15 Storytime Activities to Teach Emotional Awareness and Self-Regulation Skills
Updated: Mar 9
How to make your child's bedtime reading routine the perfect teaching moment
Nightly story time is often a very special moment for children. They get their caregiver’s undivided attention, enter into a world of learning and imagination, and of course, enjoy some cuddles. This quality time is a wonderful opportunity for kids to reflect on their day, speak their mind, learn by example, and glean some pearls of wisdom from the books they and their caregivers read together.
There are many ways to incorporate activities and intentions into story time to help children develop essential skills like critical thinking, empathy, perspective-taking, and self-reflection. Need some inspiration?
Here are some of my favorite reading time activities and exercises for you to try with your family.
Prompts for sharing, connecting, and empathy-building
1. It Happened to Me. Tell your child about a time you felt the same way as one of the characters in the book you are reading together.
2. Tell Me More. Ask your child to share a personal story about when they felt the emotion represented in the book. Can they remember a time when they felt excited? Overwhelmed? Frustrated? As they share, just listen. Try not to respond with solutions or try to make them feel better. Sometimes just listening and showing that you understand is the most helpful response.
3. Imagine, Imagine. Think together about hypothetical situations where one or both of you may feel an emotion of your choosing from the story. For example, if the feeling in the book is jealousy or loneliness, can you imagine a situation in which you may feel jealousy? Or a time when you could feel lonely?
4. Choose an SEL book. SEL means Social-Emotional Learning. There are many books that have lessons in empathy built right in! Elyse from Proud to be Primary has put together a great list here.
Use Props and Printables to Promote Engagement
5. Craft paper plate emotion masks. Make the masks ahead of time as a family art project. During reading time, you and your child can hold up the mask to show how characters in the story are feeling.
6. Make cutouts of your favorite characters. Drawing and cutting out characters from the book is a great way to bring the story to life. If you have a popsicle stick to attach to the back of the paper, even better. Experiment with drawing the same character at different moments throughout the story where different emotions are being expressed.
7. Make a chatterbox. Chatterboxes are a playful and lighthearted way to open up conversation with your child. The Chatterbox can be designed for a specific book, or it can be about exploring emotions more in general that can be applied to any book. Renee from Play Based Parenting has a great Chatterbox activity.
8. Prop scavenger hunt. Look through the book and make a list of all the items you see. Now it’s time for a scavenger hunt! Gather as many of those items as you can so you can add some theatrics to story time. This blog post by KindergartenWorks offers many different ideas to incorporate into reading time to retell some of your child’s favorite stories.
9. Make a calm-down jar. If your child struggles to calm down at the end of the day, using a calming transitional item may be helpful. For example, a Calm Down Jar is a fun way to soothe kids who are antsy or anxious before reading time. They can hold it, fiddle with it, and allow the calming visuals of the glitter moving around work its magic.
Exercises to Increase Reflective Capacity
10. Perspective switch. Consider the perspective of each character in the scene or story. What may they be feeling, thinking, or experiencing?
11. Body scan. When you notice a character experiencing a feeling or emotion, reflect with your child: what does that emotion feel like in your body? Can you point to where you experience this feeling in your body?
Practices to Encourage Coping Strategies and Insight Building
12. Tip for Tat. Talk about how characters can safely and appropriately manage their big feelings.
13. Make a list. Think together with your child about the coping strategies you both currently use when you feel certain emotions. For example, when you want to calm down, what do typically you do? Do you need a hug? Do you take deep breaths? Do you need some alone time? Do you go for a walk? Do you need to talk about it with a trusted adult or friend? Talk about the ways you cope and some new options too. Do you want to try a new coping strategy next time?
14. Witnessing the witness. What options do the other characters in the scene or story have when their friends or family members are experiencing a strong emotion?
15. Practice Reading Curiously. It’s a great exercise to encourage kids to become more insightful and build empathy.
Free What a Feeling Activity Guide!
Want more storytime interaction with your child? Remember to download the free What a Feeling! Activity Guide. It’s the perfect companion to use along with your What a Feeling! The ABCs for Emotions book, or any other illustrated children’s book to make storytime even more rewarding.
In this free guide, you will find several of these activities and conversation starters listed above and MANY more, specifically adapted for the content of the book and your child’s emotional development. Enjoy the conversation starters, games, and other fun challenges. All of these activities support the development of insight, empathy, and overall emotional intelligence.
What a Feeling Activity Guide! FAQ
Why use an activity guide like this one while reading?
Reading is such a great opportunity to teach your child critical social-emotional skills and increase their reflective functioning. When reading a story, the center of attention is the protagonist, so it is easier to reflect on their decisions without activating the defenses or taking it personal. There are plenty of simple conversation starters, questions, and games that can be incorporated into storytime, all you need is to have some ideas handy!
What makes SEL reading-time activities different?
SEL, or Social-Emotional Learning, games feel very much like the average game, but the underlying theme targets social-emotional development. In fact, many of the games are adaptations from other well-known games, just with an SEL spin.
What exactly is inside the activity guide?
Lots of fun games, activities, conversations starters, and concepts to consider that support the development of insight, empathy, and overall emotional intelligence. And again, it’s free.
How do activities reinforce reading lessons?
Reading on its own has many benefits, it allows for children to get lost in a story and let’s their self-guided imagination roam free. However, adding some of these activities to story time may be a good way to add some intellectual and emotional stimulation and sneak in an extra lesson or two.
Ready to get your free activities guide? Download it here.
In my practice, I have noticed that it doesn’t always come easy for children and adults to tune into their own emotional experiences. Not only is communicating our feelings difficult but also listening to our loved ones express their own feelings can be challenging as well.
When families work hard to shift their family culture to include social-emotional topics and experiences, they report feeling more understood, less burdened, and more connected to their family members. This is important because feeling connected and understood is a huge protective factor against all kinds of mental and physical health risks.
*First published on Medium.com on February 23, 2021