Emotional Regulation Games

Don't Break the Ice game for self regulation. Ice cubes on the image say coping tools, worries, heavy work, brain breaks, etc.

If you are looking for tools to support and develop self-regulation skills, then you are in the right place. In this post, you’ll find emotional regulation games for self-regulation and specifically, Zones of Regulation games. These children’s games for emotional awareness and self-regulation were selected because they are fun ways to support emotional regulation, self-control, and social emotional developmental milestone achievement through game play. And, importantly, they support and teach the Zones of Regulation program by playing games.

Be sure to check out our comprehensive list of children’s books to teach the Zones of Regulation, and calm down toy suggestions, too!

Emotional regulation games to support emotional awareness an self-regulation and teach Zones of Regulation or other regulation curriculum.

Emotional regulation Games

Using over-the-counter games as emotional awareness tools is a cheap and creative way to foster the engagement of children in the learning process of emotional awareness and self-regulation. 

Children love playing games and using them in this manner provides a great therapeutic tool for kids to practice these important skills. 

Granted, some games do help children work on self-regulation naturally while others need just a little adaptation to make them worthy of being called self-regulation and emotional awareness tools.  

You’ll also want to check out our self awareness games as additional supports for developing these skills.

How to use games to support emotional regulation

How exactly do you use over-the-counter games to help children learn about feelings and emotions?

Think about how the simple playing of a game or just a slight adaptation to the game can create the just right therapeutic activity to help children work on identifying and expressing feelings and emotions. Maybe just adding simple facial expressions, emojis, or even a descriptive word to the board, tokens, spinner, or the game cards could give the ‘just right’ challenge for a child. 

How exactly do you use over-the-counter games to help children learn self-regulation skills

Think about how playing these games naturally can help children to practice emotional regulation skills:

  • Recalling the rules
  • Keeping their focus
  • Attention to game play and the play of others
  • Accepting and coping with winning and losing
  • Flexibility of thinking as they play against an opponent
  • Inhibition of impulses during play

These are all necessary skills that are directly related to self-regulation. 

Zones of Regulation Games

Take the time to consider how you may be able to adapt or modify an over-the-counter game allowing game play to incorporate regulation and emotional awareness programs such as, The Zones of Regulation®, The Alert Program®, and SuperFlex…A Superhero Social Thinking Curriculum®.

Maybe just adding the colors from these curriculums like red, orange, yellow, green, and blue might be all you need to do to easily add-in learning of these curriculum concepts during play. 

Adapted Over-the-Counter Games

Over-the-counter games are a great go-to and others have taken the time to do just what is discussed here.  Read on to discover some of the fun ways that others have used to address these important skills with children of all ages.

Don't Break the Ice game for self regulation. Ice cubes on the image say coping tools, worries, heavy work, brain breaks, etc.

One game we love to use as a self regulation tool is Don’t Break the Ice. It uses the regular game, but we adapt it to meet the needs of the individual, whether that be brain breaks or specific coping tools.

Amazon affiliate links are included below.

Use the game, “Don’t Break the Ice” in a Coping Skills activity- We love the idea of using Don’t Break the Ice to work on coping strategies. You can print off labels or even use round label stickers and put one on each ice block. Write out actions like deep breaths, mindful breathing, wall push ups, etc. Then when kids pound on the ice cubes, they can do the actions that are on the ice cubes that fall. This game can be used to help children learn and discuss coping strategies by having them perform the techniques or discuss strategies that are printed on each ice block. Makes a wonderful self-regulation game by simply just writing on the blocks – easy! 

Grab Don’t Break the Ice HERE. (affiliate link)

Use the game, “Don’t Break the Ice” in a Worry activity- Another way that we love to use the game Don’t Break the Ice, is to target worries. When kids pound an ice cube out from the game, they can name a worry or a stressor. This opens up communication with action of moving the hammer to remove ice pieces. How easy is that? Makes it a unique way to have children share about worries, what happens in their bodies, gain some understanding, and learn helpful coping strategies. 

Grab Don’t Break the Ice HERE. (affiliate link)

Connect 4 Emotions: This game is adapted by simply placing emotions stickers on the red and yellow chips and when a player picks up a piece to place it, they must share a time that they have felt that emotion. This can easily be used to identify emotions or even identify an appropriate coping strategy to deal with an emotion.

Grab Connect 4 HERE. (affiliate link)

Emotions Twister: This is a super fun way to work on emotions while using the Twister mat and incorporating the Zones of Regulation® colors by drawing facial expressions on the dots! Makes for a great supplement to the curriculum! 

