sound but still close to your main living area so you can ensure that they are using the space appropriately. Provide some comfy throw pillows and maybe even a blanket to make the space feel like a calm environment.
2. Use a sensory bottle instead of a timer.
A simple Pinterest search will reveal a huge variety of creative sensory bottles you and your child can make. Different styles can serve different purposes. For the purpose of a time out sensory station, use a style where the particles settle to the bottom slowly. Once all the particles have settled, this lets the child know that time out is over. S/he can watch the bottle and the particles slowly settle to help reach a calm state. By having something beautiful in the sensory space, the child is more likely to welcome their time to cool down and chill out.
For a glitter bottle such as the one pictured below, all you will need is a water bottle, hot water, glitter and glue. See how to make it here.
To make this, you will need: Elmer's Glue, fine glitter, a water bottle (I suggest Voss because it has a wide opening at the top and stands upside down easily), and super glue (parental supervision is advised).
3. Start a sensory journal
Encourage them to start a sensory journal. They can either write freely or give them a prompt like a poem or even a prayer. Children can write about how they feel physically when they are upset or even just jot down things that are worrying them. Sometimes writing down the emotions can be a relief in itself. For example: "When my engine is running high, I feel..."
4. Make a calming herb sachet
Grow his/her favorite herb, hang it to dry in bunches tied with twine and then choose a scrap of fabric and twine to tie it in. You can also mix the dry herbs with uncooked rice and sew them into small pockets of fabric. These can be microwaved for a few seconds to "wake up" the smells inside. Smells like lavender, chamomile, lemon balm, or rose petals can be sensory calming.
5. Bubbles or feathers (one or two)
Children can practice blowing a few bubbles (using a very small container of bubbles) or blowing on a feather to regulate themselves. These can be stored in a bin in the sensory station and are only to be used while in the sensory calming space.
Tips to Get Started:
Explore the space before you use it
Make sure he/she knows what their options are during time out time and allow him/her to go there anytime (even if they decide they need some alone time on their own). You can fill a bin with sensory calming items or ideas in the time-out space for them to access and choose from as needed. Determine if your child will need supervision while in their time out space by observing them in the space when they are already feeling relatively calm. If you notice any safety concerns, they can be addressed in advance before it becomes a problem.
Not all kids are wired the same way!
Take note of what helps your child feel calm and incorporate those things to the sensory space over time. Allow your child to be creative and decorate the space. You may find that your child goes to their retreat without prompting. For more tips on how to create a calm space for your child, ask an OT! We can customize a space that meets the needs of your child. Some children may benefit more from different kinds of sensory input and an OT can help target the right activities for each child.