This post originally appeared on the blog The Pathway 2 Success.
Social-emotional learning isn’t just something that should be practiced and taught at school. SEL skills are life skills, of course! These include skills like empathy, self-control, and decision-making.
Before I even get started, while I was writing this post, I decided to also create a set of SEL printables you can send home with parents and families right away. Of course, if you’re a parent looking for extra activities, I would encourage you to use them on your own, too! They include four choice boards covering skills like responsibility, friendships, strengths, and managing emotions. You can download your free printable SEL activities here.
It’s important to mention that you don’t have to be an expert with social-emotional skills to teach and practice them with kids. Even small activities, like reading books and playing games, can strengthen social skills and teach kids important skills along the way. This matters.
Whenever you are doing a new activity, it’s important to let kids know what skills they are working on. This makes every SEL activity more purposeful and targeted. For example, if you are playing board games, just briefly remind kids that they are working on important social skills like taking turns and showing fairness. This can lead to a good conversation about what those skills mean and why they matter.
Here are some SEL activities you can encourage parents to try, or do with your own children!
Empathy in Action
Skills targeted: Empathy, Perspective-Taking
How to try it: Spend some time watching a show or movie. At any given time, pause and discuss how the characters are feeling. You might ask: “How are they feeling?” and “How would you feel if that happened to you?” Use this conversation to build on considering how others feel, discussing social cues, and caring about their emotions.
Acts of Kindness Challenge
Skills targeted: Kindness, Empathy
How to try it: Use this free printable random acts of kindness challenge to encourage kids to be kind to others. For each kind act they do, have them color in the picture. Another option is to have them give an example of each kind act before they color it in.
Skills targeted: Self-Awareness, Conversation Skills, Relationships
How to try it: Start by asking kids questions about anything from their favorite foods and activities to what three items they might bring on a deserted island with them. Many questions can help work on conversation skills, turn-taking, and self-awareness. You can start with this free printable list of conversation questions or consider these social emotional learning task cards to chat and focus on the skills more explicitly.
Skills targeted: Mindfulness, Coping Skills, Managing Emotions
How to try it: Let kids know that they will be practicing mindful breathing. Explain that mindful breathing is just focusing on breathing in and out to help calm our minds and bodies. There are many different mindful breathing exercises to try out. One of my favorites is “Cool off the pizza.” In this activity, have kids pretend they have a hot slice of pizza in front of them. Slowly breathe in to smell the pizza and breathe out to cool it down. Another one of my favorites is bubble breathing. If you have bubbles on hand it is even better, but you can also pretend! Practice breathing in and out as you blow bubbles. Learn more about other ideas to practice mindful breathing.
Mindful Scavenger Hunt
Skill targeted: Mindfulness, Attention
How to try it: Explain that mindfulness is learning to focus on the present. This can help our minds and bodies feel calm and in control. On your own, create a list of 10 or 12 items you want kids to find. Note that this can be done inside or outside. For example, if outside, you might want them to find a plant, a pine cone, something blue, and something bumpy. If inside, you might want them to find something yellow, something in the shape of a square, and something that makes noise. You can create your own scavenger hunts (or skip the prep with the ones I’ve made), so it’s entirely up to you and what you have! Give kids time to find these items and have them write them down on a piece of paper to document them.
Skills targeted: Kindness, Confidence
How to try it: Discuss what it means to be kind and give compliments. come up with some examples together. Then, have each person (kids and adults) write their name on a piece of paper. Pass that paper to your right. When you get someone else’s paper, write something kind and thoughtful about that person.
Skills targeted: Planning, Organization
How to try it: Discuss what it means to be organized and how we know when something is organized and tidy. Gather a set of supplies for each child or team. Set the timer to a certain amount (five minutes, for example) and see if the child can return those items to the correct spot.
Skills targeted: Mindfulness, Coping Skills, Self-Regulation
How to try it: Explain that kids will be practicing mindfulness, which is a skill that helps us stay calm and in control. Have kids look around their room to find 5 things they can see, 4 things they can touch, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can smell, and 1 thing they can taste. This is a grounding exercise that can help manage tough emotions and provide a mental reset when needed. After giving it a try, you can move to another room and try the same. More free mindfulness activities and ideas can be found here.
