The Most Important Skills We Teach in the Early Years Aren’t Academic

They’re skills like kindness, sharing, and self-regulation. Here are some of our favorite social-emotional activities for the early years.

Social-Emotional Activities for the Early Years

When our little ones head off for school, they are taking their first steps in a lifelong journey of learning. Not only will they begin to build foundational skills that will pave the way for academic success, they’ll also learn social-emotional skills that will contribute to their overall success in life.

In fact, some research suggests that social-emotional skills might be the most important thing children learn in the early years. One 2015 study found that social-emotional wellness in kindergarten correlated with success up until age 25.

Here are some of our favorite social-emotional activities you can use to boost skills like kindness, sharing, and self-regulation in preschool and kindergarten. 

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Read, read, read! 

Best Kindness Books for Kids

There are TONS of children’s books that feature interesting main characters and storylines that teach kids social-emotional skills. Try these picture books to teach students about kindness or these 50 books that focus on different SEL topics.

Teach students to identify their emotions.

Identifying and labeling feelings (your own and others’) is a valuable life skill that takes lots of practice. These social-emotional activities are not only fun and engaging for little ones, they spark essential conversations that lead to deeper understanding. 

Practice with clay.

Preschool SEL activities

Mrs. Plemon’s Kindergarten 

These printable mats come with a blank face and samples of different faces at the top. Kids practice making features with clay to match different emotions. 

Play a monster match game.

preschool SEL activities

Pocket of Preschool

Download the free game cards here. Before the game begins gather students on the rug and show them each card. Have them practice making a face that demonstrates the emotion on each card. Next, give each student their own card and tell them to keep it secret.   

The game begins as students walk around the room making the feeling face that matches their card. As they walk, they look for another student who seems to be demonstrating the same feeling. Once everyone thinks they have found their matching feeling friend, let them check their cards to see if they are right. Play a few rounds to give kids a chance to try out different feelings. 

Use an emotions gauge. 

Preschool SEL activities

Counselor Keri

Create these simple emotion gauges to help students identify how they are feeling. (Or download the inexpensive templates, link above, which come in five different versions.) Cut them out and paste them to colored construction paper. Then punch a hole at the top and bottom. Thread a pipe cleaner with a bead attached through the holes and bend over to attach on the back side. Students can slide the bead to the picture that matches their emotion. 

Make masks.  

Preschool SEL activities

No Time for Flashcards

These masks are a great tool for talking about feelings. To prepare for this project, cut a stack of paper plates in half. Have tape, large craft sticks, and markers available. To begin, give each student four sticks and four half plates. Put a roll of tape on each table. Have students tape a stick to the back of each plate. 

This activity will focus on four emotions: happy, mad, sad, and silly. For each emotion (and each mask) make a face and ask the class to identify the emotion it represents. Once they correctly identify it, have them use the marker to draw that face on one of the plates.

You can use these masks during read aloud (hold up the mask that shows how the main character is feeling) and during class conversations to reinforce their understanding of what different feelings look like.  

Start each day with a check-in.

Preschool SEL activities

Simple Music Teaching

This chart is a fun one to help students communicate how they’re feeling. Position it next to your classroom door and have students point to the emoji that most closely matches how they’re feeling as they enter. This activity helps students get in the habit of monitoring their emotions and gives you valuable information about your students’ moods.

Teach kids strategies to deal with hard feelings.

Being able to identify and label feelings is a great start. Knowing what to do when unsettling feelings come up is the next step. Feelings like anger, sadness, and confusion will undoubtedly arise from time to time in the classroom. Here are a few social-emotional activities to help your students learn how to cope in a safe environment. 

Set up a calm corner.

Preschool SEL activities


Sometimes kids need a safe place to go in the classroom when they are feeling strong emotions or just need a break. Set up an area where kids can calm down, redirect their energy, and find their focus again. Stock this space with a comfy place to sit, stuffed animals, books, and perhaps some of the items listed below. 

Put together a calm-down kit.

Preschool SEL activities

Proud to be Primary

Stock a plastic bin with tools to help little ones manage their emotions. Include things such as strategy cards, squeeze balls, calm-down bottles , putty, and breathing exercises. 

Download this free calm-down poster.

A Blog From the Pond

Use these posters to teach kids what to do when they feel their emotions escalating. Once they are familiar with the strategies, post the posters in your calm-down corner for kids to reference as they regroup. 

Use strategy cards. 

Preschool SEL activities

Liz’s Early Learning Spot 

These free downloadable cards offer 23 different strategies (with pictures and words) that kids can use to manage their emotions. Print them out, punch a hole in the corner of each card, and attach them to a ring. 

Teach them  yoga poses … 

Preschool SEL activities

Social Emotional Workshop

Teach your students simple yoga poses to help them get control of their bodies when emotions are running high. For best results, pair poses with deep-breathing techniques. Follow this link to access a kid-friendly yoga deck with 34 different yoga poses (including simple descriptions) and suggested sequences of poses to use. 

… and breathing techniques.

Preschool SEL activities

Yoga Therapy Source

Deep breathing reduces stress and anxiety and helps kids learn to manage their emotions. Check out this source for lots of fun ideas for building breathing breaks into your day.

Build in lots of opportunities for kids to work on social skills. 

Like everyone, little ones learn best by doing. Give them lots of opportunities to interact with peers one-on-one, in small groups, and as part of a whole class, ideally with as little adult interference as possible. As they play, they’ll learn to navigate among other kids who may have different styles and opinions. Activities like creative play, building projects, board games, partner reading, etc. are great tools to reveal kids’ strengths and challenges as they begin to figure out how to manage school in the best way for themselves. 

Focus on kindness. 

Bucket Filler Activities Feature

Create a culture of kindness in your classroom. Read your students the story Have You Filled a Bucket Today? A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids by Carol McCloud. Then spread the love with a few of these activities.

Mix up a friendship treat.

Incorporate a lesson on friendship into snack time! Create a Friendship Recipe anchor chart (shown above) and talk about the elements that go into a solid friendship. Then cook up this tasty and meaningful treat together.  

Form a compliment circle.

Taking time to hold compliment circles takes very little time but yields powerful results. Create an environment of respect and kindness with this simple activity that teaches kids how to give and receive compliments. For all the details, check out this blog

Teach problem-solving strategies.

In any social situation, conflict is bound to occur. That’s why teaching kids how to peacefully solve problems is essential. Equip your students with the tools they need to manage uncomfortable situations with these coping strategies and free poster set.    

Play a sharing game. 

Preschool SEL activities

Sunny Day Family

In Mo Willems’ adorable book Should I Share My Ice Cream?, Gerald the elephant has to make a quick decision about whether to share his ice cream cone with his best friend, Piggy. Read the story to your class and have a conversation about sharing.

Then try this fun game. Make “waffle” cones out of rolled-up sheets of construction paper then have students practice passing their “ice cream” to a friend. Not only will students learn cooperation, this game is a great opportunity to use polite language, such as please and thank you.

What are some of your favorite social-emotional activities for the early years? Come share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE! Facebook group.

Also, check out 50 Ways Schools Can Support Early Literacy.

Posted by Elizabeth Mulvahill

Elizabeth Mulvahill is a teacher, writer and mom who loves learning new things, hearing people's stories and traveling the globe.


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