Acting Out: 3 Drama Exercises to Help Kids Manage Big Emotions

by Valerie Coulman, author of Dragons on the Inside (And Other Big Feelings)

Acting Out: 3 Drama Exercises to Help Kids Manage Big EmotionsWhenever 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.

Valerie Coulman authorAward-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.


Dragons on the Inside book coverValerie is the author of Dragons on the Inside (And Other Big Feelings).

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FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2022 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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Enter for a Chance to Win Bullying Prevention Books!

This giveaway is now closed. Congratulations to our winner, Staci S.! In honor of National Bullying Prevention Month, we are giving away books that teach kids about friendship, social skills, and empathy. One lucky reader will win:

Follow the steps below to enter and unlock bonus entries.

Bullying Prevention Book Bundle Giveaway

The winner will be contacted via email on or around November 3, 2022, and will need to respond within seven business days to claim their prize, or another winner will be chosen. The winner must be a US resident, 18 years of age or older.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2022 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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Using Wordless Picture Books to Get Kids Talking About Bullying

by Ken Willard, author of Laney Dances in the Rain

National Bullying Prevention Month in October offers an opportunity to open a discussion on bullying that can continue all year, promote positive interaction, and offer children a safe space for dedicated learning.

Using Wordless Picture Books to Get Kids Talking About Bullying

Why Get Kids Talking About Bullying?

Bullying happens, and it can persist or worsen as children grow older and their social worlds become more complex, both online and off—especially if they don’t have the tools to respond. Early conversations about bullying can help prepare students for when they encounter bullying situations.

Through effective communication, parents and educators can teach compassion and empathy, share preventative techniques and strategies, promote individual self-worth and boost confidence, and convert bystanders into upstanders. With these few elements in place and in practice, bullying loses a lot of its intimidating muscle quickly.

Using Wordless Picture Books to Get Kids Talking

Wordless picture books are great engagement tools because children are the primary storytellers. When children drive the narrative, parents and educators can sit back, listen, and observe. While adults can offer direction, interject guidance, or gently ensure the discussion stays on track, children are in charge of taking us on their journey of experiences and perspectives.

This kind of activity can produce valuable information. In a group setting, you’ll hopefully get a chorus of responses and insights. These comments might help you determine if your school has a bullying problem. They might alert you that you need to take more time discussing compassion and empathy. They might illuminate situations where bad things occur in certain places without adult supervision. You’ll glean a lot of helpful information by listening to all the children pitch in and construct their stories.

While wordless books can reveal children’s concerns, they also have huge creative and learning benefits:

  • Group reading experiences bring children together in storytelling. They encourage creative collaboration, team-building skills, and artistic unification.
  • Wordless picture books are great for parents and educators teaching children with learning differences and disabilities. Wordless picture books allow all children to engage with books.
  • Wordless picture books are great for those just learning to read or for those learning a new language.
  • Creatively, the child becomes the author. The story will retain a special value to the child because the book will always and forever be their own.

Do you use wordless picture books? Let us know in the comments what other unique ways you’ve used them in learning.

Sample Discussion Questions

Here are questions you can use to get kids talking about bullying.

  • What is the difference between tattling on someone and telling on someone?
  • What’s something you can do if someone is being unkind to you or one of your classmates?
  • If someone hurt your friend’s feelings, how would that make you feel? What might you do in response?
  • Why is it important to compliment others?
  • Who could you talk to at school if another student treated you unkindly?
  • If you see someone sitting by themselves at lunch or at recess, what could you do?
  • How do you feel when your parents or teachers encourage you? Why?
  • What if someone appears different from you in some way? Do you think you could find something in common with them? How could you discover things that interest you both?
  • How would you feel if someone made fun of you for doing something you love or enjoy? Why do you think people tease or make fun of others?
  • If you’ve been unkind to someone, why would it be important to say you’re sorry?

For additional resources and references, check out these websites:

Ken WillardKen Willard is a lifelong writer with degrees in sociology and communications. He loved visiting his local library as a child, and spent his after-school hours absorbed in the towering shelves of books. It was then he knew he would be a writer. He is married and currently resides in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with his spouse, Atul Suradkar, and their pet cat, Tuxie.


Laney Dances in the Rain book coverKen is the author of Laney Dances in the Rain.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2022 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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Fostering Confidence and Self-Worth: Activities for Young Children

By Cheri J. Meiners, M.Ed., author of the Learning About Me & You, Learning to Get Along®, and Being the Best Me!® series

As parents, teachers, or caretakers of young children, we all want to find the most effective ways to promote and foster children’s sense of well-being and confidence and to help them see the good and inherent value in those around them.

