Early Childhood Education

Using Theater Games to Reinforce SEL Skills

Games that ask young students to express various feelings can improve their social and emotional learning.

June 12, 2024
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To bring a human being from the page to the stage truthfully, actors must imagine “as if” they had the thoughts and feelings of their character. It is their literal job to embody someone with a whole other lived experience. So, across the country, in drama schools, in rehearsal rooms, and on sets, actors are practicing perspective-taking. In order to do this, they must empathize with their characters, develop backstories, and uncover their motivations. Much of this work involves becoming emotionally flexible and stretching the range of their feelings.

When social and emotional learning (SEL) emerged as a necessary facet of education, one that research showed improved school functioning and academic performance, I knew that the actor’s training could be of service. An essential tool for self-regulation is understanding the fluidity and variety of emotions and how to recognize when they are not productive. In their book Your Brain on Art, authors Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross write, “Mental wholeness is having the capacity and resourcefulness to navigate the daily fluctuations of your life, even when you are feeling difficult emotions.”

Here are some of my favorite exercises to make SEL a vibrant part of your classroom culture and to support students’ regulation. Marc Brackett, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, created a feeling list that is a superb resource for any of the following games. When played during morning meetings, in closing circles, or as a brain break, these activities can inspire young people to learn more about themselves and each other.

4 Drama Games That Incorporate SEL

1. Emotion Hotline. This game takes place in a pretend “Feeling Call Center.” Ask for one volunteer to represent an emotion and another to be the caller.

The caller dials into the hotline with a topic they want to discuss and asks to speak with a particular emotion (such as rage, jealousy, or joy). A short, improvised conversation ensues between the caller and the emotion. This game presents a brave space for kids to express and identify different emotions and role-play hypothetical scenarios in which these emotions might appear. It is similar to the game Body Phone that families can use to help their children articulate complex feelings.

Template script

(Telephone rings.)

Emotion student: Hi, how may I direct your call?

Caller student: May I speak with (insert name of emotion), please?

Emotion student: Yes, that’s me. (Immediately taking on the face, body, and voice of the named emotion.)

Caller student: Well, I have to ask you about (student introduces topic)…

(A brief improvisational conversation ensues where the emotion offers helpful advice, shares insights, or empathically listens to the caller’s issue.)

Here are some examples of emotion-topic pairings:

  • Call Joy to speak about being excited about summer vacation, your birthday, or a new puppy.
  • Call Anger to vent about a playground conflict or video game rules in your home.
  • Call Pride to crow about how you learned how to ride a bike, mastered a new song on the piano, or have a new baby sibling.
  • Call Frustration to talk about shoelaces or a new baby sibling.

Kids can brainstorm emotion-topic pairings as a class. Set a time limit on the conversation, but otherwise give the students freedom to converse, gripe, or commiserate. As with any improvisation, it is most rewarding when kids commit to their characters and agree with their partner’s proposals.

2. “Feelings” Hokey Pokey. Use the familiar framework of the “Hokey Pokey” song to instead sing about emotions. Circle up and get volunteers to suggest some different feelings to act out during the song.

Here’s a sample verse: You put your “nervous” in, you put your “nervous” out, you put your “nervous” in, and you shake it all about. You do the Feelings Pokey and you turn yourself around. That’s what it’s all about!

As they jump in with the “nervous” feeling, they might embody it with clenched fists, small voices, and wide eyes. Since the whole class sings the song simultaneously, jumping in and out of the circle, this is a lively, physical, and community-building exploration of SEL.

3. Emotion Charades: Put emotion words (or pictures of faces or emojis) in a hat and have one student at a time act the word out while the rest of the class guesses. In order to be convincing, encourage students to use their whole body, facial expressions, gestures, sounds, or gibberish.

Tips and extensions

  • Have kids draw and label their own emoji faces that get pulled from the hat.
  • Give them 10 seconds (hold up your fingers to silently count) before anyone ventures a guess so that the student has more opportunity to show different variations of the emotion.
  • Once it is correctly guessed, have the class reflect on what clued them into the emotion. With practice, they will become “emotion detectives,” naming things like quickness of breath, clenched fists, or an upturned lip as things that tipped them off.

4. Emotion Countdown. Name an emotion and slowly count from 10 to one. Students have to start showing the emotion as expressively as possible (on the “10”), and then, as the numbers get smaller, they show it more subtly. By the time you get to “one,” they should show only the faintest trace of the emotion. At that point, have the class observe and then reflect on the experience. Even at the smallest numbers, could they still tell that their peers were feeling the emotion? How? Have the class do it “on mute” so that the whole experience is visual. You can also play this as a count “up” where kids get more and more expressive.

There is no question that theater games have the power to make SEL a vibrant part of classroom culture. Through these exercises, students can expand their vocabulary, embody the nuances of a feeling, and express emotions safely and bravely.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Arts Integration
  • Pre-K
  • K-2 Primary

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