Playing “emotions charades” with your kid is like sneaking kale into their breakfast smoothie.  You know they are getting a healthy does of social-emotional learning (or in the case of the smoothie, antioxidants), but it is delivered in such a fun (yummy!) way that they’ll want to have it again and again!

Theater games are tailor-made for building emotional intelligence in kids.  After a decade of working in the drama classrooms of Child’s Play NY, I’ve built up some tools to support EQ in the students we get to work with.

The acting work we do is never to make kids into stars, but rather to equip them, through play and through theater, with the tools that nurture 21st century skills. To that end, the following games are ways that we can empower children to express themselves and the understanding to be attuned and empathic to others.

I’m convinced that when we help our children find healthy ways of dealing with their feelings–ways that don’t hurt them or anyone else–we’re helping to make our world a safer, better place.

                                                                                                                                                                    – Fred Rogers

You can play these one-on-one with your kids, with multiple family members (great for siblings!), around the Thanksgiving table on a playdate or at a birthday party!  Please be in touch with your own take on them and how your family played.  Like a good recipe, this is a starting place for you to customize according to your taste!

Emotions Charades

Watch this video to see how to play Emotions Charades.

Go even further with Emotions Charades by side-coaching your children and encouraging them to…

  • Get into the body, not just the face, of the emotion.
  • Think a thought before they “enter” that will help them get even more deep into the feeling.
  • Imagine they are a character in a book or a show where they know the character lives in that emotional state.
  • Use words, sound or gibberish to help express their emotion (being careful not to name the emotion).
  • Allow them express the emotion for a full 10 seconds (hold up your fingers to silently count) before anyone ventures a guess.

You can also play this in Halloween costumes or dress-up to see how these emotions would look on other characters.  In this way you are playing around with that essential skill of “empathy”. What does sadness look like for a Ninja Turtle?  How does a princes show she is mad? When Harry Potter is proud, how does he show it?

Emotions Charades and Art Projects that Extend The Playing

Ask kids to illustrate their own emotion cards.  This is great set-up for a long session of rainy-day playing which ends with Emotion Charades.  Additionally, it and allows kids to feel total ownership over the game.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Use index cards or sticky notes with the words written on them on the bottom and the kids design the faces.
  • For young children (ages 3-5) have a template of face with eyes already made on construction paper and they simply make the mouth as it changes for the different emotions.
  • Use a polaroid camera to take pictures of your child expressing the different emotions.  Then write the emotion at the bottom of the polaroid and you have instant flash cards.

More Tools to Play Emotions Charades

Here are resources (unsponsored!) that I love to help kids go deeper into Emotions Charades.

  • “Make a Face Pad” from Melissa and Doug – use it to support their own original art surrounding Emotions Charades
  • “Feeling Flashcards” from Todd Parr – use these as the tools for Emotions Charades if you don’t want to craft.
  • “About Face” from eeboo – use these nifty cards to create original faces and expression with cool artistic cross-over.
  • Feelings Charades cards from Class Dojo – you can see these featured in our above video.

Go Deeper into Emotions with Discussion

After the game, once feelings have been shared, guessed and “played”, the stage is set for discussion.  Use these questions to springboard meaningful interaction, or come up with your own. Essentially, stay curious and listen to your child’s answers and share your own observations too.

  • How does it feel when you see a friend with a mad face?
  • What can you do when you see a person who is sad?  How is it different if they are a stranger or if they are a friend?
  • Brainstorm some ways/tools that you have to feel happy?
  • What makes you feel pride?  What does it do when you feel someone else feeling pride?

Play “Emotions Charades” Yourself

It is so important to show children the full range of feelings that grown-ups feel too.  Use the game as an opportunity to express yourself and share with your child that you too have deep and complex emotions and it is ok for them too as well.

If parents shield their children from real feelings, kids falsely imagine their parents are in constant control of themselves – and may try to emulate them.

– Rachel Simmons

Emotion Freeze Dance

Build on the ever-joyful “Freeze Dance”, but use it to build EQ: When the music stops call out an emotion! Then, at the pause in the music, have the statues all look around at each other and see what that feeling looks like on others.

Use scores or soundtracks that evoke emotion.  Create your playlist ahead of time with your child.  After they freeze and the music resumes, encourage kids to stay dancing and moving with the emotion until a new one is called out.   In this way, they can continue exploring the full expressivity of that feeling.

Once they know the structure of the game, let your kids call the shots.  Have them take turns controlling the music and calling out the emotion. You can also have them pull the emotions out of a hat for even smoother playing.

Emotion Sculpture

By using the classic theater game, “Sculpture” as a springboard, you can clearly support kids’ understanding of emotions.

  1. Children split into pairs and decide on who will be the “artist” and “clay” first.
  2. Give each set of players a feeling card or just whisper an emotion into the ear of the “sculptor”.
  3. The “artist” has to mold their partner into the image of the emotion word.
  4. Set a time limit to the sculpting and choose ambient music that is relaxing.
  5. Once sculpting is complete, and if you are playing with a group, have all the “artists” walk around the “gallery” to witness all the different expressions of emotion.
  6. These statues can also come to life and say the word that inspired their image.
  7. Side-coach the sculptors to make sure that the entire body is expressing that emotion.  Additionally, make sure that they mirror the face rather than touch their partner’s face.

Hope you find a wealth of emotions and expressivity through these games!

Thanks for watching and playing.



Certain images and/or photos on this page are credited to Timothy Sekk, Aubrey Hardwick, and Hunter Canning.