Grab Twister HERE. (affiliate link)

Emotions Uno: Using a deck of Uno cards, children talk about the emotions related to the card colors with an adult providing subject prompts. Children can talk about experiences and the emotions they felt during those times.

Grab UNO HERE. (affiliate link)

Feelings Jenga or Exploring Emotions Jenga: This is a fun way to help children explore and talk about feelings and emotions by having children answer questions related to specific emotions. Makes a great tool to use in small groups!

Grab Jenga HERE. (affiliate link)

Feelings Mancala: This old-time game has been turned into a game for emotional awareness and development. Facial stickers are placed into the bottom of each hole on the board and then the game is played with each player sharing about a time they felt a particular feeling or emotion. 

Grab Mancala HERE. (affiliate link)

Another idea is to simply use the Jeepers Peepers Guessing Game Glasses or the Hedbanz Headbands with cards from the Superflex curriculum. Children don the glasses or headbands from these games and then place the Thinkable or Unthinkable cards (affiliate link) onto the glasses or headbands and have a child try to describe them.

Grab Headbanz HERE. (affiliate link)

Classic Games to teach emotional regulation

How about trying some of the classic games or even classic toys that we all know and love but that do not require the use of a board game?  That’s right.  Enjoy these fun ideas designed for children to learn about emotions and feelings as well as self-regulation and coping. 

Feelings Matchbox Cars Parking Lot: Kids love Hot Wheels and Matchbox Cars and there are cars designed for every child’s interest.  But have you thought about using them to park in spots of a feelings and coping parking lot? Makes an easy DIY activity using some classic toys! 

Grab Matchbox Cars HERE. (affiliate link)

Hopscotch: This is a super easy gross motor activity that kids can use to identify and discuss emotions and feelings.  Makes a classic turn into a newbie! 

Grab this Portable Hopscotch Board (with Zones Colors) HERE. (affiliate link)

Hula Hoops and Zone of Regulation: Everyone loves to try using a Hula Hoop!  Kids and adults alike will pick one up and try to play with it.  This activity uses this fun classic toy by helping children identify the different zones and what makes one be in that zone. So, they are learning about the feelings while also learning about curriculum concepts. 

Grab a Hula Hoop set in Zones colors HERE. (affiliate link)

Zones of Regulation Lego Towers: Kids enjoy building with Legos and they have been a core toy for years and years. Children see Legos and they immediately go to them and begin creating something fun! Try using them to create some fun Lego Towers that helps children identify emotions, feelings, and coping strategies. Makes for Lego love on a whole new level! 

Grab DUPLO blocks HERE. (larger blocks- affiliate link)

Grab LEGO blocks HERE. (Smaller blocks for hand strengthening- affiliate link)

Social Emotional Games

Maybe you have the money to spend on actual board games that address the skills of emotional awareness and self-regulation.  If so, take a look at these fun games designed just for that purpose!

BBQ Emotions (affiliate link)- This game has large skewers that help children to recognize and manage 10 different emotions. Children will discuss them and how to deal with them as if they are ingredients. This makes for a fun game that can be played individually or in a small group. 

Grab BBQ Emotions HERE. (affiliate link)

Emotion-oes – This fun domino game helps children to recognize and identify emotions by matching the pieces just as they would if playing regular dominoes.

Emotional Roller Coaster (affiliate link) – This anger management game helps children learn coping and calm down strategies when they are experiencing the feeling of anger.

Grab Emotional Roller Coaster HERE.  (affiliate link)

Emotions Bingo (affiliate link)- This simple bingo game helps children to recognize and identify emotions by scanning and matching the pieces just as they would if playing regular bingo. It helps kids to talk about how to handle feelings in a healthy way.

Grab Emotions BINGO HERE. (affiliate link)

Grab Emotions BINGO for Teens HERE. (affiliate link)

My Feelings Game (affiliate link)– This game has 280 scenarios that help children to express their feelings and how to cope with them appropriately. 

Grab My Feelings Game HERE. (affiliate link)

Social Skills Board Games (affiliate link)– This is a set of board games designed to help children work together to improve their overall social skills and can help children to learn about their feelings and the feelings of others. One particular board game is designed to show emotions and how to manage them.

Grab this 6 Pack of Conflict Resolution Games HERE. (affiliate link)

No Waries (affiliate link)– This game is a social emotional card game that helps children to learn about and understand emotions and in turn, helps them to acquire important social emotional skills.

