A common fear in childhood is being afraid of the dark, and as adults we can help children alleviate that fear. The following post lists some of my favorite ways to encourage children to enjoy the dark using the "language" children speak best— play and wonder.
Before exploring ways to make the dark a safe place to play and explore, however, I want to address the topic of horror films. If your home has any horror films in it's library, and/or you have people watching horror films when a child is present in your home, I'd encourage you to keep those films out of reach and not watch such films in the presence of children. This is true of any filmography intended for a mature audience. Young children (some older ones as well) are not developmentally and emotionally mature enough to handle the content of horror films-- heightened fear and anxiety are likely to follow, no matter how minimal the exposure.
That being said, let's talk about fun activities that encourage children to dim the lights or play in the dark:
1. Play with shadow puppets. You can search online for tutorials on making your own shadow puppets and/or search for where to purchase them. The advantage of making your own is that you can create an imaginative mix of characters and scenery that is “one of a kind” and of your child’s own imagination. The advantage of buying them is the convenience of not crafting them—because not everyone enjoys making arts and crafts or has the time to make them. The shadow puppets in these photos were created by Andrea Everman of Owly Shadow Puppets.
2. Make hand shadows. You and your child can use a flashlight to create fun shadows on the wall. Your local library most likely has a book or two on how to make the classic hand shadows. If your library does not have them, ask them about interlibrary loan— you may be able to borrow from another library.
3. Make (or purchase) a silhouette lantern. These lanterns are especially enchanting for children, and they will want to use these lanterns both for play (they are perfect blanket fort lights) and as night lights. I purchased the one below from Loren Morris at Primitive Witchery here: www.etsy.com/shop/PrimWitchery?ref=l2-shopheader-name You can also follow a tutorial such as this one to make your own (this one starts off with Christmas themed lanterns but if you scroll down you will find other designs to create): www.adventure-in-a-box.com/magical-christmas-lanterns/
4. Make a tin can lantern with your child and then light them up at night for a night walk, or use it as a night light. Battery operated tea lights can be used in lanterns for younger children. https://www.hgtv.com/design/make-and-celebrate/handmade/how-to-make-a-tin-can-lantern
5. Have an evening tea party where the only lighting is candles or twinkle lights. You can also serve tea that helps with sleep, such as chamomile tea.
6. Use bathtub lights. These lights are waterproof and designed for bath time, but they also work well as night-lights and as characters for night play (in or out of the tub). You can search online for "floating lights", "bathtub lights", or even "hot tub lights". Swans, jellyfish, rubber duckies, and more are available for purchase. There are also planetarium lights and other decorative lights for the tub.
7. Play with "play props" and toys that light up. These include miniatures (i.e found at craft stores and hobby shops) like the campfire pictured below. These light up play props can be used for both indoor and outdoor night play.
Battery operated tea lights can also be used with figurines:
8. Play board games and card games that need to be played in the dark. For example, Mistiboo is a spooky version of Old Maid. The card images glow in the dark, which means you can play this game with the lights out. Another game, Shadows In The Forest, (not pictured) involves hiding creatures called Shadowlings in tree shadows which are created by trees and a lantern that come with the game. If you have a local library that has board games in it’s lending library, ask them if they’re able to purchase one of these night games for patrons to borrow.
9. Visit your local library to check out books that will ignite your child’s sense of wonder about the night. Some kids love enchanting picture books that feature night themes and stories that take place at night, such as Dream Animals--A Bedtime Journey, by Emily Winfield Martin. Other kids may find non fiction books about the night more appealing, such as those about constellations, bioluminescence, and nocturnal animals.
10. Go outside to play before bedtime— this works especially well in winter months when the sun sets earlier. You can bring some figurines outside for your child to play with, if needed. And, if you have any "light up" play props, bring those as well. When it’s snowy outside, take advantage of the snow by using it to dig out caves and caverns for characters. Lights illuminating the snow (especially in the snow caves) create magical playscapes.
