16 Activities to Stimulate Emotional Development in Children

Emotional Development ActivitiesAll kids are good kids.

All feelings are okay; however, all behaviors are not.

It is true that all children are inherently good. No longer can we say to a child, “You are being bad.” It is more appropriate to acknowledge that they are merely having a difficult time.

This shift in paradigm can be challenging for adults, especially because many of us have not had explicit instruction in the life skill of managing our own emotions.

To equip our children with better life skills, it is up to us to generate and stimulate emotional development in children. But don’t worry, they will believe they are merely playing, and we will show you how much fun emotional development activities can be below.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will enhance your ability to understand and work with your emotions and give you the tools to foster the emotional intelligence of your clients, students, or employees.

Emotional Development Theory in Psychology

Emotional development theories include Bandura’s social learning theory, Bowlby’s attachment theory, Piaget’s stages of emotional development, Wallon’s stages of emotional development, and Vygotsky’s cognitive development stages.

Bandura’s social learning theory posits that people learn through observation (Deming & Johnson, 2009); modeling is critical for stimulating emotional development.

Bowlby’s attachment theory asserts that early parent–child relationships are critical for emotional development and future relationships (Fraley & Shaver, 2021).

The stages of development presented by Piaget, Wallon, and Vygotsky provide valuable milestone checklists to gauge emotional development.

How to Improve Emotional Development

Improve emotional developmentEmotional development is critical for a child’s welfare (Alwaely, Yousif, & Mikhaylov, 2021).

Often, children’s bodies are moving more quickly than their brains, and they need to slow down. As adults, we need to teach them to govern their emotions in order to become healthy, productive adults.

We must first accomplish emotional control by modeling. A child’s social-emotional development “critically depends on early interaction with parents” (Nandy, Nixon, & Quigley, 2020, p. 1), and modeling is an effective strategy to teach social and emotional skills (Corso, 2007).

Think of a time when you were frustrated or angry and how you responded. If you become frustrated with the class, student, or child, it is okay (and beneficial) for both you and the children to say, “I am feeling frustrated right now, and I need to take a minute. I’m going to step over here to take a few deep belly breaths.”

However basic it may seem, it is important for children to get adequate sleep, hydration, and food in order to develop emotionally. Sleep is required for adequate brain development (Gertner et al., 2002; Smithson et al., 2018), as is proper hydration and nutrition (Bryan et al., 2004; Edmonds & Burford, 2009; Kim, Chun, & Shin, 2020).

Further, children also require a safe space to explore different emotions that contribute to emotional development.

3 emotional intelligence exercises

Download 3 Free Emotional Intelligence Exercises (PDF)

These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients understand and use emotions advantageously.

The Essential Role of Play

The primary occupation of a child is play (Nandy et al., 2020), and to say that play is essential is an understatement. There is a distinct researched-backed correlation between play and learning, as play is an essential part of children’s development (Dell’Angela et al., 2020; Lee et al., 2020; Yilmaz, 2016). Play is when children develop many problem-solving skills and establish friendships.

According to the emotional theorist Vygotsky, emotion is the very origin of play (Colliver & Veraksa, 2021). During this time, children can practice what they are not yet able to do.

Furthermore, children need time to process their learning; therefore, recess or brain breaks are necessary for brain consolidation. Additionally, physical exercise positively influences cognition (Donnelly et al., 2016; Samuel et al., 2017).

9 Activities for Toddlers and Children

Development activitiesEmotions and emotional competencies are critical to positive social and academic outcomes; students need to recognize, differentiate, and adaptively regulate their emotions to ensure the best opportunity for learning (Dell’Angela et al., 2020).

Whether for children who are beginning to develop emotionally or advancing their emotional development, the engaging cognitive development activities below can benefit emotional development.

3 Activities for toddlers

1. Attunement

Attunement is said to be the strongest emotional stimulant required for brain development, and children under 10 experience the most emotional development (Suhana, 2017).

Attunement is being aware or receptive to the child. For example, attunement play may include peek-a-boo and baby talk. With these interactions, an emotional connection is formed.

2. Music

Music has the ability to both generate and transmit emotions (Castellary-López, Muñoz Muñoz, Figueredo-Canosa, & Ortiz-Jiménez, 2021).