Grab No Waries HERE. (affiliate link)

So, get brave and use your over-the-counter OT eye to find a game or toy that you can use to help a child build or develop important social-emotional skills while having some creative fun!

Regina Allen

Regina Parsons-Allen is a school-based certified occupational therapy assistant. She has a pediatrics practice area of emphasis from the NBCOT. She graduated from the OTA program at Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute in Hudson, North Carolina with an A.A.S degree in occupational therapy assistant. She has been practicing occupational therapy in the same school district for 20 years. She loves her children, husband, OT, working with children and teaching Sunday school. She is passionate about engaging, empowering, and enabling children to reach their maximum potential in ALL of their occupations as well assuring them that God loves them!

Coping Strategies for Kids

coping strategies

Whether it’s the classroom, home, or day to day life…coping strategies for kids are needed. Coping strategies are mechanisms or tools to adjust and respond to emotions, stressors, and unbalance so that one can function and complete daily occupations, or everyday tasks. Coping tools help to balance and regulate a person. Coping strategies can look different for every individual and that’s why this giant list of coping skills will be powerful in building a toolbox of strategies for kids (or teens and adults!)

Coping strategies like the ones listed here can be used in conjunction with an emotions check in and feelings check in to support self awareness and self regulation skills.

the strategies that we’ve shared here are great for adding to a budget sensory room in the school environment, or a calm down corner at home.

Coping strategies

What are Coping Strategies

We all need coping strategies! It can be difficult to cope with stress or worries as a child.  Most of the time, it can be hard to just figure out what is going on with the mood swings, frustration, behaviors, and lack of focus.  Most of these problems can be a result of a multitude of problems!  

And, helping kids to understand the size of the problem is part of this because then we can help them know how to cope.

Self regulation strategies use coping mechanisms to support various states of emotional and behavioral levels. The Zones of Regulation and the Alert Program both use coping tools to support emotional and behavioral needs.

From emotional regulation concerns, to sensory processing issues, to executive functioning struggles, to anxiety, communication issues, or cognitive levels–ALL of the resulting behaviors can benefit from coping strategies.

Here on The OT Toolbox, I’ve shared sensory coping strategies for anxiety or worries. These can be used for so many other underlying concerns as well.

It’s not just overstimulation anxiety or worries that causes a need for sensory-based coping strategies. Emotional regulation, an unbalanced sense of being, stress, situational or environmental issues…the list of concerns that would benefit from sensory coping tools could go on and on.

Incorporating sensory strategies and sensory play into a coping toolbox can help kids with a multitude of difficulties.  Try using some of these ideas in isolation and use others in combination with one or two others.  The thing about coping strategies is that one thing might help with issues one time, but not another.

Coping strategies for kids that help kids with regulation, emotions, stress, worries.

Coping Strategies for Kids 

One thing to remember is that every child is vastly different. What helps one child cope may not help another child in the same class or grade.  Children struggle with issues and need an answer for their troubles for many different reasons.  The underlying issues like auditory processing issues or low frustration tolerance are all part of the extremely complex puzzle.

Other contributions to using coping strategies include a child’s self-regulation, executive functioning skills, self-esteem, emotional regulation, and frustration tolerance. That makes sense, right? It’s all connected!

Coping Skills for Kids meet needs

Coping skills are the tools that a person can use to deal with stressful situations. Coping strategies help a us deal with occupational unbalance, so that we can be flexible and persistent in addressing those needs.

Coping skills in children can be used based on the needs of the individual child.  Also, there is a lot to consider about the influence of factors that affect the person’s ability to cope with areas of difficulty.  Likewise, feedback from precious coping efforts relates to the efficacy of a coping plan. (Gage, 1992).

Coping skills in kids depends on many things: wellness, self-regulation, emotional development, sensory processing, and more.

Having a set of coping skills benefit children and adults!  Every one of us has stress or worries in some manner or another.  Children with sensory processing issues, anxiety, or social emotional struggles know the stress of frustration to situations.  It’s no surprise that some of these issues like sensory processing disorder and anxiety are linked.

Research on wellness tells us that child well being is dependent on various factors, including parental resources, parental mental health, parental relationship quality, parenting quality, father involvement, family types, and family stability. What’s more is that taking a look at the overall balance in a family and the child can provide understanding into things like stress, frustration, anxiety, and overwhelming feelings. The wellness wheel can help with getting a big picture look at various components of overall well-being.

Coping Flexibility

In fact, studies tell us that coping flexibility may be an important way to investigate coping. Coping flexibility, or an individual’s ability to modify and change coping strategies depending on the context, can be impacted by executive functioning difficulties including flexible thinking, working memory, impulse control, emotional control, and self-monitoring.