Skills targeted: Perspective-Taking
How to try it: Find any optical illusions online or use this free printable worksheet. Have kids review the optical illusions. First, have them think about what they see and write it down. Then, share. Kids should quickly notice that what they see isn’t always what others might see. Explain how optical illusions are like situations; sometimes you and someone else can see the same situation in different ways. As a follow-up, kids can find their own optical illusions online.
SEL Read Alouds
Skills targeted: All SEL skills (varies depending on book)
How to try it: Choose any read aloud. As you read through the book, stop and discuss the social emotional skills embedded in the book. One skill that carries across all picture books, for example, is empathy. You can talk about how the character might feel, what they might be thinking, and how you can tell. Depending on which book you choose, many different social emotional skills can be discussed from confidence to decision-making and beyond. Grab this free printable SEL Read Aloud List to help you get started.
Skills targeted: Turn-Taking, Sportsmanship
How to try it: Use any board games you have on hand, such as Monopoly or Candy Land. These games can help support a number of skills, including taking turns, having conversations, and showing good sportsmanship. Check here for some other ideas for social emotional games you can use.
Skills targeted: Mindfulness, Coping Skills
How to try it: Set the tone with some calming music. Have kids color or doodle quietly as they breathe in and out. Note that you can use any coloring pages or books on hand, or grab these free printable mindful coloring pages to start.
Skills targeted: Social Cues, Emotions
How to try it: Discuss that our body language and facial expressions can often hint at what we’re doing and how we’re feeling. Have each person or child come up with an activity, such as making a sandwich, and then act it out. See if others can guess the activity. Note that you can also do this with emotions, by having kids act out different emotions and seeing if others can correctly guess.
Skills targeted: Emotions, Self-Regulation, Self-Awareness
How to try it: Explain that writing in a journal can help express our feelings and thoughts. Set the timer for 5 or 10 minutes, and have each person just write what is on their mind. Give time for kids to share their thoughts afterward if they want. Another option is to use open-ended prompts for kids to write about. You can learn more about mindful journaling here as well.
Skills targeted: Kindness, Perseverance, and many more
How to try it: Find a couple examples of your favorite inspirational quotes. This will vary depending on the age level of the children. For example, you might read, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” Discuss the quote and what it means. Then, give a topic and have kids find or create their own quotes on that topic. Have them write them down and share them. You can even have kids design their own posters for the quote.
Practice Positive Affirmations
Skills targeted: Positive Thinking, Confidence, Self-Love
How to try it: Explain that positive affirmations are kind and supportive words we say to ourselves to lift us up. For example, before a big test, we might say, “I can do this!” Ask kids to think of their own positive words they might say. Use this free printable positive affirmations list to have kids find their favorite positive self-talk statements. Practice saying them, writing them down, and creating cards for each of their favorites.
Skills targeted: Attention, Mindfulness
How to try it: This is probably a game you’ve played before, but it’s important to mention because SEL skills can be easily integrated! Start by saying, “I spy with my little eye….”. For example, you might spy something green. Have kids stay just where they are and look around for the item. Instead of just guessing, it’s helpful to have them ask questions that really cause them to think. For example, they might say, “is it something you can play with?” and “is it something you can write on?” After giving some time for questions, allow the child to guess what it is. Whoever guesses it right can by the next to spy something.
Need more ideas? I’ve put together a massive list of 100+ FREE social emotional learning activities, printables, ideas, and more. Use it for yourself or share it to help someone else in need.
About Pathway 2 Success
Kris Scully is a middle school special educator with experience at the middle and elementary levels. For 10 years, she developed and ran a specialized program for kids with social, emotional, and behavioral needs, which has become her greatest passion. She is now a curriculum specialist, focused on creating meaningful social and emotional resources that help all learners find their “pathway to success“. Connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and her blog.