As a parent or primary caregiver, we do whatever we can to lay a core foundation of security, resilience, and self-esteem for our kids. We want them to be able to express their true authentic selves and to understand how their actions affect those around them. In therapeutic terms, we are constantly working to secure a base of SEL (Social Emotional Learning).
SEL refers to a child learning to 1) identify, express and cope with emotions, while 2) developing social skills and problem solving skills. There are many skills that make up the full picture of social emotional health, and these skills are vital to other types of development too; like learning math or reading later on in school. Children need the skills to manage conflict, think flexibly, identify their feelings and work through them, in every situation they find themselves in, and this learning can start from day one!
The support we can offer to children can come in many different ways; modeling, reflecting emotions, reading stories and playing with our children. This learning can be infused naturally throughout your day, supporting your child’s development as you go. Children naturally learn and grow when given the space.
Below are 6 creative activities to try with your kiddo and infuse into your daily routine:
1. Feelings Matching Game
Print or draw some feeling faces on pieces of paper. Make two of each feeling. Then mix them all up, flip them all face down, and play a memory matching game where you have to find the two that match. Make sure to name the feeling when you pick up the card.
This activity promotes emotion identification, reading facial cues, and sends a message that we can welcome and accept all feelings. Children will get used to seeing feeling faces and talking about emotions. It’s a bonus if these faces spark conversations about your child’s own feelings. Making statements like “I feel sad sometimes” when you pick up the sad card, can help children normalize all feelings and gain comfort with the topic of emotions.
Teacher Tip: This activity works great in a small group! Not only are students practicing emotion identification, but they are building important Social Emotional skills. Taking turns, patience, cooperation, and managing disappointment when peers make a match they were hoping to get. Memory games also allow students to practice critical thinking skills while requiring focus attention, and concentration.
2.The Reaction Game
This game is like a game of charades where one person gets to act out (without words or sound) having a “reaction” to something, and the other people have to guess what happened. Examples of actions might be; opening an exciting present, or tasting something yucky. Take turns acting out a variety of reactions and a range of emotions.
This activity promotes reading facial cues, emotion identification, empathy, and problem solving. This activity continues to allow children to explore emotions and reactions in safe and playful ways that don’t overwhelm them. This exploration through play can support the building block of emotional regulation (yay for emotional regulation!!)
Teacher Tip: When in the classroom environment, even during remote learning, this reaction game is a fun and easy way to practice the building blocks of empathy. Learning and practicing the skill of understanding how others are feeling by using facial cues and body language is helpful for all students. For older students, provide them with a phrase (i.e. It’s raining outside. We have a math test today) and an emotion without their peers knowing. Have the student repeat the phrase while showing that emotion. The class will then guess how they were feeling about the phrase.
3. Feelings Thumb Ball
Take a large ball (we recommend a beach ball) and draw feeling faces all over it in various places. For older children feeling words work well too. Take turns catching the ball. When you catch it, name the feeling that your thumb is touching (for young kiddos-don’t worry about thumb rule, and just let them pick a feeling). For children who are ready for a next step-add in saying something that makes you feel that way. For instance, “my thumb is on happy, I feel happy when I play with my family” etc.
This game promotes turn taking, patience (an emotional regulation skill), cooperation, emotion identification, and insight building.
Teacher Tip: A perfect activity for a morning meeting! On a nice day, take this one outside. When in a large group, have students practice asking peers if they would like a turn. If the peer says yes, the ball will be thrown to them. This will prevent kiddos bumping into one another when more than one person is going for the same ball. For the students who are at the next step, allow them the opportunity to pass on sharing something that makes them feel that way. It can be difficult for some students to share in a large group setting, especially when sharing personal experiences.
4. Worry Box
Take a box or jar and decorate it, making a worry box to hold worries. Have your child draw a picture of or write their worries on small pieces of paper and put them inside the box. Another option is to whisper the worries into the box. This tool can be used to later pull out the worries and problems to solve them, or if they are big worries that cannot be solved, offer some love and support to your little one.
Note: If your child denies having worries, or really does not seem worried at the moment, it could still be fun to “just pretend” and make it silly. This gives them practice using the tool and they could use it when they really need it in the future. You might give an example like, “I’m feeling worried that I have a giant flower pot on my head” etc.
This activity promotes feeling identification and verbalization of negative emotions. It supports children in expressing emotions in ways that are comfortable to them, and offers a coping skill to manage big feelings. This activity is also awesome for encouraging children to share with the adults in their lives about their big feelings.
Teacher Tip: Use a class worry box for your students. Teach the routine of how and when it is appropriate to use this in your classroom. Depending on the age of your students, they can write their worries on a piece of paper and put it into the box, or whisper their worry. If a student needs adult support, teach the routine of how this will work in your classroom. Whether it means they talk to the teacher or a counselor, make sure they know how to get the support they need within the expectations of the classroom setting.
5. A Home For Feelings
For this activity you first need to have a representation of your feeling of choice. Maybe you want to focus on sadness. You can use the Sad Feel from our Feels Set if that is available to you, or you could choose a toy or have your child draw their own Sad Feel. Then ask your child what they think their sad feel needs. Provide materials like a cardboard box, fabric, toys, paper pretend food etc. With your child, find playful ways to nurture feelings.
This activity supports emotion identification, emotional expression, empathy building, coping skills, emotional regulation and insight.
Teacher Tip: This activity will be very beneficial for students who are dealing with emotions of any size. Use this activity as an opportunity to highlight tools within the classroom that are available for students to help support their big feelings. Make sure to have a variety of sensory tools to support the needs of each individual student. Have the students draw out what tools they will use to create a home for their feelings when they are experiencing big emotions in the classroom.
6. Create a Comfort Corner
Set up a cozy space in your home that kiddos can use to calm down when they need to take a break. Have your child participate in adding books, or a few objects that help them feel good when they want to calm down or take-a-break. We suggest setting this up in a place where it can stay up permanently, to become part of your child’s environment. Read more about Comfort Corners HERE (link to Blog Post about Comfort Corners)
Pro tip: We strongly recommend that this “comfort corner” does not end up being the “time-out corner.” Sending a child to this area as a punishment will have the opposite intended effect. We want children to learn to self-soothe and regulate themselves in healthy ways, and keeping this area having positive associations will help with that process.
This activity promotes emotional regulation skills, self-soothing skills, emotion identification. It also sends the message to children that they are not “in trouble” for having big feelings. This is an important message for children that becomes foundational for emotional regulation later on.
Teacher Tip: Creating a safe space for all feelings is beneficial for your students. Recognizing that all feelings are welcome within the classroom allows children the opportunity to take care of those feelings. Plan out and discuss the options and expectations for this space. Some students will benefit from having a more specific plan with concrete guidelines and visual supports, to help use this space in the most effective way for their individual needs.
We hope you find some of these ideas fun and useful. Other ways to find more activities and ideas for social emotional learning live on our website, and there will be more to come!