11. Winter is also a wonderful time to take advantage of any snow forts your child has built. Bring flashlights or lanterns out to the fort at night for bedtime stories or snack time.
12. Go on a night picnic.
13. Sit by a campfire. Regardless of the season, campfires provide many opportunities for storytelling and music, quiet contemplation, marshmallow roasting, and the primal joy of sitting next to the fire.
14. Watch a celestial event such as a meteor shower or Northern Lights. spaceweather.com offers updates for when these are likely to occur.
15. Visit a planetarium.
16. Create snow sculptures during the day and then light them up at night. For example, we made a Godzilla creature once and put a sparkler in it's mouth. Other ideas include making snow dragons where tea lights can be placed in the dragon’s nostrils; or make "snow people" holding lights in their hands; create snow sculpted jellyfish that light up, etc… the possibilities are endless. (Of note-- by day, Godzilla served as a bird feeder. Those "hands" are full of peanuts and sunflower seeds. It was entertaining to see birds landing in his arms.)
17. Play with glow in the dark bubbles (aka black light bubbles). There are online tutorials for how to make your own, but I purchased mine. Either way, you will need a black light flashlight to view these bubbles. However, if you have the means to enjoy this activity, it's a treat. If you wait for an extra cold winter's night, you can have the added benefit of watching the bubbles freeze. Glowing frozen bubbles on the snow mimics galaxies and the night sky -- it's a magical delight to lay your eyes on this spectacle. The same bubble solution was used to create the glowing effect on a small snow fort.
18. Go for a night walk.
19. Take your flashlights outside and look for nocturnal creatures such as beetles and moths. You may even find a toad to say hello to.
20. Watch the sunset together.
21. Visit places that offer candlelight tours, whether it’s a tour around the historical district in town, or a candlelight tour of a castle or fort. The photo below is from a candlelight tour at Hammond Castle in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
22. Go on night drives or night walks to find fireflies in summer. (Yes, I added a firefly filter to the photo below, but in real life there were hundreds of fireflies around, and my iPhone didn't pick up on them. On a side note, the phone camera DID get the picture of this sweet deer that was feeding in the field.)
23. Take advantage of full moons— ice skating and swimming under a full moon, for example, are memorable events for kids. Play with moon shadows or go for a full moon walk. Put your child’s gemstones out in the moonlight for them to “recharge”.
24. Use “twinkle lights” or string lights at home where the child spends time in the dark, whether its a blanket fort or their bedroom.
25. Have a candlelight dinner.
26. Create a bedside basket for your child that has a flashlight (or other small light) and a few small tokens of comfort in it. If the child wakes in the middle of the night s/he may learn to use the items in the basket before waking you.
27. Play a game of flashlight tag with your kids.
28. Create your own “flashlight filters”— a) Use clear colored plastic or paper; cut circles to fit just within the inset of the flashlight; then place the circles on the end of the flashlight to make different colored lights. b) Cut black card stock or scrapbook paper into circles to fit within the inset of the flashlight. Poke holes in the paper circles to create patterns or constellation shapes, then place the circles on the flashlight end. When the flashlight is on, it will shine through the holes and create the designs on a flat surface, such as a wall.
29. If you have very active kids, it may be a worthy investment to buy a light up hula hoop. Kids can hula hoop in the dark and watch the lights on the hula hoop rotate and swirl around. If you have more than one child, and if they can tolerate friendly competition, see who can hula hoop the longest, or try hula hoop challenges such as “who can hula hoop the longest with their eyes closed?” They will burn off some excess energy before bedtime.
30. “Talk” to fireflies.Here is a tutorial: www.amnh.org/explore/ology/zoology/talking-to-fireflies
Overall, any time you engage a child in an activity that taps into their sense of wonder and play, you are also providing an opportunity for them to learn. In this case, they are learning to fear the dark less with every fun and safe exposure they have. So, if any of the above activities seem to match the interest and need of your child, go ahead and give them a try.
