Recognizing and naming our feelings are important aspects of emotional intelligence. For preschoolers, they are essential tools for appropriate communication. In order to interact peacefully, any impulsive behavior needs tempering. Gaining awareness of their feelings is a big step forward on the road to emotional literacy.
As teachers, we are often surprised at how quickly the environment changes from peaceful to conflictual. After 28 years of working with young children and an uncanny capacity—learned on the job—to suss out potential conflict, I am still amazed.
Often, children learn what they feel when they are in the midst of having their emotions rule their choice of expression. That’s a covert way of saying: children will learn about how they feel while they are acting out.
"You’re feeling angry now," we name the emotion for them. "You’re feeling sad because your friends wouldn’t let you play with them." We wait for the nod of the head, their eyes filling with tears. We allow for the validation that our best guess is accurate. In time and with repetition, children learn to recognize for themselves what they are feeling.
As children develop emotional literacy, the potential arises for pausing before acting out. Choice becomes possible, and we can help them choose peaceful solutions.
Always on the lookout for new tools of emotional literacy to use with the children, I’ve been playing with the precursors or companions of emotions: bodily sensations. What if we could coach children to learn about feelings from their sensations? Could we help them identify the emotions felt in the body before they learned to name them?
Would this delay the response? If children could pause even for a moment before acting impulsively, would they make a more appropriate choice? Inquiry helps us stay energized in our sometimes challenging role as teachers. I am still living with these questions.
In the guidelines of my July 2 blog, I discussed artful activities for developing emotional literacy.
In drawing their feelings, children learn to viscerally recognize them. Here is an expansion of those prementioned activities:
I. Body Maps with Younger Children
- Have the children take turns tracing each other’s bodies on large pieces of butcher paper. Demonstrate/model how this is done, staying as close to the body as possible with a marker, crayon or oil pastel.
- When a body map is complete, ask the children to draw their features, clothing and whatever else their imagination suggests to express how they look on the outside.
- Cut out the body tracings or have the children do so, depending on their age.
- Ask the children to contribute towards making a list of feelings.
- Have the children sit beside their body tracings, turn them over to the side they did not draw on and close their eyes. This is the inside of their bodies.
- Read an emotion from the list and ask the children to place their hand on that part of the body where they feel this emotion (e.g., anger may be felt in the belly or sadness in the chest). They are closing their eyes as this is a personal reflection. Each child may feel that this emotion lives in a different part of their body than their peers.
- Have them open their eyes, pick a color and draw that feeling on the body map. If they felt a specific emotion, for instance, in their own belly, they would draw on that part of their body map. They are choosing the color that best represents the emotion to them.
- When the children are finished with the first emotion, using the above suggestions you can move on to the next on the list. One or two emotions are enough for young children.
- You can discuss appropriate ways of expressing these emotions.
- The body maps can be rolled up and tied with string or ribbon for the next time they are used.
They are learning to identify feelings by locating sensations in their body. (Of course, there are myriad sensations that have nothing to do with our emotions. I am finding that I learn more about each child as they tell me stories about what they think the sensations represent. Whether or not this can be proved scientifically accurate, it is certainly a key to their inner world.)
I also work privately with elementary aged children. Recently, I explored Body Maps with an alum and her mom.
II. Body Maps for Older Children
An adult traces the outline of the child as older children can be more self-conscious. Give the option of facing up or down (facing down will help children feel less exposed).
Directions for the child:
- "I will read a list of feelings. As I read them, notice if you feel a tightening or sensation in some part of your own body."
- "When I finish reading, take your time getting up and sit by your body map with your eyes close."
- "Where in your body did you notice feelings, sensations or tightness?"
- "When you are ready open your eyes."
- "Choose a color that expresses one of the feelings."
- "Match where you felt it in your body to that part of your body map."
- "Move the oil pastel (or crayon, marker, etc.) in a motion that expresses this feeling; or, use shapes or make a picture that represents it. This is your body map—however you make it is just fine."
- "If there were other feelings, do the same. Choose a color, a shape or an actual representation to express the feeling on your body map."
Children can cut out images from magazines to represent their feelings.
As they begin to develop emotional intelligence, can children learn to identify an emotion by how it feels in their bodies as a precursor to naming it? This activity, Body Maps, is useful for my current inquiry on bodily sensations and their correlation to emotions.
It can be adapted for your own purposes. You might use it for individual work, while small and large groups are working on something else. From my experience, it engages children for long periods of time.
I would love to hear of your own explorations and inquiries.
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