The two sophomores probably didn’t realize they were breaking the rules. There they were, at the University of Minnesota’s Walter Library, with books in their hands. Studying.

The two just happened to settle into the library’s new “relaxation space,” the only place on campus where studying is forbidden. At least for the next few days.

As the fall semester draws to a close, U librarians have gone all out to help lower the stress level for students, providing Legos, crayons, “kinetic sand” boxes and — for the first time — a study-free zone, complete with yoga mats and pillows, next to the bookshelves.

“It’s meant to restore sanity,” said Daniel Fabres, a computer science student from St. Cloud, who tried out both the relaxation space and Lego table Tuesday. “I’ve just been stressed [about] homework due tomorrow, homework due Friday.” And, of course, final exams.

Like many schools, the university has rolled out an expanding array of “stress busters” at its busiest time of year, when some of the libraries stay open 24/7 to accommodate last-minute cramming. This year, students can get free chair massages at the Bio-Medical Library, pop bubble wrap and eat candy at the Natural Resources Library, take Star Wars-themed photos at Wilson Library and “stretch, meditate, pray, breathe, or listen to the sounds of nature” in Walter’s relaxation room — “No studying allowed!” says the library website.

Carolyn Bishoff, one of the librarians coordinating the events, said it’s all for a good cause. “I don’t actually see them as distractions,” she said. “I see them as study aids.” And, she notes, a way “to help with their mental health.”

Just this week, the U released a survey showing that more than a third of its students say they have more stress than they can manage. One in five have clinically diagnosed anxiety.

But it’s no surprise that stress levels spike at this time of year, the organizers say, with the holidays and final exams looming.

The stress busters, said librarian Jeff Bullington, are “a pretty inexpensive way for us to do something to support all of those students who are working very hard and definitely could use a break.”

Mike Ausen, 19, from Inver Grove Heights, found himself drawn to the “kinetic sand” box in the middle of the Walter Library’s great hall. He and classmate Erin Skoglund, a sophomore from Stacy, Minn., had been studying animal science when they stopped to run their fingers through the sand. “It is helpful,” said Ausen, who ventured that students are under more pressure than ever to do well in college. “That dramatically increases the stress,” he said.

Lydia Cameron and Jett Stromswold, both 19, were squeezing stress balls as they studied their microbiology textbooks in the “relaxation space.” When told that studying was supposed to be forbidden there, Cameron laughed. “It’s a very relaxing place to study,” she said.

Breaks for better focus

The organizers insist that the toys and games are not part of a trend to coddle or infantilize college students, as critics might suggest. “Just because something is for children doesn’t mean adults aren’t going to enjoy it as well,” said Bishoff. Beyond that, she and her fellow librarians say that brain science confirms that people have better focus when they pause to relax, rather than staring at a book for hours on end.

“Some of these things are very comforting and a little bit of home,” said Kate Peterson, the undergraduate services librarian. The activities don’t require a lot of brain power, she notes, and most important for a library, “they’re not loud.”

Most of them, at least. Occasionally, a roaming choir — part of the anti-stress campaign — bursts into song in the library, drawing amused looks from the more studious crowd.

During the day, the game tables may be empty for long stretches. But there’s evidence of plenty of activity overnight. When Bishoff arrives for work in the morning, she says, she finds colored pages and sand castles and houses built of Legos. Some students display their creations on Twitter and Instagram.

Not that anyone expects the stress to disappear. The goal, the organizers say, is to help them manage it.

After all, said Fabres, the computer science major, what’s college without stress? “If you don’t have stress, you’re not going to be motivated to work.”