Copyright B. Thomas 2019
When it comes to winter weather I am one of “those” people who gets excited about the lack of sunlight, the stark winter landscape, and the snow. I know, I know— this is a bit weird to some people and I’m often met with icy glares and sinister scoffing from my sun worshipping peers. But in the interest of those who cringe at the thought of an encroaching winter, I thought I’d offer my favorite tips and suggestions for thriving in the winter months.
First, winter is a wonderful time to “hibernate”. Some refer to it as “hygge” (aka the Scandinavian term for sinking into the coziness of the season) — but for any group of people who cyclically live through winter, we also know it as “hunkering down”, “hibernating”, “wintering”, or even “disappearing”. Perhaps it’s because I’m an introvert, but I love this aspect of winter the most. Combine any of the following below to embrace the art of human hibernation.
Get out the warm blankets—lots of them
There are so many blankets to mix and layer these days, from nostalgic wool blankets and family quilts to modern comforters and fleece throws. Keep blankets in all the rooms where you spend time relaxing. Make sure there are plenty for everyone-- including your pets--and snuggle up often.
Wear warm socks and slippers
You can often find warm winter socks at craft fairs (made by your local knitters), at the farmers market, at a local venue, and of course online. The advantage to buying socks locally means you can actually feel how thick, soft, and durable they are. You can also get a better sense for the size. When a cold winter’s day or night brings a chill in your home, put on a pair of warm socks and curl up in those blankets mentioned above.
Indulge in reading
This is a great time of year to lose yourself in used books, new books, and shared books.
Make and eat homemade comfort foods
I’m not talking junk food here— I’m talking about hearty soups, stews, and other foods that feel satisfying and comforting to eat. These are the foods that warm you from the inside out and are perfect for days when it’s snowing, when you’ve been outdoors shoveling or skiing, or after a long day of work and a crappy commute. That’s the kind of food I’m talking about. If you yourself are not a cook, seek out local places to buy from. Sometimes your local bakers, caterers, or restaurants will have pot pies or soups to sell that are frozen. You can tuck these in your freezer until needed.
Make warm drinks
Winter is the perfect time to indulge in warm drinks: Mulled apple cider. Coffees. Herbal teas. Medicinal drinks. Hot cocoa. Chai. Find your favorite brands and recipes for hot drinks and keep them on hand for chilly days.
For a touch of extravagance add whipped cream, cinnamon sticks, anise stars, sprinkles of sugar or spice, or any other garnish to make your warm drinks more special.
For extra extra extravagance splurge on unique items such as tea that comes in shaped tea bags Or, try Butterfly Pea Flower Tea which is a gorgeous blue-hued tea that turns purple when you add lemon to it!
Find a favorite mug for those warm drinks
In a world of too-many-mugs this is a rather simple suggestion. However, if you’re going to spend an entire season in cold weather, a favorite mug for your hot drinks and soups can be a mood lifter. Whether the mug is heavy and has a certain comfort to how it feels in your hands, to a mug with gorgeous or whimsical artwork, or a mug given to you by someone who holds your heart in their heart, or a mug that expresses your sense of humor….in the dark months of winter, a special mug can really make a difference on your mood and provide a sense of routine and comfort.
Daydream. Stare at the walls. Notice the patterns on a quilt or a book cover. Breathe. Watch the snow fall. Feel the warmth of your blankets. Snuggle with a pet. Sip your coffee. Watch the birds outside your window. Listen to the traffic. Breathe some more.
Take a nap
Grab a book and crawl under as many blankets as you can. Read until you find yourself getting relaxed, warm, and sleepy. Whether you fall asleep or not is fine— just giving your body a chance to rest is a wonderful gift to yourself.
Winter is a great enabler for crafty people like myself. It’s not only a great time to peruse Pinterest and craft blogs for new projects to make, but it’s also a time to finish any craft projects you’ve started and/or explore new ones.
