When our little ones head off for school, they take 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, but they’ll also learn social-emotional skills like kindness, sharing, and self-regulation that will contribute to their overall success in life. Some research suggests that social-emotional activities might be the most important work children can do in the early years. In fact, one study found that social-emotional wellness in kindergarten correlated with success up until age 25. Here are some of our favorite social-emotional activities to use with your preschool and kindergarten students.
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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.
1. Read, read, read!
There are TONS of children’s books featuring interesting main characters and story lines that teach social-emotional skills. Reading about characters they can relate to, in situations they can relate to, helps young children learn valuable lessons. Here are two book lists to get you started: Picture Books To Teach Students About Kindness and Children’s Books for Teaching Social Skills.
Different emotions evoke different feelings in our bodies. Teach your students this song to help them learn to identify what is really going on. Also, find role-play scenarios and reflection questions.
3. Play a monster emotions match game
Download the free game cards here. This fun and engaging game helps kids learn how to identify emotions in other people. 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.
4. Make emotion masks
These masks are a great tool for talking about feelings. And all you need is paper plates (cut in half), craft sticks, tape, and markers. The activity will focus on four emotions: happy, mad, sad, and silly. For each emotion (and each mask), make a face and then ask the class to identify the emotion it represents. Once they correctly identify the emotion, have them use the marker to draw that face on one of the plates. You can use these masks during read-alouds (hold up the mask that shows how the main character is feeling) or during class conversations to reinforce their understanding of what different feelings look like.
5. Start each day with a check-in
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.
6. Use strategy cards
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.
7. Download this free poster
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. Included with the download are 30 great calm-down ideas like “I can count to 10,” “I can blow a feather,” and more.
8. Put together a calm-down kit
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. For more ideas, check out this awesome list of 40+ Things To Put in Your Calm-Down Kit.
9. Teach them yoga poses …
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. The printable set comes with 50 different yoga poses (including simple descriptions) and suggested sequences of poses to use.
10. … and breathing techniques
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 during social-emotional activities, they’ll learn to navigate among other kids who may have different styles and opinions. Activities like creative play, building projects, board games, and partner reading 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.
11. Create a culture of kindness
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.
12. Engage in compliment circles
Holding compliment circles in class 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. Read more here.
13. 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 social problem solving poster set.
14. Play a sharing game
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, but this game is also a great opportunity to use polite language such as “please” and “thank you.”
15. Watch friendship videos
Learning to get along with others takes a lot of practice. Here are 12 friendship videos (including the one above from Laughter Chapter) that use compassion, wisdom, and humor to tackle what it means to be a good friend. Use them to jump-start conversations with your students as you build your classroom community.
Practice mindfulness in the classroom.
Mindfulness is defined as a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Mindfulness techniques help students handle big emotions (in themselves and others) and cultivate a sense of peace and calm.
16. Introduce mindfulness with children’s books
If you’re looking for social-emotional activities that incorporate reading, there are dozens of brilliant books that teach the lesson of mindfulness for preschoolers. A couple of our favorites, just for little ones, are Peaceful Panda and I Am the Jungle.
17. Go on a nature walk
Take your little ones outside to indulge their five senses. Explore the changing color of leaves, different leaf shapes, pine cones, and more. Listen for birds and other critters. Lie down on the grass and feel the earth beneath you as you look up at the blue sky.
18. Play in water
Nothing soothes the senses like water. Set up a water table in your classroom and let students engage in free cooperative play. Include your water table as a station at center time.
19. Make time for art
There are SO many reasons kids need to paint. Most find peace and relaxation in art. It focuses their minds and helps them look at the world around them in a much more engaged way.
20. Practice listening
Learning to listen, not only to themselves but to each other, is a critical skill for preschoolers. Set aside time each day to sit quietly with your students and listen for sounds for increasing lengths of time. Ring a chime and ask students to see how long they can hear the sound it makes. Pair students up and teach them to take turns asking questions and listening to answers. Play a round of “telephone.”