I took a class in college called Stress Management that satisfied some general education credits I needed to graduate. Most days, I rolled into class with the stamps from whatever bars I'd been to the night before still fresh on my hand. Even in my foggy state, though, I absorbed some really useful tips that I still apply today.
The class covered the usual things you might imagine it would, like explaining the unhealthy effects of stress on our bodies. It reminded us that exercise and a healthy diet are important components to managing stress. It also exposed us to proven stress relief techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga.
The most memorable parts of the class, though, were the unorthodox things we did in the name of letting go of stress, like juggling. It turns out that activities which require full concentration from both our mind and body, which juggling does, are great stress relievers. Juggling doesn't leave room for us to think about anything else but the task at hand (pun intended), and when we're fully engaged in the activity, we don't have time to dwell on whatever else is bothering us. This, coupled with the physicality of the activity, helps lower our stress.
I hadn't thought about this particular lesson in years until my kids and I started playing with colored scarves one day. I tied knots at the ends of three and tried to juggle them (unsuccessfully). My kids loved it and tried to do it, too. After we were done, I thought back to my class and realized how good I felt. My children and I were spending quality time together, I was having fun, and I was engaging in an activity that was physically beneficial. Playtime doesn't only have to be something I do for my kids, it's something I can do for myself, too.
I started thinking of other things we could do that they would find fun but would also qualify as a stress reliever for me. Frankly, playing with my kids sometimes causes me more stress than not, and if my blood pressure happens not to rise, chances are good my brain is going numb from the monotony of whatever we're doing. So I laid out strict criteria for what kind of playtime would hit the sweet spot for stress management and decided that the activities had to be:
Here's my list, suitable for my preschoolers, but adaptable for younger or older children, too.
Learn to juggle. If you've never tried it, now's your chance. It's impossible to practice juggling without being completely absorbed in the process, and this is known as "relaxed concentration." Starting with scarves or just one or two balls will give you the confidence to keep going. While you're tossing your stress away, your kids will be practicing their hand-eye coordination and improving their focus, and everyone will get a mini-workout along the way.
Color together. While your kids are coloring in their books, pull out your own adult coloring book and join in on the fun. Coloring creates the same relaxed concentration effect that juggling does, and that's why it's become so popular with adults over the last few years.
Perform a puppet show. As soon as I put a puppet on my hand, my three-year-old will tell it things about her day that she hasn't bothered to tell me. It's fascinating. No ventriloquy or funny voices required, preschool and elementary school-aged kids simply get a kick out of seeing puppets come to life (courtesy of their moms and dads). Bringing pure joy like this to our kids actually requires us to be completely focused on playing multiple characters while matching our hand movements to our words, and this concentration helps with stress.
Learn a dance. Throwing an impromptu dance party with your kids might do the trick for you, but my monkey mind still manages to think about everything else I have to do before I can go to bed that night. Concentrating on learning a new dance combats this. Play a dance video game, learn a trendy dance from YouTube, or have your kids teach you one. You'll have fun, your kids will get a kick out of your moves, and the weight on your shoulders will feel just a little bit lighter when you're done.
Play a memory game. These kinds of games are great for improving reading and reasoning skills and enhancing attention spans, but they also require complete focus to play them well. Here are several great suggestions for games to play that go beyond flipping over cards in a matching game (although that's still a good one).
Make origami. Your kids will develop their fine motor skills by folding the paper and they'll practice how to follow instructions. You'll achieve quiet focus as you work on more intricate designs and everyone will be proud of what they've created in the end.
Play hand games. Whether it's cat's cradle or a clapping game, this is another way we can fully engage our minds and bodies on one activity and let go of some stress in the process. Our kids get to practice their hand-eye coordination, rhythm, and memorization skills.
Compete for the best laugh. Laughter causes physical changes in your body, like elevating your heart rate and blood pressure. The cool down from your laugh session actually relieves these stress responses, leaving you more relaxed. So a laughing competition is a great way to let off some steam and it doesn't matter if the laughs are forced or real. There's evidence that our bodies respond to laughter the same way, regardless of whether it's genuine. By the end of the game, you'll probably be laughing for real, anyway.
Put on paper bag skits. This is a fun idea that I read about in an article on indoor games for kids. Take turns filling a paper bag with five random items from the house. The other person has to come up with a skit using all of the items in the bag. Figuring out how to connect the nonsensical things your kids choose for you will distract you from whatever stresses are on your mind and give you a good laugh. Meanwhile, your kids will hone their creativity in developing their own acts and they'll feel good about playing a game over which they have a lot of control.
Learn to play a musical instrument. If you already know how to play an instrument, learn some of your kids' favorite songs and start jamming. If not, try starting with one of these easy-to-learn instruments. Not only will playing music switch off the stress response in your body, it brings a host of benefits to your kids such as improved language development, spatial-temporal reasoning, and a higher IQ.
If none of these activities sound appealing to you, then come up with your own list and get playing. Whatever is fun for you to do with your kids will ultimately relieve your stress. Show your kids that play isn't a luxury for adults, but a key ingredient to living a balanced life.