Do puzzles, play games
When I was a kid my grandparents loved to do jigsaw puzzles, especially the ones that contained “whimsy pieces” (puzzle pieces cut into specific shapes, such as a bird or an airplane). There are still puzzle companies today that make high quality, artistic puzzles that include whimsy pieces in addition to other special features. My favorite puzzles so far have come from Artifact Puzzles which are gorgeously made.
Get a puzzle book—whether it’s sudoku, crosswords, or word finds it’s nice to have puzzle book around for those moments when your mind wants to be awake and engaged but you still want to curl up and relax.
New board games and card games are released frequently for people of all ages. If games are something you enjoy, check to see if your local library has a lending library of games (yes, some do offer that!). You can coordinate game night with family or friends.
Winter is a wonderful time to sink into a hot bubble bath, but that’s not a feasible option for everybody. If you do not own a tub, a bubbly aromatic foot bath can be a wonderful alternative. Purchase a plastic tub (like one you’d wash dishes in) and fill it with comfortably warm/hot water. You can add essential oil, epsom salts, flower petals (organic, non sprayed ones), or bath gel to the water as well. Keep a couple towels nearby in case of spills and for when you are done and need to dry your feet.
If you are prone to seasonal affective disorder and/or become low during winter months, it might be helpful to try a sunlamp. Talk about this option with your doctor, naturopath, or counselor before trying it, however, just to rule out any risk factors and to make sure you're getting the best possible care for your mental health.
Lighting in general can help you during especially dark months. Add “twinkle lights” around areas where you spend the most time and/or invest in novelty lights or other lighting decor to brighten up your home.
Now that I’ve covered ways to endure the winter months indoors, let’s move on to the outdoor activities. Winter is certainly a great time to go outside and play, regardless of whether you’re a child or adult.
Build snow sculptures
Snow people are fun to build but don’t let yourself get stuck in a rut of only building snow people. Try building something new— such as an upside down snow person…or a snow unicorn…or a snow cat. You can also stack snowballs, create words on trees with sticky snow, make icicle art, and more.
Build a fort or an igloo
Yes— really— even if you don’t have kids. It’s not only great exercise but it’ll get your mind off of politics, the world news, and other stressors.
If you do have kids, make sure to utilize the fort for unique opportunities such as bedtime stories (the kids get bundled up with their pajamas and you all bring blankets, flashlights, and lanterns to read stories in the fort). You can also have a picnic or tea party in the fort.
Picnics are not just for summer-- I actually prefer winter picnics over summer ones because they tend to be more adventurous and memorable. Also, winter picnics at night are even more enchanting when you bring along candles and lanterns to light up your picnic area.
Winter sports and recreation
Winter is the ultimate playground for many recreational activities such as ice hockey, ice skating, downhill skiing, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, sledding, and more. If you don't already know whats available nearby, search online or ask community members for favorite spots like skating rinks and ponds, snowshoe trails, and sledding hills. Don't forget to pack a Thermos full of hot soup or cocoa for the trip!
Blow bubbles and watch them freeze
These are the kind of bubbles you create by dipping a wand into soapy liquid and then blowing gently on the wand to make bubbles. If the weather is cold enough where you are, the bubbles will freeze. Frozen bubbles are mesmerizing to watch — see how many you can get to stay perfectly balanced on top of snowfall. To make things even more interesting use the "dark light bubbles" and shine a black light on them--the frozen bubbles will glow!
You can also use black light bubbles to decorate forts or sculptures for night photography.
Feed the animals
I tend to feed our backyard friends year round. However, when you want a little backyard entertainment, put out a special picnic or tea party for the animals; build a snow person with arms holding seed; make hearts and other shapes in the snow using birdseed; or decorate an outdoor tree with garlands of cereal or berries or ornaments made from bread, nut butters, and birdseed.
I hope this blog post gives you a starting place for ways to embrace the heart of winter--when all else fails, start planning your gardens for spring and summer and get those seeds ordered.