And, having more coping strategies in one’s toolbox coping may be an important precursor to coping flexibility, especially because having flexibility in coping abilities can only be obtained if an individual is able to access and use different coping strategies. It’s the chicken or the egg concept!

Another study found that children who used problem solving or constructive communication were better able to manage stress and that those who used maladaptive strategies like suppressing, avoiding or denying their feelings, had higher levels of problems related to stress. It makes sense. The most effective coping strategies are ones that adapting to the stressors rather than trying to change the stressors.

So, how can we help with stress and frustrations?  One tool is having a set of sensory coping strategies available to use in these situations.    

Types of coping skills

All of this said, we can break down coping skills for kids into different types of coping strategies that can be added to a coping toolbox:

Physical- exercise, movement, brain breaks, heavy work are some examples. Physical coping strategies might include pounding a pillow in frustration, using a fidget toy, running, yoga.

Sensory- While there is a physical component to sensory coping strategies (proprioception and vestibular input are just that: physical movement…and the act of participating in sensory coping strategies involves movement and physical action of the body’s sensory systems) this type of coping tool is separated for it’s uniqueness. Examples include aromatherapy, listening to music, mindfulness (interoception), and sensory play.

Sensory strategies that are motivating can be a big help for some kids. Try these train themed sensory activity ideas to get your creative juices flowing.

Emotional- Thinking about one’s feelings and emotions is the start of emotional regulation and social development. Acting out feelings, talking to a friend or teacher…communication is huge!

These social skills activities are a great way to build awareness of self and others and can double as coping tools too.

Communication- Talking about feelings, talking to others, writing in a journal, singing. Have you ever just had to “vent” your feelings about a situation? That ability to “let it all out” is a way to process a situation and talk through solutions, or find common ground in a situation.

Use this list of coping skills to help kids build a coping skills toolbox.

List of Coping skills

1. Move- Get up and run in place, jog, do jumping jacks, or hop in place.

2. Fidget tools in school– Use learning-friendly fidget tools, perfect for the classroom or at-home learning space. Here is one desk fidget tool that kids can use while learning.

3. Talk- Talk about it to a friend, talk to an adult, or talk to a teacher.

4. Snuggle- Grab a big cozy blanket and pile pillows around you to build a fort of comfort!  The pressure from the blanket and pillows provides proprioceptive input.

5. Take a bath or hot shower.

6. Blow bubbles.  The oral sensory input is organizing.

7. Sensory water play.

8. Scream into a pillow.

9. Pound play dough.  Try a heavy work dough like this DIY marshmallow proprioception dough.

10. Use a keychain fidget tool. This is a DIY fidget tool that kids can make while building fine motor skills. Attach it to a belt loop, backpack, or even shoe laces for circle time attention.

11. Exercise. This alphabet exercise activities can be helpful in coming up with exercises for kids. Use the printable sheet to spell words, the child’s name, etc. This alphabet slide deck for teletherapy uses the same letter exercises and offers exercises for each letter of the alphabet. Use it in teletherapy or face-to-face sessions or learning.

12. Look at the clouds and find shapes.

13. Deep breathing. Deep breathing exercise are a mindfulness activity for kids with benefits… Try these themed deep breathing printable sheets: pumpkin deep breathing, clover deep breathing, Thanksgiving deep breathing, and Christmas mindfulness activity.

14. Take a walk in nature.

15. Play a game.

16.  Build with LEGOS.

17. Listen to the sounds of the ocean on a soothing sounds app or sound machine.

18. Count backwards.  Try walking in a circle while counting or other movements such as jumping, skipping, or hopping.

19. Drink a cold drink.

20. Drink a smoothie. There are proprioceptive and oral motor benefits to drinking a smoothie through a straw. Here are rainbow smoothie recipes for each color of the rainbow.

21. Squeeze a stuffed animal.

22. Listen to music.

23. Hum a favorite song.

24. Blow bubbles.

25. Chew gum.

27. Tear paper for fine motor benefits and heavy work for the fingers and hands.

28. Smash and jump on ice cubes outdoors.  Jumping on ice is a great activity for incorporating prioprioceptive sensory input.

29. Journal.  The Impulse Control Journal is an excellent tool for self-awareness and coming up with a game plan that works…and then keeping track of how it all works together in daily tasks.