Common songs such as If You’re Happy and You Know It, which conveys happiness, and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, which conveys curiosity, are fun ways to get very young children to begin to think about emotions.

Additionally, there are a plethora of videos with songs to help introduce the topic of emotions such as this video, entitled Feelings.

3. Books

Reading to children while mimicking the emotions of characters can help them start to recognize emotions in themselves and others.

Baby Faces from DK Publishing, which is available on Amazon, and The Feelings Book by Todd Parr, also available on Amazon, are excellent texts to begin with when working with very young children and babies.

3 Best activities for 3- to 5-year-old kids

1. Vocabulary

You’ve got to name it to tame it, as they say.

Building children’s vocabulary of emotions will ultimately help them manage their emotions; children with a large number of different emotion words are also likely to have a greater knowledge of emotional regulation strategies (Grosse, Streubel, Gunzenhauser, & Saalbach, 2021; Streubel, Gunzenhauser, Grosse, & Saalbach, 2020).

Explicitly introducing emotion vocabulary, demonstrating, and providing examples is important for emotional development. This may seem like a difficult task; however, here is an example video that may help.

2. Mindfulness

Adults often turn to mindfulness meditation and yoga to improve their health and emotional wellbeing (Sun, Lamoreau, O’Connell, Horlick, & Bazzano, 2021), so why shouldn’t we also consider this practice with children?

Some schools and educators already use these effective techniques. Mindfulness supports improvement in learning, health, self-regulation, and attention in children (Lee et al., 2020).

This could be a preventative strategy and an emotional regulation strategy as well.

3. Emotional regulation strategies

Children are never too young to learn emotional regulation strategies, such as breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.

Breathing exercises such as belly breathing, rainbow breathing, dragon breaths, and balloon breathing are amusing for children.

Progressive muscle relaxation can be accomplished by having the child squeeze an object or stress ball while counting to 10 and then releasing tension. Repeat this exercise several times, perhaps using the age of the child to determine the number of repetitions.

Intentionally teaching these practices and referring to them often will help kids manage their emotions.

3 Best activities for school-aged kids

1. Role-play

Understanding emotions, emotional reactions, and situations is the most critical element of successful interactions with others (Solikhah, Fasikhah, & Amalia, 2019). Role-play can benefit students by demonstrating appropriate emotional responses and allowing them to practice in a safe environment.

Divide children into groups and assign each group a scenario (e.g., “Your friend stole an electronic device from the store. What would you do?”). Have students act out the scenario and discuss the outcomes. Focus on students’ emotions they may feel if they were actually in that particular situation. Take this activity a step further and plan ways to manage the difficult emotions.

2. Books

It comes as no surprise that books should also be a part of school-aged students’ emotional learning.

The following books are all available on Amazon and ideal for teaching emotions:

Teachers or readers can write emotions on sticky notes to remind students to talk about, model, and practice the feelings expressed by the characters in the book.

3. Movies

Movies such as Inside Out, Frozen, Cars, Finding Nemo, Shrek, and Dumbo also have lessons involving emotions (Secours, 2016). Try talking to your child about the intended lessons of these movies, as well as the various emotions the characters experience.

Questions such as, “How do you think the character felt?” and “How would you feel if you were this character?” support children’s understanding of emotions and can encourage them to develop empathy.

Don’t miss our article on Yoga in Education – another great way for kids to develop mindfully.

7 Best Games for Fostering Emotional Development

“Promoting children’s social-emotional development requires a comprehensive approach that includes creating a social context, teaching social skills, and facilitating children’s emotional development.”

Corso, 2007, p. 53

The games below involve an embedded social context, explicitly teaching social skills in real time and in actual situations and facilitating emotional development.

3 Fun games for infants and preschoolers

1. Red light, green light

This physical game involves rules that delineate the two roles for players, which determine how the player should act (Nakamura, Munekata, Nakamura, Ono, & Matsubara, 2011).

In this game, the lead player calls out “Red light!” and “Green light!” while the remaining players run toward the lead player when the light is “green” and stop when it’s “red.” In this active game, players practice control of their physical body and emotions.

2. Mirror, mirror

In this game, one person makes a face and the other person copies it. Take this game a step further by having children identify the emotion they are mirroring.