As you might already know, I'm an advocate for nature-based activities. Nature gives our bodies many things we are lacking in our usual day-to-day routines-- vitamin D, fresh air, immune-building microbes from the soil, exercise, relaxation, a sensory rich environment, places to explore, and so much more. I am so passionate about the benefits of nature that I even wrote a book about nature based activities for youth. You can see the book here.
Autumn is a wonderful time of year to get outdoors and enjoy the unique opportunities that the season offers. It's also the perfect time to gather natural materials for crafts and projects you might need or want year round. Sticks, acorns, acorn caps, seed pods, flowers for pressing and drying, pine cones, and more are abundant this time of year.
Here are some of my favorite autumn activities:
1. Head out to the back deck, the front lawn, or even the front steps for a breakfast picnic. If you're feeling more adventurous and/or your family will cooperate, then venture out to the woods or a favorite trail for your breakfast picnic. Bring autumn-themed breakfast treats such as apple cider donuts, cider, trail mix, cranberry scones, or hot chocolate. Enjoy the chill in the air and enjoy a yummy breakfast with loved ones.
2. Go on a foliage drive-- make sure to stop along the way to explore. You can always do an online search before you go to see if there are any of these creative activities to do along the way such as letter boxing, geocaching, local labyrinths to walk, or apple orchards and/or pumpkin farms to visit.
3. Create some "land art"-- this time of year is great for land art because there are so many natural materials around to create with. In addition, at least here in the Northeast, the mosquitos and black flies have significantly reduced -- still use protection against ticks, though!
4. Gather acorns for your local wildlife rehabilitation center or collect them for future craft projects.
5. Rake those leaves and jump in them.
6. Go on a mushroom hunt. The woods are full of gorgeous and unique fungi that are usually hidden under leaves or peaking out from rotting logs. A mushroom hunt is a "look don't touch" activity for kids, but they might still find appeal in the "scavenger hunt" feel of this activity. You can challenge kids to find a certain number of different colored mushrooms; find mushrooms in each color of the rainbow, or as close as possible; or to photograph them if they have iPhones or are old enough to use yours or a camera. Bring a mushroom guide, if desired, for identifying the mushrooms you find.
7. Pick apples at an organic orchard and then make your favorite apple recipe with them. Orchards are great places for kids to explore different varieties of apples, especially if heirloom apples are present. Picking apples is a joy in an of itself, but many orchards also offer additional activities at their farms. Research your local orchards to see what is available to you.
8. Track down some snapdragon seed pods. Did you grow snapdragons in your garden this year? If you did, you will find these odd looking seed pods left behind that look like skulls or witches heads. If you did not grow snapdragons this year, ask around and see if you have any friends that did. If they have not pulled out their gardens yet, these Halloween-ish pods will still be there just waiting for someone to collect them.
9. Pick pumpkins-- there are so many fun projects to do with pumpkins, from roasting the seeds and making pies, to carving them into jack-o-lanterns, coaches, fairy houses, and more. Remember, if you ever feel at a loss of ideas, the internet is your friend.
10. Collect acorn caps for making these sweet little nature dolls. Buy the wooden figurines from your craft store, color them with colored pencils, glue a cap on, and then seal the doll with varnish.
11. Go mining! Research places to explore in your local area where you and the kids can go mining. I love this activity in the fall because its much cooler (in temperature), the foliage is gorgeous to view along the way, and mosquitos and black flies are at a minimum. My favorite spot for mining in Maine is Mount Apatite in Auburn because there is no cost and no tour--you can go on your own time and collect some beautiful gems. Bring a bag or a bucket, a hammer, and goggles for each person. Smashing rocks is both exciting and therapeutic for kids (and adults, too)-- the thrill of finding a gemstone is priceless, and you get out tons of energy doing so. Of course, experienced miners will not recommend "smashing" rocks as some gemstones are more fragile than others. So, if you are interested in mining you will want to research where you can do so in your area, what the rules are of the place you are visiting, as well as any tips for appropriately "smashing"/mining your finds.