30. Guided imagery.

31. Think of consequences.

32. Stretch.

33.  Go for a walk.

34.  Write a story or draw a picture. Sometimes it helps to crumble it up and throw it away!

35.  Blow up balloons and then pop them.

36. Take a time out.

37. Animal walks.

38. Imagine the best day ever.

39.  Swing on swings.

40.  Name 5 positive things about yourself.

41. Draw with sidewalk chalk. Drawing can relieve stress.

42. Try a pencil topper fidget tool for focus during written work.

43. Add movement- This monster movements slide deck uses a monster theme for core strength, mobility and movement breaks. It’s perfect for teletherapy and using as a coping strategy.

44. Try this easy coping strategy that only uses your hands.

45. Take a nap.

46. Sensory-based tricks and tips that help with meltdowns.

47. Use calm down toys.

HEAVY WORK coping skills

Brain breaks are a powerful and effective way to address regulation needs, help with attention, and impact learning into the classroom or at home as part of distance learning.

The impact of emotions and changes to routines can be big stressors in kids. They are struggling through the day’s activities while sometimes striving to pay attention through sensory processing issues or executive functioning needs. Brain breaks, or movement breaks can be used as part of a sensory diet or in a whole-classroom activity between classroom tasks. 

This collection of 11 pages of heavy work activity cards are combined into themed cards so you can add heavy work to everyday play.

heavy work cards for regulation, attention, and themed brain breaks

Coping strategies for kids printable

Want a printable list of coping tools for kids? This list of coping skills can be printed off and used as a checklist for building a toolbox of strategies.

Get the printable version of this list.  It’s free!

Try these sensory coping strategies to help kids with anxiety, stress, worries, or other issues.
Printable list of sensory coping strategies for helping kids cope.

Coping strategies can come in handy in many situations:

When saying “calm down” just isn’t enough…

When a child is easily “triggered” and seems to melt down at any sign of loud noises or excitement…

When you need help or a starting point to teach kids self-regulation strategies…

When you are struggling to motivate or redirect a child without causing a meltdown…

When you’re struggling to help kids explore their emotions, develop self-regulation and coping skills, manage and reflect on their emotions, identify their emotions, and more as they grow…

Free Classroom Sensory Strategies Toolkit

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    Gage, M. (1992). The Appraisal Model of Coping: An Assessment and Intervention Model for Occupational Therapy, American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 46, 353-362. Retrieved from : oi:10.5014/ajot.46.4.353 on 5-24-27.

    Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

    Identify Emotions with Pumpkin Emotion Faces

    pumpkin emotions

    This pumpkin feelings activity is an OLD one here on the site. But there is just something fun about pumpkin emotion faces that little ones love! It’s a social emotional activity for preschoolers and toddlers that foster emotional development…with fun and interactive pumpkin feelings!

    This fun Fall activity helps with learning to identify emotions using pumpkin emotion faces! It’s a great emotional development activity for toddlers and preschoolers. Kids love moving the faces on the pumpkins and practicing different facial expressions is a bonus.

    pumpkin feelings

    Pumpkin Emotions Activity

    You can use interactive felt pieces to create pumpkin emotions, or facial expressions on pumpkins to create different feelings on the pumpkins. This is a great way for toddlers and preschoolers to play with facial expressions, practice emotions, and put a word to the emotion.

    You’ll need just a few items for this activity:

    • Orange poster board
    • Green paint or green marker
    • Black paper
    • Tape

    Time needed: 10 minutes

    How to Make a Pumpkin Emotions Activity for Preschoolers

    1. Cut out a Pumpkin Shape

      Use orange poster board and cut out a large pumpkin shape. Add a few lines with a black marker for more pumpkin details if you like.

    2. Paint the stem green.

      You could use green paint or a green marker. Or, use green paper and glue the green paper over the stem area.

    3. Cut out face pieces from black paper.

      Cut out circle eyes, a triangle nose, and different smiles. You can create angry eyes, surprised eyes, a circle mouth, a frown, a smile, etc.

    4. Add tape to the back of each pumpkin emotions piece.

      Roll the tape into a donut and stick to the back of each facial expression. You could also use sticky tack.

    Identification of Emotions

    The tricky part of developing self regulation in preschoolers is the development of an essential skill that impacts self-regulation in later years. Giving young children the words, or the emotion vocabulary, to explain how they feel by identifying emotion faces is the perfect starting point!

    That’s where these pumpkin emotion faces come into play!

    Young children often have difficulty expressing their emotions.  Recently my 18 month old son has reverted to hitting, screaming, and throwing things, which is part of typical development.