Fostering Confidence and Self-Worth: Activities for Young Children

Feeling Loved and Important

Children first develop awareness and attitudes about themselves based on interactions with family and those who care for them. When we respect children, listen and speak kindly to them, and allow them to make appropriate choices, we are demonstrating to them that they are important to us and that they have value as a person, independent of anything they have learned or achieved. A child’s sense of self develops over time and is largely influenced by their experiences in their first years. When children feel safe and protected, they can feel confident and willing to try new things without fear of reprisal. They can feel free to question, express their needs and views, experiment with language and new skills, develop a positive perspective on life, and grow a sense that they are valued by those who are close to them.


Another source of confidence and self-worth for children comes through things they try, learn, and achieve. Children learn many new skills and behaviors in these early years. You can help set the stage for them by providing materials, talking to them, guiding their play, and providing opportunities for structured and unstructured learning as interests arise. Being positive in your encouragement and applauding their efforts as well as their successes can help them continue to learn through setbacks, frustrations, or failure.

Growth Mindset

Children can also gain a sense of confidence through developing a positive and optimistic outlook. You can be an example to them as you calmly face your own challenges. You can help them separate their value as a person from the things that they can or cannot do. You can encourage them and let them know that they have many years to master skills, to develop hobbies and interests, and that you love and respect them as they are right now.


Lastly, as children learn to speak kindly, play fairly, and look for ways to help others, they will see relationships blossom. These crucial bonds between family and friends are both rewarding and motivating, and they can enrich children’s sense of well-being. Children have many natural instincts to be kind. You can provide them with opportunities, resources, and encouragement that foster social and emotional skills like respect, sharing, reciprocating kindness, or focusing on someone else’s needs.

Ultimately, children can learn that their own importance is based on just being themselves. Their sense of value and purpose can be augmented as they strive to be their best selves: growing in talents and achievements, nurturing relationships, and developing a kind and optimistic outlook.

Here are a few activities to try.

I Matter: Ways I Am Me (Collage or Book)


Help children explore ways that they are unique and special through group discussion and creating a personal collage or book.


Ask children to reflect on questions such as the following:

  • “Who is in your family?”
  • “What are you learning to do?”
  • “Who do you like to play with?”
  • “What are some ways you help your family?”
  • “How do other people help you feel that you matter?”
  • Who (or what) makes you feel that you matter?

Making a Collage

After the discussion, help children find or create pictures that remind them of things that are important to them, such as happy scenes with their family or classmates, special places they have gone, or things they have made or done. Take a picture of each child to affix to the middle of the posterboard, or have children write their name in a colorful way on an index card that will be the center of the collage. Over a few different sessions, children might make crayon drawings, paste pictures you’ve cut from magazines, or use photos you have taken of them doing various activities. Help them attach the pictures and photos to small poster boards so each child has a personal collage.

Give children an opportunity to talk about their collage and things that make them unique. Encourage classmates to make a positive comment about the child or something in the collage.

Making a book


Provide each child with a binder or folder with metal fasteners, several sheets of white pages, a hole punch, crayons and markers, magazines, scissors and glue sticks, photos of the children (optional).


Help write the child’s name on the cover page as part of the book title. For instance, “I Matter: A Book About ____,” or “All About ____: Ways I am Me.”

Decide on appropriate topics for the book, such as those listed below. The books will eventually contain a page for each topic. Each session, provide the children with a page that has the topic written at the top. Help them write their commentary on the page. Then, if age-appropriate, encourage them to draw or attach a fitting picture.


  • A picture of me as a baby
  • Things I can do
  • Things I like to eat
  • Things I like to wear
  • Things I like to play outside
  • Places I like to go
  • People in my family
  • Friends I like to be with
  • My favorite pets or animals
  • Things I can do for someone else
  • Games and shows I like
  • Things l like to collect
  • Books I like to read
  • A picture of me now


Talk about each page as they’re completed and add them to each child’s book. Ask children to explain their pictures, with questions such as the following. You may wish to record children’s answers on the back of the page.

  • “What is your page about?”
  • “What is your favorite__?”
  • “How does that person help you feel important?”
  • “Why do you like____?”


When the books are completed, put them on display, and refer to them often. Remind children of their importance and contribution to you and your family or group.

The “What I Like” Game

Level 1: Have a small group of children sit together in a circle. Coach a child to start the game by saying a sentence that begins with “I like.” For example, “I like to play with dinosaurs,” “I like to eat cherries,” or “I like to ride on my Dad’s shoulders.” Then ask each child around the circle to take a turn.

Level 2: After everyone in the circle has told something they like, refer to the first person and have the whole group try to remember what that person said. Do the same for each child. This gives everyone a turn to be recognized for their unique interests and personality. It also encourages listening and remembering what others say, which affirms children’s worth.

Level 3: The next time you go around the circle, ask the second child in the circle to repeat what the first person said, and then add a personal sentence. The third child will repeat only the phrase of the second child and then add their personal sentence, and so on, around the circle. Besides developing listening skills, this activity helps children get a chance to be heard and affirmed and learn to appreciate and respect others.