12. Leave positive words and "secret messages" along any trails or places outdoors you explore. This is another variation of land art, and it's an easy one for kids to do. Gather some natural materials and put them together to spell a word or message of encouragement for others to find.
13. Host a picnic for your backyard animals. Set up a tray, table, or blanket in your yard; add a tea set, cups, and/or bowls; then fill them with seeds, nuts, or other foods appropriate for an animal's diet. This is pre-hibernation time for many of our backyard friends so this is a wonderful time to help them stock up on extra food. Taking and sharing photos of them enjoying their treats is my favorite part of this activity.
14. If you happen to live near an apple tree, or visit a place that has one, there are usually tons of apples on the ground. Gather a bunch of them, wash them, and then have the kids bite silly faces into the apples. Prop them up in the tree branches for a tree filled with silly faces.
15. Use acorn caps as hats for finger puppets.
16. Grab some chalk and head out to the nearest blacktop to create patterns, pictures, and other creative creations. Again, the weather is perfect this time of year for any sort of outdoor play (expect maybe swimming...).
Bonnie Thomas, LCSW
Indigo North Counseling, LLC
Like many adults, I am constantly navigating the world of coping strategies to see which ones help me feel and function better. One of my favorite strategies is Finding Hearts. It's not a commonly listed strategy in self help books (in fact, I may have made this one up). However, when I am feeling uncomfortable, overwhelmed, or having a particularly rough moment, I look for hearts.
Looking for hearts does a few things for my state of mind and well being:
1. It's a practice in grounding. Grounding is a technique used to decrease emotional distress that accommodates anxiety attacks, dissociation, PTSD and other intense emotional states. Grounding means bringing yourself to the present moment by checking in with your senses (what do you smell, hear, taste, feel, or see around you at the moment); checking in with your surroundings (look around you, identify where you are or what is in your view); and also checking in with yourself (say your name to yourself, state the date and time of day). Grounding basically means you pull yourself to the present moment. Finding hearts is one way to bring yourself to the present moment: scan your immediate surroundings; see if you can find any hearts hidden in the clouds, in the ceiling tiles, in the food you are eating, on your clothing, in the trees, etc...
2. Its a practice in focus. My ADD can take on a life of it's own and there are times when simply looking around for hearts helps my brain and body slow down enough so I can pay better attention to other details.
3. It's a practice in mindfulness. Mindfulness is observing the details of your surroundings (even your "inner surroundings"-- your feelings and state of mind) and being fully present in the moment.
4. The creative part of me simply loves this activity-- for me it feels like a mini-recess for my brain. It's playful, it's creative, and it's a nice break from the routine of the day that can be done in seconds or minutes.
5. The metaphysical/spiritual/curious part of me can't help but love the fact that we are surrounded by hidden hearts everywhere.
6. Photographing the hearts you find and sharing them (i.e. on social media) is a simple and fun way to connect with others. Once you start sharing them, you may find that your friends and loved ones start sending them to you as well.
Bonnie Thomas, LCSW
Indigo North Counseling
When I need to find my balance or quiet my heart and soul, I create art. Art is my favorite form of therapy and self expression. One of my most treasured art projects is making these Spirit Stones.
While walking various trails or beaches I collect rocks that are flat. Scanning the earth for rocks is calming and centering in and of itself. I keep the rocks in a jar until I have one of those days where my head is running full speed ahead and just needs
Then I paint a bunch of these stones all at once. I use various pens-- from oil based ink, to chalk pens, to permanent markers. Some of my favorite patterns and images include feathers, arrows, a compass rose, spirals, geometric shapes, words of inspiration, eyes, and mandalas. Try making your own and see if it calms and centers you also! The rocks can be placed around your home or office to remind you to relax, to inspire you, or to bring some creative energy to your space.
I keep supplies on hand at Indigo North Counseling, LLC to make these stones with clients of all ages-- sometimes we make them as Spirit Stones, other times we add them to other projects or create them for "worry stones".
Bonnie Thomas, LCSW
Indigo North Counseling