The Surprising Way Color Can Calm a Cranky Toddler

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It was dinnertime after a long, hot day outside, and we’d gotten a late start on cooking. My toddler, Fiona, was too tired and hungry to focus on her food, so she knocked her plate and cup to the floor with a swipe of her hand. “No!” It was going to be one of those nights: Now bathtime and bedtime were insurmountable mountains. I ran the bath water to her husky little voice intoning, “No bath, NO!”

“How about purple?” The question popped out of my mouth before I even knew what I was offering. “Do you want some purple?” I looked around the bathroom for any purple toy I could find.

“Bup-bup?” the toddler said through tears and hiccups, her breath slowing down. “Here’s a purple vitamin!” I rummaged for the Flintstones vitamin in the medicine cabinet, where I also discovered a container of purple food dye from a stalled project making bath bombs and colorful glycerin soap with my 10-year-old. “How about a purple bath?” I figured that food dye used for bath products would be safe on the skin but read the label just to be safe.

My toddler watched as I squirted purple dye into the water, creating tie-dye swirls before turning the bath lavender. She was so excited she couldn’t wait to jump into the water (then, of course, she loved her bath so much she wouldn’t get out without a fight, but that’s another story).

My discovery that color could help in our sensory play was eye-opening to me. It made me think of one of my favorite children’s books, Harold and the Purple Crayon. In this story, a boy creates a whole new world with just one crayon. The book is all black and white except for bright purple lines.

Recently, I’ve started to think that toddlers—and maybe kids of all ages—need the equivalent of Harold’s crayon to help us navigate the big feelings. When the world feels too much to handle, focusing on a bright, happy color can give us equilibrium. (I know a mom who paints her toenails bright orange and wears electric yellow sandals when things are tough-going).

Indeed, colors can be a companion in our lives. We parents already know that loveys or favorite stuffed animals can help make transitions easier and soothe frazzled little ones, but colors can play the same role. Luckily, Fiona can find purple almost everywhere she goes, so even if her beloved stuffed Chihuahua has been misplaced, we can often find something purple to carry her through the day.

Here are some ways that I’ve harnessed the power of color in our lives:

Salt Art

A kindergarten teacher friend of mine gave me great advice for teaching the ABCs with salt and food coloring. First, she spread a plastic bag onto the table and then poured out a half inch of salt from a 26-ounce container. Next, she allowed her kids to mix their favorite colors into the salt. Then, they would draw letters with their fingers. We also tried drawing letters or shapes with glue and sprinkling the colorful salt “sand” onto it. When it dried, kids could continue practicing tracing letters with their fingers.

I’m stocking up on extra red and blue food coloring to do this with Fiona next time she’s cranky or bored, knowing that the craft can be cleaned easily when it’s built atop a trash bag.

Shaving Cream Rainbows in the Bath

We now keep food coloring by the side of the tub at all times to dye the water any color my daughters desire—occasionally mixing different shades. To change things up, we also keep cheap shaving cream on hand to make “cake and ice cream” in the bath and dye them rainbow colors. Sometimes we jump into the tub on a rainy or boring day just to paint with color and shaving cream. This is the cleanest craft of all since it can all be washed right down the drain.

Sensory Beads

This isn’t the newest idea, but when you get Orbeez in your kids’ favorite color, or perhaps mix two favorite shades, the combination of color and the cool, Jelly-like texture of the beads can really calm kiddos.

Color has the power to smooth and soothe kids—not to mention parents—so when things get tense, “purple” is my family’s mantra.

Jess deCourcy Hinds ( is a writer and librarian. Sign up for her free quarterly newsletter, I’m an Open Book: On Love, Libraries and Life-building.

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