Recognizing emotional expressions is key for successful social interaction and effective interpersonal communication (Masten et al., 2008).

3. Catch

A good old-fashioned game of catch with a ball can also help a child develop emotionally.

Reminding the child to make sure the catcher is ready can help them learn to be mindful of others.

4 Fun games for school-aged children

1. Simon says

Not only is this direction-following game ideal for practicing listening skills (Nasution, 2021), it is also beneficial for following directions and refraining from impulsivity.

The same can be said for Mother May I? Instead of differentiating the appropriate direction to follow at the onset of the direction, the players need to differentiate the correct direction to follow at the conclusion of the statement made by the leader.

Take this classic game further by incorporating emotions as part of the directions. For example, you may say, “Simon says to make a frustrated face.” This idea was derived from our article Is Emotional Intelligence Relevant for Kids? and is available in full from PlayBased Parenting.

2. Board games

Board games elicit intrinsic motivation and positive emotions. They also provide active and experience-based learning opportunities and immediate feedback (Dell’Angela et al., 2020).

Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, and Operation are all excellent board games that are conducive to teaching children emotional regulation. Through these games, players can practice persistence and creative problem-solving skills.

3. Uno

Kayla Jones (2018) from CEU Cast, a podcast for Oklahoma mental health professionals, shared a clever way to play the classic card game Uno.

She suggested having each color represent an emotion. For example, red is anger, blue is sad, green is scared, and yellow is happy. When drawing a card, the student has to either make a face of the emotion assigned to the color, recall a time when they felt that emotion, or describe a time when they saw that emotion on TV or in a book.

4. Face cover

Perceiving nonverbal cues and using these cues to determine which emotion is being expressed begins very early in children, and children are able to understand and categorize many facial expressions of emotion (Masten et al., 2008).

To encourage them to read others’ emotions, teach children to focus on others’ mouth and eyebrows. Play a game where you cover your mouth and show an emotion. Can students guess how you are feeling? Do the same when you cover your eyes with big sunglasses. Allow them to practice with partners.

Assessing Emotional Development: A Checklist

Assessing emotional developmentKiddieMatters is an excellent source for emotional checklists for children between 3 and 18 years old.

For educators, the National Center for Safe and Supportive Learning Environments has a Social and Emotional Competencies Checklist that helps classroom teachers gauge their level of social and emotional learning support for their students.

Our Emotional Intelligence Resources

This Inside and Outside worksheet can be used to familiarize children with their emotions. The child organizes how their body feels when they experience an emotion and how they typically respond when they experience the emotion.

The My Body and My Worries worksheet helps students pinpoint where in their body they are experiencing the sensations.

The Self-Control Spotting worksheet can be used to differentiate effective and ineffective self-control strategies. This activity would be beneficial for generating discussion involving emotional regulation.

Red Light – Anger! is a great worksheet when targeting anger. Students evaluate and draw the progressive steps of anger and then identify the anger “stops” that their body uses to tell them to slow down.

For older students, the What Is Empathy? worksheet provides an example of empathy and includes areas for the child to reflect on empathy. You may also want to include the Group Circle activity when studying empathy with your group of children.

When teaching how to apologize, the How to Apologize lesson plan and the worksheets that accompany it would be useful.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop emotional intelligence, check out this collection of 17 validated EI tools for practitioners. Use them to help others understand and use their emotions to their advantage.

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A Take-Home Message

“One of the main educational purposes of schools is to guarantee the overall development of individuals, preparing them to be able to cope with social demands.”

Cañabate, Santos, Rodríguez, Serra, & Colomer, 2020, p. 1

In order to meet this guarantee, emotional development must be stimulated, if not initiated. Encouraging emotional development is easier said than done and often difficult for some adults, who may not have had direct instruction in emotional intelligence themselves, much less emotional development.

Children need to be told that all emotions are okay, but bad behaviors are not. Children must also be taught and provided opportunities to practice emotional regulation strategies. Allow children to experience emotions and provide support for the big emotions. Acknowledge the emotions and empathize with the child, knowing that no emotion is too small to substantiate.

Taking the time to stimulate emotional development and practice strategies using the activities and games provided will benefit both you and the child in the long run. Happy helping!

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free.


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