Cheri MeinersCheri J. Meiners, M.Ed., has her master’s degree in elementary education and gifted education. A former first-grade teacher, she has taught education classes at Utah State University and has supervised student teachers. Cheri and her husband David have six children and enjoy the company of their lively grandchildren. They live in St. George, Utah.

Free Spirit book series by Cheri Meiners:


Being The Best Me

Learning About Me and You

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2022 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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8 Tips for Creating an Emotion-Rich Early Childhood Classroom

By Lindsay N. Giroux, M.Ed., author of Create an Emotion-Rich Classroom in Early Childhood: Helping Young Children Build Their Social Emotional Skills

An intentionally created emotion-rich classroom provides opportunities for emotional growth for both children and teachers. Here are eight tips for creating such a space.

8 Tips for Creating an Emotion-Rich Early Childhood Classroom

1. Display pictures or photographs of people with many different expressions.

These could be from magazines, photographs submitted by children and their families, purchased visuals, or photographs you take of school staff and children. Having pictures of emotions displayed around the room encourages conversation and makes looking at facial features more accessible. Check to make sure you are displaying a range of emotions on a variety of people (people of diverse genders, races, and ages) to avoid promoting stereotypes.

2. Create an emotions check-in routine.

This might be using “How are you feeling?” as a question of the day with emotions visuals to help children answer. Or you might use an emotions check-in chart to have children self-identify how they feel by putting their name or photo next to the emotion that resonates with them. Using a visual check-in system supports children who have less verbal language in responding. Remember to include yourself in the check-in routine as a way to model recognizing and identifying emotions.

3. Hang a mirror in your classroom or have shatter-proof mirrors accessible to children.

A mirror allows children to study their own expressions as they explore how they feel. Encouraging children to check out both their facial expression and body language can help build their awareness of how emotions look and feel in the body.

4. Offer a variety of materials to encourage children to engage with emotion expressions and emotion vocabulary in many ways.

Emotions stamps and inkpads, stress balls with different faces, and blocks with photos of people taped on all sides encourage children to explore emotions in various activities, centers, or interest areas. This also provides children with opportunities to use the emotions vocabulary words you are teaching and practicing and helps you informally assess their understanding through play. For example, you might ask a child to pass you the sad doll or ask another child why the puppet is feeling excited. Having a variety of materials will ensure that children choose the games or toys that are interesting to them and will encourage exploration of emotions outside of emotion-related discussions.

5. Curate your bookshelf with books that feature various emotions across content areas.

Having picture books that specifically teach emotions can be really helpful in introducing new concepts and stimulating discussion. But many other books have rich emotion experiences for children to notice and relate to. Choose books to read out loud and make sure there are also a variety of books that explicitly teach emotions and feature characters with rich emotional lives accessible for children to explore independently.

6. Model emotional competencies.

Normalize discussing emotions and share ideas for how to recognize and manage them. This could sound like, “I am feeling really frustrated because my printer won’t work to print the photo for our display. I think I’m going to take a break from printing and get a drink of water to help my body calm down.” Or it might sound like modeling how you recognize and respond to others’ emotions. “I see he is crying right now. Maybe he is feeling sad. I’m going to ask him how he is feeling and ask if he would like my help.” Teachers have emotional experiences themselves and support children’s emotional experiences all day. Intentionally modeling brings these experiences to children as a learning opportunity in a way that privately working through them does not.

7. Engage children and their families in discussion and brainstorming about emotions.

Consider polling families to ask about emotions that are important in their lives, and then plan to introduce and support children with those words. Tap into the rich knowledge of families by soliciting ideas for how their children calm down at home and brainstorming ways to practice regulation with children at school. Encourage families to share emotional experiences their children have faced outside of school so that you can support and discuss these during the school day. And be sure to send home documentation, such as videos, photographs, and notes of children engaging with emotions at school so families can celebrate that learning at home.

8. Last, but not least, explore emotions with enthusiasm and curiosity.

Children so often get excited about topics that their teachers enjoy. Turning emotions learning into an exploration and diving in together sends the message that the emotions we have are interesting and worth trying to understand.

I hope these tips help you in your efforts to create an emotion-rich classroom. What other ideas do you use in your setting?

Lindsay N. Giroux, author of Create an Emotion-Rich ClassroomLindsay N. Giroux, M.Ed., specializes in coaching preschool teachers on implementing the Pyramid Model to promote social-emotional development and prevent challenging behavior. She is a contributing author of Connect4LearningⓇ, a PreK curriculum and the ChooseFi Pre-Kindergarten financial literacy curriculum. Her professional interests include teacher training, social skill instruction, and inclusion of preschoolers with special needs. Lindsay received a B.A. from Wellesley College and an M.Ed. in Early Childhood Special Education from Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. She is currently the Social Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (SEFEL) Coordinator for the Wake County Public School District and a North Carolina Preschool Pyramid Model Expert Coach. She resides in Raleigh, NC, with her husband and son.

Create an Emotion-Rich Classroom book coverLindsay is the author of Create an Emotion-Rich Classroom.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2022 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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