by Valerie Coulman, author of Dragons on the Inside (And Other Big Feelings)
Whenever we tackle a new skill, we need practice. Whether it’s playing an instrument, baking the perfect cupcake, teaching in a classroom, or driving a forklift, we all have a collection of abilities that have taken time and experience to reach our current skill level.
But sometimes, we expect children to be able to manage their emotions without giving them space to practice appropriate, contextual responses to the feelings they experience. For younger children placed in a new environment or situation especially, those big feelings can quickly become overwhelming.
Why not be intentional about helping them learn constructive ways to understand and respond to those feelings?
Theater, or drama-based exercises, can provide one practice arena for recognizing, naming, and managing big emotions. By helping children explore feelings in a managed setting, they have space to learn what those feelings are and how to respond in positive and helpful ways.
Here are three exercises you can incorporate into a classroom setting, use as warmup exercises before a larger activity, or use at home or in individual counseling sessions.
1. Bad Day at the Zoo
Just like humans, animals can express the same emotion differently. A wolf that feels scared and threatened may bite or growl, while a puffer fish inflates and “freezes” in that position to ward off whatever is frightening it. A monkey might scream to “scare back” whatever it’s alarmed about, and an elephant waves its ears, kicks its feet, or may trumpet.
What would it look like if those animals were having a bad day?
In this activity, children, through their actions, demonstrate how that animal might show whether they’re feeling happy or scared or hungry. For example, a cat purrs when content, a parrot bites things when bored, and a mouse runs when scared.
This exercise can be done as a teacher-led group activity where all children respond to the same prompt given by the teacher or as a presentation segment where each student is assigned an animal, is given time to practice, and then performs for the group to demonstrate their emotion (and the animal). Familiar animals will make this exercise more comfortable for children; unfamiliar animals can be used as a teaching opportunity.
Conversation points to include:
- How do people show they feel angry? Facial expressions, loud voices (or silence), crossed arms, or even hitting or shoving might express anger.
- When you feel afraid, what do you do?
- How does your pet show you their feelings?
- Which animal do you think is most like you in how they express their feelings?
A fun wrap-up to this activity is to show videos of animals whose behavior indicates an emotion. Startled cats are always a funny choice.
2. “Over the Top” Feelings
When emotions get really big, people often make choices they regret later or that have unanticipated consequences. This exercise helps children practice what those big emotions feel like and provides an opportunity to talk through how other people respond to emotions.
For this exercise, assign an emotion—and don’t forget the ones that feel good—to each student and have them imagine how they would behave if that emotion got too big for them to hold inside.
If the emotion is frustration, actions might include faster breathing, waving arms, lessened ability to listen (demonstrated by hands clapped over their ears), slumping in a chair or on the floor, or throwing a pretend object.
Then stop and discuss what they were doing and how the students watching were feeling as it happened.
Conversation might include:
- How did you feel when you saw someone acting frustrated?
- What actions might you do to show what your feelings were while they behaved that way?
- When you were acting “over the top,” did you notice what other people were doing? How could they have gotten your attention to “interrupt” that emotion?
- What do you think you want to remember when you see someone having a big emotion?
One note: if students work in small groups on this exercise, every group should be supervised so that the actions don’t get to the point of harming anyone. Ideally, doing this as a practice exercise in a managed setting is self-limiting—the emotion can’t escalate to the point of needing intervention—because the stimulus for a genuine outburst or negative emotion isn’t present. But an anxious student, for example, may not respond well to an enacted anger. Be sensitive to the children present for this exercise and adapt as needed.
3. Graceful Trees
Knowing how to de-escalate your big feelings is an important tool for managing emotions. This short exercise is a mindfulness tool that helps children learn how to step away from overwhelming emotions by focusing on their immediate environment.
For this exercise, have students spread out so they have space to move. Begin by having them plant their feet firmly on the ground, crouched down on the floor like a seed. Ask them to imagine their toes reaching down into the ground below them. What kinds of things would they find in the ground as their “roots” sink in?
Then ask them to slowly “grow,” without moving their feet, as you count to 10, reaching up to the sky and spreading out their arms and fingers like branches. Ask them to imagine the breeze blowing through their fingers, the sun warm on their face.
How will they move as the wind is blowing? Can they imagine water coming up from the ground and reaching their fingers? Have them listen as they breathe in and out, counting to three as they breathe in and three as they breathe out.
Now ask them to notice how their heart is beating quietly, how their breathing is relaxed, and how peaceful they can feel when they focus on something specific in place of a big emotion.
Drama can be a powerful tool to help our children move towards emotional awareness and management and gives them a wonderful space to practice those big emotions.
Award-winning author Valerie Coulman leads a creative life, working as a creative arts director, writer, artist, editor, playwright, song writer, photographer, seamstress, teacher, and/or set designer. Valerie and her husband, Randy, are proud parents of three amazing grown kids and grandparents to one tiny tot, and together they face dragons and sing with toads. Born and raised on the Canadian prairies, Valerie now lives in beautiful southern Oregon where she enjoys hiking and kayaking when the weather is good, and jigsaw puzzles and a cup of tea when it’s not.
Valerie is the author of Dragons on the Inside (And Other Big Feelings).
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