15 Social-Emotional Activities for Preschoolers at Home
For decades when parents and educators discussed learning and education, the focus was on academics and how well a child performs in school and tests. The concept of focusing on social skills is still reasonably new, yet it is equally important, and some may argue more.
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When a child lacks the ability to regulate their emotions, interact in socially acceptable ways, and calm themselves down when upset or angry, they are incapable of learning at their full potential. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) points out, “Effective early childhood teachers recognize the value of developing children’s social skills to promote cooperation and collaboration.”
There has been a big push over the last 30 years to incorporate social-emotional learning into preschool and early elementary education. Researchers continue to find evidence between the early learning of social skills and later success in school and relationships. For years, I was dubbed the “social-emotional” teacher at my school because my Pre-K lesson plans were chock full of interactive games and activities to develop young learners’ emotional competence.
The good news is you don’t have to be an experienced preschool teacher to incorporate fun and productive social-emotional learning activities with your children at home. I have put together a list of 15 of my favorite social-emotional activities you can do at home with your preschooler!
1. Board Games
Playing board games with your preschooler is an excellent way to work on self-control. There is nothing like a 4-year-old losing a game of Candyland to make you understand how important self-regulation is! Most little kids are sore losers; it is in their nature to be. Three and four-year-olds still possess a very egotistical view of the world.
Board games teach turn-taking and can help a child learn how to process disappointment or anger when they lose. While all of us have probably at one time or another surreptitiously snuck a card into the right spot to help our child win, avoid doing that on a regular basis. Learning how to lose or fail gracefully is a significant skill your child needs.
You can take the sting out of losing by making a rule that the winner cleans up the game or that the loser can choose what game to play next.
2. Act It Out
You could play many role-playing games to help your preschool with emotions, but one of my favorites is a theater warm-up I used when teaching drama classes. The idea is to take a single phrase, for example, “I love going to the beach,” and say it in as many different ways as possible. It is a way to connect with the emotion and meaning of the words depending on the context.
“I love going to the beach” when said in an excited voice means something completely different than “I love going to the beach” in a disappointed or sad voice. For example, one situation could mean your child just found out you are taking a vacation, while the other could mean they discovered vacation was canceled due to bad weather.
Play around with simple phrases, emotions, and body language, and discuss with your child the possible scenarios that would make them feel those emotions.
Some possible phrases to try include:
- I love ice cream.
- It’s my birthday today.
- What time is the parade?
- That’s my new toy.
- This is my first time at the zoo.
3. Draw a Self-Portrait
Artistic expression is another excellent way to work on social-emotional skills. Encourage your child to use a mirror and to draw a picture of themselves. Allow them to be creative and give them plenty of time to create the activity.
Drawing a self-portrait is a way to work on self-awareness and get a glimpse of how your child sees themself. If they give themselves pink hair or green skin, ask them why they made that decision. It is likely your child doesn’t actually think they have green skin, but they may have a creative and insightful reason for why they made that choice.
Once, when my son was five, he made a caterpillar for a project related to The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I noticed his caterpillar only had one eye; when I asked him why he told me, “Because it’s a pirate!”
4. Music-Mood Drawings
Music is directly connected to emotions and self-expression. Choose two contrasting pieces of music that do not have words; I often use two selections from The Planets by Gustav Holst. Provide your child with plain white paper and a wide selection of colors of either crayons or markers.
Explain to your child that you want them to listen to the music and draw what they think it is about. Tell them to think of a possible story or emotion the music is trying to tell and assure them that there is no right or wrong answer.
If they need to listen to it a second time, no problem! Give them as much or as little time as they need. Once they have completed the drawings, ask them to tell you what they were thinking and feeling as the music played.
5. Allow Them to Make Decisions
Adults don’t often slow down and realize how many decisions a day we make for our children. Of course, there are some decisions that we need to make, and no child should be allowed the complete run of their day; but when they have little to no opportunity for decision making on their own, it can lead to power struggles and a lack of independence and problem-solving skills.
First, consider the non-negotiables; for each family and child, these will vary. For example, if your child has uniform requirements at school, they cannot choose their clothing, or if their sister has a severe peanut allergy, you won’t be serving PB & Jelly for lunch.
Find the places you are willing to pass over some control and provide them with choices for those things. If you decide your child can pack their lunch, great, but don’t let them loose in the kitchen with free reign. Too many choices can be overwhelming. Instead, say, “You can choose a sandwich or cheese and crackers,” or “You can pack an apple or a bag of grapes.”
6. Make a Visual Schedule
Making a schedule may seem like an odd way to work on social skills, but it is a handy tool. Children thrive on routine and schedule, and when you can visualize that for them, even better!
For young children, a schedule accompanied by pictures is an excellent way to help keep them on task and promote independence. In addition, schedules are beneficial when getting back into a routine like back to school after summer or winter break.
This printable is a good jumping point to help you organize your day. To make it unique, take pictures of your child performing the different activities such as eating breakfast or brushing their teeth and add them next to the line description.
If you have computer skills you could make a schedule using PowerPoint or other art or presentation software.