    I was trying to think of a way to help him learn how to express himself in a calmer more acceptable manner and that’s how this pumpkin faces emotions activity came to life.  With all the fall fine motor OT activities and Fall-inspired posts lately, I got to thinking about decorating a pumpkin…

    First, let’s break down the identification of emotions aspect. 

    This is an important developmental process in toddlers and preschoolers. Emotional intelligence is a skill that needs practice to develop, and is essential for social situations, communicating with others, and self-regulation of emotions and feelings. Identifying emotions is one of the first steps for young children.

    One way to do this would be to pair the pumpkin feelings activity with a feelings check in. Children could identify their own feelings and match it to the pumpkin facial expressions.

    There are ways to support emotions identification in preschoolers, toddlers, and older children:

    • Use this social emotional learning worksheet to help kids match emotions to behaviors and coping strategies.
    • Put words to feelings. Do you feel sad? Are you unhappy? You feel mad. I am happy.
    • Point out facial expressions and emotions in books. Picture books are a great way to talk about emotions and see facial expressions in the context of a story.
    • Another fantastic resource that can help develop social and emotional skills is the activity book, Exploring Books Through Play.

    pumpkin emotion faces with a paper pumpkin activity
    Paper pumpkin with a happy face
    Preschool pumpkin emotion activity, child places paper pieces on a pumpkin to make a smile



    Identifying and Expressing Emotions with pumpkin Faces

     My 4 year old helped cut out the shapes of the eyes, nose, and mouths. The different shapes and the sturdy paper (we used cardstock) makes this a great scissor skills activity for preschoolers.

    After the pumpkin emotion pieces were cut out, we started identifying emotions. Happy, sad, angry, etc. We have a great resource on emotional vocabulary that helps to teach preschoolers about identifying emotions.

    Then, we talked about the shapes and what those mouths looked like. We talked about positive and not so positive ways to express our feelings. “When I get sad, it is not OK to hit”. 

    At the preschool age it is important for her to be able to express her feelings with words and associate them with how her actions make others feel.  Learning about feelings helps with her social emotional development.

    Preschool pumpkin emotions activity using a paper pumpkin
    Paper pumpkin with facial expressions
    Use a cardstock paper to make a pumpkin and facial expressions for a preschool activity

    “This one has a mustache!”

    Sad pumpkin face for preschoolers

    “This guy is sad because his sister took away his toy.”

    Paper pumpkin fine motor activity

    Toddler Pumpkin Emotion Activity 

    This is also a great activity for helping toddlers build emotional development skills. Toddler play is where all of the development happens, and this activity is a powerhouse.

    Toddlers can use the activity for several skills:

    • Spatial relations activities
    • Fine motor skills
    • Working on a vertical surface to develop eye-hand coordination, fine motor work, and core strength
    • Social emotional development

    We also had fun lining up the shapes. We had a row of triangles, circles, and ovals.

    Another great emotions activity for toddlers and preschoolers are our emotions playdough mats to support naming and identifying emotion names and facial expressions to match the emotion name.

    Toddler playing with pumpkin face pieces on a refrigerator.

     For little guy we placed the pumpkin on the refrigerator with a magnet and tape on the back of the shapes.  He had a blast making the pumpkin fall down…over…and over…and over again!  

    Toddler copying pumpkin facial expressions playing on a fridge with magnet pieces.

      I would help him put a different shape mouth on the pumpkin and mimic the face. He thought I was pretty silly, but I think he started catching on 🙂

    Toddler copying a surprised pumpkin face

      Surprised face!  

    Toddler placing pumpkin facial expression magnets on a fridge.

      This also helps with learning spatial relations and where a nose, mouth, and eyes belong on a face.  He was trying to put the mouth where the nose goes…he will learn eventually!

    Toddler moving pumpkin face pieces to make a smile

      We all know that babies and toddlers have feeling just as we as adults do, they just need a little help trying to figure out what they are feeling!  Hopefully this will help my little guy learn to deal with his frustrations a little better…I will keep you posted!


    Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

    Penguin I Spy PDF

    Penguin I Spy PDF

    Today, you’ll find a free printable Penguin I Spy PDF worksheet that you can print off and use for targeting several areas of development. We love using I Spy activities with real toys or with printable worksheets because of the many ways to address visual discrimination, eye-hand coordination, visual figure ground, visual attention, coloring, number formation, and so many other areas. Let’s break this down with a penguin themed I Spy worksheet.

    You’ll also love these penguin activities that can be combined with this I spy PDF.

