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  • Writer's pictureDr Laura Hutchison

Playful Activities to Help Kids Learn about Feelings

I feel that one of my most important tasks as a play therapist (and a mom) is to help children understand, cope with, and express their feelings.  In my 19 years of working therapeutically with children I have come across a myriad of playful ways to discuss emotions with kids.  Many I have learned about in workshops, trainings, courses, and books.  This post is dedicated to sharing those ideas with you.

A good place to start is with a “feelings assessment” to determine if the child is able to identify and has a vocabulary for a variety of feeling states.  Depending on how the child does during the activity decides how many and how long to continue to working on feeling identification and awareness activities.  The activities listed below focus on the entire scope of emotions, or a variety of feelings, … not a particular one.

I frequently start off a feelings assessment by sharing a book with a child.   As a read the book with them I ask, "Can you think of a time you felt that way?" or share a time I felt the emotion to give another example. Some of my favorite books about feelings are ...

  • The Way I Feel, by Janan Carr (Playfully introduces many different feelings with wonderful illustrations.  There is a board book version available too!)

  • Today I Feel Silly, by Jamie Lee Curtis (I feel like this is now the classic feelings book for kids)

  • A to Z: Do You Ever Feel Like Me?, by Bonnie Hausman (Colorful photographs and fun rhymes to have the readers guess the feeling)

  • Glad Monster, Sad Monster, by Ed Emberley and Anne Miranda (cute illustrations of monsters, plus punch-out masks to wear as you read along!)

  • Double-Dip Feelings, by Barbara Cain (Talks about how we can feel TWO feelings at once)

  • The Hurtby Teddi Doleski (Great for encouraging kids to share their feelings. Discusses the importance of sharing and letting out one’s feelings – rather than letting the “hurt” grow and take over.)

  • Little Teddy Bear’s Happy Face, Sad Faceby Linda Offerman (My absolute favorite for very young children!  Introduces feelings by matching puzzle piece faces on each page of the story.)

Another great way to help kids understand, identify, and cope with feelings is through a simple deck of feelings cards. There are several kinds you can buy, like ... Jim Borgman's Feelings Playing Cards, but you can make your own using index cards cut in half and draw emotion faces on them (or you could glue feeling face images on them, OR get really fancy and take photos of your kids to create the cards). Make sure to make 2 of each emotion! From this one deck, you can create a variety of games, but my two favorites are Feelings Memory and Fishing for Feelings (aka Go Fish).  

  • Feelings Memory - Start by spreading the cards out face down and then take turns trying to find the matches. If a match is found, the person that got the match has to share a time they remember feeling that way. For younger players I may leave the cards face up, so that they only have to recognize matches. Or I will only play with about 1/2 or a 1/4 of the matches in the deck (because my deck is pretty large).  If a child can’t think of a time they felt a certain way, I give an example and leave it at that (but take note if they seem to be avoiding a certain category of emotions). I also make sure they know there are no right or wrong answers.  I play with the child… which allows them the opportunity to model my behavior and hear me discuss that I have feelings too.  Playing Memory also helps me access how well a child can focus, their ability to concentrate and track information.  (sneaky, huh?  all that and they still thing we are “just” playing!)

  • Fishing for Feelings - Deal out 5 cards to each player and make a “pond” in the middle with the remaining cards. Have players check their hands for any matches.  If there are any matches, each player shares a time they felt the way of the matches they have and then and places them down in a pile.  Next player 1 then asks another player (player 2) if they have a match to one of the cards in player 1's hand. If player 2 has that card, they hand the card over to player 1, player 1 shares a time they felt that way, andputs down the match. If player 2 doesn't have the card, she/he says "Go Fish" and player 1 then picks one card from the "pond". Play continues to the next player. The person with the most matches at the end "wins".

Many commercial kids games are perfect to convert into feelings games. Ants in the Pants, Jenga (with colored blocks), and Candyland can all be easily made into feelings games.  All you need to do is assign each colored piece a feeling.  For example, I play Ants in the Pants non-competitively and we all use any of the different colored ants.  If we get a red one in we have to share a time we were angry, yellow = happy, blue = sad, and green = whatever feeling I think the child may need to also address.  I have a version of Jenga that has different colored blocks, so I apply those feeling states to the colors and when you choose a block of that color to pull from the tower, you need to share a time you felt that way.  With Candyland, each colored space on the board can be given a particular emotion and when you land on it you need to share when you felt that way. OR, you can use this great free handout from Pathways to Peace Counseling Resources.

A more active way I have addressed feelings in play therapy is by using a large sized laminated feelings face poster and a sticky ball.  I have the client throw the sticky ball as hard as they can against the poster (like the one pictured above) that is adhered to the wall. Whatever feeling face is closest to where the ball stuck is the feeling the child tells me a time they felt that way.

Another active way of exploring feelings is by playing catch with an ordinary beach ball (one that has the different colored stripes, as pictured above. Assign a different feeling state to each color on the ball, and wherever the “catcher’s” right thumb lands determines what emotion is shared.  This one is definitely a favorite of many of the kids I have seen over the years!

I also help people understand their feelings through a worksheet that was handed out in I class attended (sorry that I don’t know the original source!). It’s called, “The Mind-Body Connection” Worksheet (see above). This is a great one for not only having people recognize different feeling states, but to notice where and how they feel them throughout their body. Start by asking them to think of a time they felt each emotion (one at a time) and pick a color that matches the feeling the best. Then have them color that in the key provided on the worksheet. Next ask them to draw or scribble on the person where in their body that they feel that feeling. I make sure to tell them that this is NOT a normal coloring sheet and that many colors will overlap, parts will be left blank.  (It’s more abstract and for this reason I tend to only do this activity with older children, teens, and adults.) I then have them go through each feeling listed in the key and do the same thing.  It’s always interesting to me how some people feel emotions all over their body and some only in certain areas (like all in their head … or heart … or gut).

An additional way of exploring feelings with more of a “felt sense”, or abstract way, is by having a client pick a color to represent a feeling and them have them draw what the feeling looks like.  Or, you could have them sculpt different feelings with playdough or clay.  You could also do the same thing by having them pose themselves or make a movement to describe certain feelings.

In helping kids understand emotions, we help them verbalize and share what they are feeling. This, in turn, can help us teach them healthy ways to cope with their feelings. Learning how to appropriately express and deal with emotions is one of the most valuable tools we can give our children.

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