7. Use a Feelings Poster
Feelings Posters are an invaluable tool when helping young children discover and express their emotions. I made one every year thatI taught preschool and PreK and had my students make the faces and pose for the pictures. You could do the same using your child, or you can print off a handy ready-made chart like the adorable emoji one here!
When your child is experiencing big feelings, ask them to point to the feeling face on the chart that best represents how they are feeling. Then name the emotion for them and help them work through it.
Even positive feelings, if too big, can cause your child to act out, become irritable, or over-excited.
8. Yoga & Mindfulness
Yoga and mindfulness are as beneficial for our little ones as they are for us. Teach your child how to use yoga to calm down and relax. One of the most essential life skills we can impart to our children is the power of self-control and self-regulation.
There are dozens of child-specific yoga and mindfulness sessions available online or through subscription apps. Do it together as a way to bond and to set the example of the importance of self-care.
9. Read Social Stories
Social stories are a specific type of book that demonstrates specific social-emotional learning or SEL skills. They are geared to help children process and understand emotions by relating to the characters and experiences.
Most children’s literature falls into this category, so you don’t need to seek out specific books. If you are not sure what books would work best, ask your librarian for recommendations.
When you read a story, ask your child questions to prompt their thinking and problem-solving skills. Asking open-ended questions also promotes early literacy skills.
- How do you think (character) is feeling?
- Why do you think (character) is feeling that way?
- What would you do if you felt (emotion)?
- How would you react if (blank) happened to you?
- What could you do to make someone feel better if (blank) happened to them?
10. Emotion Matching
Use these emotional flashcards and print two sets. Then, laminate and cut them to create an emotional matching game. As you play the card game, each time you or your child makes a match, name a situation that would make you feel the emotion on the card. For example, if you matched both cards that read “invigorated,” you could say, “I feel invigorated after I finish my work out!”
You do not need to use all the cards in one game, but instead, focus on perhaps 10-12 emotions each time you play.
11. Create an Emotion Grid
An emotional grid is similar to a gratitude journal in that you write down specific feelings and experiences. The difference is, when you do a grid, you are writing down things connected to a wide variety of feelings.
Since your preschooler won’t be able to write yet, you will have to fill out the worksheet, but we’ve made it easy for you by having a ready-made one here you can print off and use. Ask them the question and then write down their response. Read their answers back to them once you’ve completed the entire sheet.
This is an excellent activity to repeat every month or so because as your child’s developmental skills grow and change so will their answers.
12. Puppet Shows
If your child is struggling with a specific situation use puppets to roleplay possible outcomes or solutions. You can involve your child in the puppet show or you can perform a short skit for them and then check in with them to see what they think ought to happen next.
Roleplay with toys or puppets is powerful because it gives your child a little separation from the situation and a safe space to express what they might be feeling.
Puppet shows work extremely well for conflicts with peers or siblings or children struggling to listen to adults during transitions or routines like bedtime.
13. Simon Says (With Emotions!)
We all know how to play the traditional Simon Says game, but with a little twist, you can make it a fun way to learn about emotions. Instead of saying things like, “Simon Says put your hands on your head,” switch it up to “Simon Says act sad,” or “Simon Says to act excited.” Alternatively, you could combine an action and an emotion, “Simon Says, stomp your feet because you are mad.”
This style of roleplay makes it silly and fun and provides your child a safe space to practice what different emotions may look or feel like.
Music and movement are excellent ways to help your children develop emotional intelligence. Music is, after all, all about expression. Play different styles of music and ask your child to move the way the music makes them feel. You can also put on favorite songs from films and encourage them to act out the song.
Consider adding props like emotion masks you can create using paper plates, scarves, instruments, or costume pieces.
15. Be An Emotional Role Model and Offer Praise
Like most other skills children learn relationship skills and emotional intelligence from the adults around them. If you model healthy ways to deal with emotions and make talking about feelings OK then your child will pick up on that.
If you are angry or upset, explain that to your child. You don’t have to go into all the nitty-gritty about your day, but simply saying, “Mommy had a hard day at work because I couldn’t finish something so I feel very frustrated right now,” teaches them that their parents are not infallible and can have bad days too.
If you are upset by a choice your child made, make sure they know it is the choice you are unhappy with, not them. “I love you, but it makes me feel very sad that you drew on the wall. I’m disappointed by that choice.” Then involve them in the solution to the problem they created. Doing so teaches them that their actions have consequences.
On the flip side, offer them lots of praise and encouragement for making the right choices.”You cleaned up all your toys without me even asking, that is so awesome! It makes me feel so happy!”
Children who receive specific, constructive praise and feedback are more confident and able to express empathy for others more easily. Surprise your children now and then with small tokens of positive reinforcement. “You got a positive report form your teacher all week, would you like to pick out a movie to watch tonight?” Avoid using food as a reward as much as possible and never use it as a punishment.
Positive reinforcement goes a long way with children particularly when they understand exactly what it is they did that made you happy and proud.
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About L. Elizabeth Forry
L. Elizabeth Forry is an Early Childhood Educator with 15 years of classroom experience.