fostering emotional awareness in young children

Fostering emotional awareness in young children has been the cornerstone of my career as a play therapist. In my work as a therapist, supervisor, consultant and trainer, I have had the privilege to work with many play therapists around the world who are growing their play therapy practices.  Recently, I asked my colleagues for recommendations for their favorite emotion awareness, exploration and expression resources.  These resources can be helpful for parents and child therapists alike.


Here are ideas and a few of my favorites for fostering emotional awareness in young children.

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John Gottman’s book, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child is a must-have for play therapists and parents! It equips parents with a five-step “emotion coaching” process that teaches parents how to:

  1. Be aware of a child’s emotions
  2. Recognize emotional expression as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching
  3. Listen empathetically and validate a child’s feelings
  4. Label emotions in words a child can understand
  5. Help a child come up with an appropriate way to solve a problem or deal with an upsetting issue or situation.

Inside Out is a movie about a little girl named Riley with 5 different feelings that live inside of her- Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear.  For those who have not seen the movie, this is a great family activity for bonding!  There are so many resources you can find for free or purchase at or  There are also toys and games you can buy such as this Inside Out Set of 13 Miniatures.

Inside Out (1-Disc DVD)

The Way I Feel by Janan Cain uses strong, colorful, and expressive images to help children connect words and emotions.  It is good for children who are neurotypical or have autism.

A great resource to have in your toolkit is Thoughts and Feelings: A Sentence Completion Card Game.  Melissa Hueste Watts uses them with a dart board in her office.  When clients hit certain places on the dart board, they pick a card from the pack.  Lisa White Polakowski uses these cards with 8-11 year olds for a basis for the game Hangman, where they complete the sentence in the cards after solving Hangman.

Jenn Lowe recommends a therapeutic game called Mad Dragon. This is a take on Uno with questions about anger and other feelings.  It can be used with elementary children through high school teens!

Mad Dragon: An Anger Control Card Game

There are many free resources out there as well!  Adele Bunte Keuhs recommends Managing Big Emotions: Printable Emotions Cards & Matching Game from Childhood 101. You can also check out Adele’s Emotions Section on Pinterest.

Billie Graham likes to play feelings tic tac toe with these Todd Parr Feelings Flash Cards. There are 20 flash cards with 40 different emotions. Each vibrant and lively card shows two opposite feelings, one on each side such as brave and scared, silly and serious, and calm and nervous.

Ana Kelly recommends The Flexible Protocol: Emotional Regulation for Children and Their Parents Using Meaning-Focused Therapy and Arts based on the cognitive-behavioral approach.  In her work with children, “The anger iceberg is a good tool to help kids see the emotions underlying their anger. I also love doing the activity where they pick an action card (like walking the dog) and a feeling card (like scared), for example, and have to do the behavior while acting out the feeling. They have fun with it. I really love doing that one with families/sibling groups too, and then have discussion about why it’s not only important to express feelings, but also to be able to recognize the feelings of others.” – Ana Kelly.

Liz Gray has a few feelings-specific resources on her Teachers pay Teachers site:

  • Question Lists for Counseling is made specifically for JENGA, with 5 different question lists (including feelings & coping, social skills, etc.).
  • Feelings Scale includes a 5-point scale to help visualize a child’s anger, sadness, anxiety, or stress, and a blank template (to include any feeling or use in a different way you may choose). At each “step,” there is space to include:
    – A feeling under each number to describe the range of feelings associated with anger, stress, etc.
    – Space to write triggers for each of the 5 steps
    – Space to write coping skills for each of the 5 steps.

Question lists for counseling (divorce, feelings, coping, etc)

Feeling Scales

Finally, Beth Richey recommends Trauma Reaction Cards and Mary Pellicci Hamilton likes the resources on

Helping children become more aware of what they are feeling and learning how to explore and express those emotions in a way that is healthy has been a passion of mine since I started my career working in preschool settings and leading parenting training. Seeing a child experience mastery of owning his emotions and helping himself to self-soothe and express his needs is a profound  experience.

If you’re a therapist working toward your Registered Play Therapist (RPT) credential check out my recorded training for 2 hours of NBCC and APT approved training on helping children learn to self regulate here. AND you can come earn more about fostering emotional awareness in young children with me live November 30, 2018 in my 2 hour webinar on this ver topic. Register for the live webinar here.

I hope these resources will be of help to YOU and the children you work with!