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! 

Collage of Best Kindness Books for Kids

There are TONS of children’s books featuring interesting main characters and storylines 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 booklists to get you started: Picture Books to Teach Students About Kindness and Picture Books to Teach Social-Emotional Skills.

2. Sing

Colorful poster with children's faces showing different emotions

Source: Centervention

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

Two children match feeling cards

 Source: 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. 

4. Make emotion masks 

Masks made from paper plates and popsicle sticks with faces showing different emotions drawn on them

Source: No Time for Flashcards

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

Poster showing emoji faces with different feelings

Source: 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. 

6. Use strategy cards

Calming strategy cards with pictures of children and suggestions like listen to music, count, think happy thoughts and jump

Source: 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. 

7. Download this free poster

Colorful poster that says "I can take time to calm down one step at a time"

Source: 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. 

8. Put together a calm-down kit

Calm down kit with different tools inside to help children settle themselves down

Source: 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. 

9. Teach them yoga poses … 

Poster with drawings of different yoga poses children can learn

Source: 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. 

10 … and breathing techniques

Girl with braids happily blowing a bubble

Source: 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. 

11. Create a culture of kindness

Collage of different activities children can do to show 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

Children sitting in a circle with their feet touching teaching 

Source: The Interactive Teacher

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

13. Teach problem-solving strategies

Poster showing 4 problem solving strategies for kids- say stop, ignore, walk away, get help

Source: This Reading Mama

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.    

14. Play a sharing game

Poster for a pass the ice cream sharing activity

Source: 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, but this game is also a great opportunity to use polite language, such as please and thank you.

15. Watch friendship videos 

Two young boys touching elbows in the woods with their face masks on.

Learning to get along with others takes a lot of practice. Here are 12 friendship videos that use compassion, wisdom, and humor to tackle what it means to be a good friend. Use them to jumpstart conversations with your students as you build your classroom community.  

Do you have a favorite SEL activity you use with your preschoolers or kindergarteners? Post in the comments below!

Plus, check out How to Teach Social and Emotional Learning From a Distance

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15 Essential SEL Activities for Preschool and Kindergarten