    Penguin I spy PDF

    Penguin I Spy PDF

    What I love about this kind of pdf printable is its versatility.  The session could be a social emotional exercise on identifying emotions, a visual perceptual task matching the faces, a visual motor task coloring/cutting/pasting the penguins, a game of BINGO or a combination of all of these.

    A side note about using printable resources like this Penguin I Spy in therapy sessions…

    Today during therapy sessions, we were talking about winter and snow.  I came to a couple of conclusions.  Children who are from South Carolina can NOT name ten things to do in the snow.  They also do not understand ice skating, snow shoes, sledding, ice fishing, or the difference between skiing and snowboarding.  One of my students exclaimed that he would like to move to Antarctica, but only where the penguins are.  He said, “unlike penguins; polar bears, seals, and other arctic animals like to eat people.”  

    Almost all of the posts I write talk about how to grade and modify activities.  On the fly, I had to grade and modify this task for every student today.  An independent writing activity became long discussions, google searches to discuss snow shoes and ice fishing, copying from a model (they can’t spell skiing if they do not know what it is), along with a little bit of letter formation/sizing/line placement.  As an OT, this is what we do.  Adapt and modify.

    Because my student showed an interest in penguins, I decided to use this as a platform for an upcoming treatment session.  Check out some of the other posts by typing “penguins” into the search bar on the OT Toolbox.  An entire week-long lesson plan can be made out of one simple idea.

    To kick off my penguin theme I will be using this Penguin I Spy Emotions free printable.  I will throw in some talk of emotions and maybe a little humor.  What would it feel like to be chased by a polar bear?  How would you feel if you had a penguin for a pet? This is one way to incorporate self-regulation and emotional coping tools in the discussion.

    Because students are fluid learners and unpredictable, the task may need to be modified for each student or adapted on the spot. 

    How to use a Penguin I Spy PDF

    You can use this penguin I spy PDF in several different ways. Print off the I spy PDF and modify the worksheet for each student depending on the needs of the individual learner.

    How can this task be modified?

    • Add elements to make it more difficult such as cutting on the lines or writing the name of the emotions under each penguin
    • Make it easier by having all the pieces pre cut
    • Laminate the page and add velcro dots to make this reusable (using velcro dots is a great way to build finger strength).  This also takes out the visual motor task of cutting and coloring, making the focus more concentrated on visual perception
    • Talk about each of the emotions and have learners name something that would elicit that emotion
    • Change the weight of the paper for easier/harder cutting
    • Make it a social activity by creating a game such as BINGO, Memory Match, or Hide and Seek.
    • Add a gross motor element by scattering the pieces all over the room
    • Add a sensory element by putting the pieces in a snow themed bin
    • Project this onto a smart board to make it interactive

    The penguin I spy PDF at the bottom of this page can be combined with our Penguin Therapy Kit, as well as the other penguin resources here on the site.

    Gross Motor – Use these yoga positions to incorporate gross motor skills. Click here for the penguin yoga activities.

    Executive Functioning Activity – Try making these penguin snacks for a family treat.

    Self-Regulation Activity– This penguin deep breathing activity can be a coping tool or a sensory strategy to help with self-regulation skills.

    Emotions Game- This free penguin emotions therapy slide deck challenges kids to identify emotions based on facial expressions.

    If you prefer all of your treatment ideas in one bundle, the OT Toolbox has a Penguin Therapy Kit deal going on right now for the Penguin Therapy Kit!

    Every day I look for humor in my job.  Let’s face it, kids are funny!  While not so funny that these kids had so little knowledge about winter snow, it WAS funny that one student stated “in the snow you stay inside and drink hot cocoa.” Another student somehow knew nothing about snow, but told me how you have to lay on the ice if it is cracking.  Lastly there was the little girl who worked so diligently on this task, then out of nowhere stated she wants a hamster for her birthday, and could we look that up on Google too (for the record, we did).

    Flexibility is synonymous with Occupational Therapist.  The more flexible you are able to be, the more fun you are able to have doing this amazing job.  Flexibility is looking up hamsters, suddenly describing what snowshoes are for, or somehow making your failing activity a success!

    I’m thinking that the boy who said snow is for indoors and hot cocoa is onto something.

    Free Penguin I Spy PDF

    Interested in adding the Penguin I Spy to your therapy toolbox? Enter your email address into the form below. Or, if you are a Member’s Club member, log into your account and access this resource in our Penguin Therapy Theme.

