Movement-Based SEL Activities for the Classroom

By Connie Bergstein Dow, author of From A to Z with Energy! 26 Ways to Move and Play

Movement-Based SEL Activities for the ClassroomChildren love to move! As a dance educator, I enjoy engaging young children in playful and fun movement explorations. These activities also help children develop valuable skills. Some of the benefits of movement for children are readily apparent: Children are physically active, usually practicing large-motor skills; they are gaining body awareness; and they are developing spatial awareness as they move in different directions in the shared space. If there is a musical component, children are also learning to recognize and move to a beat and to discern rhythmic patterns.

However, one of the wonderful gifts of creative movement is that it also provides a perfect vehicle for nurturing social-emotional skills. The very nature of creative dance (also called creative movement) embodies the idea of creativity and developing self-awareness. Some other SEL skills that are often addressed through guided creative dance are delayed gratification, impulse control, goal setting, individual or group problem-solving, teamwork, self-discipline, and group cooperation.

Here are three simple creative movement activities. The SEL skills addressed are listed at the beginning of the activity, along with the guidelines for presenting the activity to young children.

Let’s Make Rhythms!
This activity can be done while children are sitting or standing in a circle.

Time: 5–10 minutes
SEL skills addressed:

  • Delayed gratification
  • Group cooperation
  • Problem-solving
  • Impulse control

Activity: Choose a category of items, such as colors. Ask the group to choose four different colors. Say each color and clap its rhythm. Then put them all together into a rhythm sentence. For example, Purple, yellow, black, red!

If the children are sitting, ask them to say the colors and clap the rhythm with you, and then add stomping the rhythm with their feet. If they are standing, ask them to march in place to the rhythm as they clap and say the colors.

Perform the rhythm sentence several times in a row. Do it slowly at first, then go faster and faster. Repeat with other categories—for example, winter clothes or vegetables:

Hat, coat, mittens, boots!
Carrot, celery, broccoli, peas!

Expand the activity: For a livelier activity, ask the children to take the rhythm sentences around the room. Along with marching, add large-motor skills such as galloping, hopping, and jumping.

Crawl, Jump, and Fly
This activity will spark children’s imaginations and works best in a large, unobstructed space.

Time: 10–15 minutes
SEL skills addressed:

  • Creativity
  • Problem-solving
  • Self-awareness
  • Group cooperation

Activity: Explain to the children that this is a movement game about insects. Ask for a suggestion of an insect, and then ask, How does that insect move? Allow the children to move freely in the large space as they explore this idea. Give them time to respond to this prompt, then ask for another insect suggestion and let them explore that insect’s movement as well. Repeat with another insect, and so on.

Here are some ideas to supplement the ones the children suggest:

  • Crawl like an ant, then imagine you are carrying a heavy leaf while you crawl.
  • Crawl like a spider, then spin a web.
  • Roll to one side, then to the other side. Now curl up in a tight ball like a pill bug.
  • Jump like a cricket. How far can you jump? How high?
  • Fly like a bee. Land on a flower, and then on another one. Now go back to the hive!
  • Imagine you are a butterfly. You are in your cocoon. Can you push your way out? Try out your wings. Fly away!

Finish the Activity: Say to the children: You are a bug stuck on your back! Wave your arms and legs. Finally, you figure out how to turn yourself over. Take a rest, little bug!

It’s My Turn!
This activity works well for circle time or for a lively brain break.

Time: 15–20 minutes
Materials: At least one note card per student, lively musical selection (optional)
SEL skills addressed:

  • Delayed gratification
  • Group cooperation
  • Problem-solving
  • Impulse control

Preparation: Write simple movement ideas on several note cards. Here are some suggestions:

  • Hop on one foot, then the other.
  • Jump as high as you can.
  • Balance on one foot and count to five.
  • Make a high shape.
  • Make an upside-down shape.
  • Shake your whole body.
  • Make a sad face, then a happy one, then sad, then happy.
  • Balance on your tiptoes for as long as you can.
  • Walk a small circle around yourself, then do it walking backward.
  • Stomp your feet.
  • Go down to the floor as slowly as you can. Then come back up quickly.
  • Clap your hands in front of you, then in back.
  • March 10 times and swing your arms.
  • Touch your knee to your shoulder.
  • Make a shape with two hands and two feet on the floor.
  • Make a twisty shape like cooked spaghetti.
  • Walk around yourself stiff like a robot, then again like a floppy scarecrow.
  • Turn around in a circle, then try it hopping.
  • Do five jumping jacks.
  • Turn around quickly on your tiptoes.
  • March in slow motion, then as fast as you can.
  • Make a silly shape.
  • Make a rhythm: clap, clap, stomp, stomp. Repeat it three times.

Activity: Have the children stand in a circle, evenly spaced. Ask one to choose a card and perform that movement. Then everyone tries the movement. Have the next student choose a card and perform the movement, with the others following suit. Continue this all the way around the circle.

Finish the activity: Play the lively musical selection. Ask the children to do a free dance using movement ideas from the cards.

Expand the activity:

  • Mix up the cards and go around the circle again or make enough cards so that each child gets a new card the second time.
  • Ask a child to pick three cards and try the movements in the order chosen. Then everyone tries the three-movement dance. Shuffle the cards and continue until everyone has had a turn.

I hope these activities inspire you to keep on dancing!

Connie BergsteinConnie Bergstein Dow took her first dance class when she was four years old and has been dancing ever since. After attending Denison University and earning an MFA from the University of Michigan, she danced professionally in the United States, Venezuela, and Guatemala. Connie has had a long career as a dance educator and has written two books for teachers about integrating movement into the early childhood classroom, articles for magazines and journals, and verses for Highlights. She shares her passion for dance by writing, teaching, volunteering, visiting schools and libraries, and offering movement workshops to early childhood professionals. Visit Connie at

From A to Z with EnergyConnie is the author of From A to Z with Energy! 26 Ways to Move and Play

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2 Responses to Movement-Based SEL Activities for the Classroom

  1. Pingback: Top 19 Posts of 2019 | Free Spirit Publishing Blog

  2. EmmieRWerner says:

    Sounds absolutely wonderful….I was a first grade teacher Your book would be perfect ❤️

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