11 Activities to Teach Kids Emotions (and build Emotional Intelligence)

Today we’re talking all about building emotional intelligence in toddlers and young kids. These activities are ways to spend time with your kids in a way that boosts their EI as they become more familiar and comfortable with their emotions and the emotions of others. 

Did you know there is something twice as important as IQ in predicting your child’s success in life? Do you want to raise a child that accepts challenges, makes positive connections, and feels happy + secure in their life? 

The answer? Emotional Intelligence

With an EI business coach in the family (my mom) we’ve spent plenty of hours over the last few years talking about what it looks like to raise children who thrive, children with emotional intelligence. I spend a lot of time figuring out what things can I do now, when they’re young. What activities can facilitate EI? What things should I start preparing for? What things make the most difference? 

First, though, let’s talk about what emotional intelligence is. 

What is Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence is an awareness and understanding of our own emotions and the feelings of others. It is also our ability to control and articulate these emotions. You can begin building your child’s EI skills before they’re even able to talk and the earlier you start, the better.

What are you doing to help build your child’s understanding of emotions? 

There are many ways you can be building your child’s EI but today we’re focused mostly on games and activities. 

These activities and games are geared toward toddlers and school age kids to help build their vocabulary around emotions.

The goal:

With all of these activities you’re trying to increase your child’s awareness of emotions, sensitivity to different emotions (for example: the difference between “overwhelmed” and “frustrated”), and emotional literacy (or emotion vocabulary). As you help your child become more familiar with all the different types of emotions, you will also begin teaching them that all emotions are okay.  

Activities to Help Kids Learn About Emotions:

Make a Big List of Feelings:

Get a really big piece of paper and a marker (or crayon or pen) and sit down with your child to brainstorm all the feelings you can think of together. Let your child come up with as many as they can while you continue to add to the list. Your list may include emotions your child doesn’t recognize, and that’s okay. When you list an emotion, make the face that goes with the feeling and explain a situation in which that feeling may come up. Have your child practice making the face that goes with that emotion, too. 

Add feeling noises to your Big List of Feelings:

Your child might not know how to identify an emotion by name, but they may know the sound that accompanies it. For example, your child may not know the word “worried,” but they may know that “uh-oh” or the sound of air sucked in through your teeth goes with that same feeling. Try to stump your child by providing a sound that can be paired with a number of emotions, like a sigh that is associated with fatigued, sad, frustrated and irritated.

Make a Feelings Collage:

Give your child some paper, scissors, glue, and old magazines. You can either provide a list of feelings that they need to find faces to match or have them make a collage of faces and tell you what the emotions are. When they’re done, label the emotions and hang the collage somewhere where it can be easily accessed.

Keep a Feelings Journal:

A feelings journal is a good way for your child to keep track of their emotions and the situations in which they feel them. If your child is too little to write their own journal, you can document it for them. 

Mom holding son upside down while laughing.

Reflect at the end of the day:

Take time before bed to draw attention to the different feelings your child experienced throughout the day. You can use a generic, open-ended question like “how did you feel today” but if your child doesn’t give you much information with that one, try something more specific like “When did you feel scared today?” or “When did you need to be brave today?” 

Here’s a list of questions I like to ask my kids at the end of the day.

Share your “highs and lows”:

At bedtime or around the dinner table, share your “highs and lows” or “happys and sads” from the day. Each family member takes a turn sharing a happy moment and a sad moment from the day. This gives kids the chance to reflect on their emotions and also learn that adults in their lives have emotions, too. This is our favorite family dinner tradition (although sometimes we forget and share our highs and lows in the bath or while I’m tucking them into bed)! 

Play Emotional Charades:

This is a fun game to play with your child or as a whole family. One of you picks an emotion to convey to the other, using either your whole body or just your face. You can write down and cut up emotions before hand or just let each family member choose one to do on their own. 

Toddler boy sitting on a clear chair, holding a book and laughing with his mother next to him.

Read + discuss books together :

Literacy and emotional literacy don’t have to be taught separately. There are many great books that specifically talk about emotions, but you can increase your child’s emotional literacy by discussing feelings in any story you read. When you’re reading to your child, ask them to help you figure out what different characters are feeling in certain situations. Use the pictures and the plot as clues to help.

Change up the “Happy and You Know It Song”:

Add new verses to this familiar song, using new emotions. For example, try “If you’re confused, and you know it say ‘I don’t know'” or “If you’re angry and you know it stomp your feet!” 

Role-play and review:

One of the most effective ways to increase vocabulary around emotions is to role-play. Come up with scenarios your child might encounter and have them act out how they might behave. Alongside role-playing comes reviewing. Go over situations that didn’t end well, examine the emotions of the people involved, and talk with your child about what could have been done differently. 

Feelings photoshoot:

I use this trick when getting my kids to smile for the camera but it is also a great way to bring attention to different feelings. Grab a camera (the one on your phone works) and sit your child on a chair or give them a certain spot to stand in. Give them feeling prompts and snap a picture each time they make a face. For example, “Show me your mad face. Now show me a sad face. Show me an excited face!” You can print these out and label them for a feelings book or collage. When you look at the pictures, ask your kids about times they’ve felt those emotions and talk about what they can do when they feel that way. 

Have you tried any of these before? How did it go? 

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