    FREE Penguin I SPY Printable

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      Victoria Wood, OTR/L is a contributor to The OT Toolbox and has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

      How to Encourage Growth Mindset Mistakes

      growth mindset mistakes

      When using a growth mindset mistakes can help you grow! Rather than thinking our intelligence is fixed and unchanging, the growth mindset encourages people to see their abilities as things that can improve. Here, we’re covering why it is important to teach students the growth mindset. You’ll also find strategies to move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset when mistakes happen.

      Growth mindset mistakes

      Growth Mindset Mistakes

      In life we strive to be perfect. Some of the best inventions have come from mistakes.  For children (and adults), it can be a real challenge when simple mistakes happen. Errors happen all day long: in math problems, in conversation, in the classroom, or in a myriad ways!

      The problem is when these mistakes become a setback in emotional or behavioral self-regulation

      Mistakes are part of the learning process!

      Developing a growth mindset is about what you are going to do, not what you can’t do. Try again, or make the most of what you have already.  

      Learning from mistakes examples:

      Some inventors decided to make the most of what they had created by accident.  They learned something valuable from their mistakes. Check it out!

      • Penicillin – Alexander Fleming was a medic through WWII.  He was used to using antiseptics to treat infections, but was trying to find a safer alternative. He was studying staphylococci in several petri dishes. He stacked them on top of each other and went on vacation. When he returned, he discovered there was a fungus growing on several of the dishes that had destroyed the staphylococci infection. His poor housekeeping skills and growth mindset mistakes lead to the discovery of penicillin!
      • Microwave – Percy Spencer was working on magnetron technology. When he stood too close to the magnetron he noticed his candy bar had melted in his pocket. He tried popcorn, eggs, and other foods next to the magnet and voila! The microwave was invented.
      • Potato Chips – This was the result of trying to please a picky customer.  Cornelius Vanderbilt repeatedly sent back his potatoes to the chef because they were too soggy. After several returned attempts, the chef decided to slice the potatoes really thin and fry them as a joke. The customer loved these fried potatoes, and the potato chip was born.
      • Velcro – George de Mistral was walking his dogs and noticed several burrs sticking to their fur. He marveled at the way these burrs clung to the dogs. After a few trials and mistakes (including chopping bits and pieces off of the material), he created what is now known as velcro.
      • Post it Notes – Dr. Spencer Silver was trying to invent an extremely strong adhesive. What he ended up with was an adhesive that stuck but could easily be unstuck and repositioned. He deemed this mistake a failure, until someone suggested reusable book marks and notepads.  The classic yellow color was born from the only available colored paper at the time!
      • Coca Cola – This popular drink was born from nerve tonic. This was supposed to cure all ailments. Unfortunately it had alcohol in it, and in the age of prohibition it had to be removed. A little sugar was added and the carbonated beverage was advertised as making people healthier. We now know that this beverage definitely does not make one healthier, it does the opposite. However, in moderation, it is a sweet treat with a boost of caffeine.
      • Slinky – Richard James was attempting to invent a spring that would stabilize equipment on Navy ships. He accidentally knocked it off his table and was delighted to see how it slinked down to the floor.  While the Navy rejected his invention, millions of children throughout the world have owned at least one Slinky.
      • Silly Putty – During WWII James Wright was trying to invent a cheap alternative to synthetic rubber.  He accidentally spilled boric acid into silicone oil and created a stretchy bouncy product.  This toy has morphed into Theraputty, a helpful tool for strengthening and stretching muscles. Check out these theraputty exercises for ideas to use this tool!)
      • Playdough – This craft staple and children’s favorite building material was designed as a wallpaper cleaner. With the decline in popularity of wallpaper in recent years, the company is thankful they rebranded this as the playdough we know today! And, we all know the benefits of play dough, so this is a wonderful mistake that was made!

      These are just a few of the inventions made while trying to invent something else.  The products were born from people learning from mistakes. There are dozens more including; Crazy glue, popsicles, artificial sweetener, Viagra, Smart Dust, ice cream cones, the pacemaker, and more.  

      Why are these mistakes important? We can help kids see that there is importance of mistakes happening. Otherwise these products would never have been invented!

      What else did these inventors learn from their growth mindset mistakes?

      A growth mindset is “the understanding that abilities and understanding can be developed” (Mindset Works, n.d.). Those with a growth mindset believe that they can get smarter, stronger, and more talented through putting in time and effort.

      This way of thinking became popular through the work of Carol Dweck in her book (Amazon affiliate link) Mindset.  She teaches about the “power of yet.” This mindset shifts the focus away from all the things one can not do, to what one can not do YET.

      The power of yet teaches people:

      • they can learn
      • learning takes time and effort
      • results come from hard work
      • giving up isn’t an option 

       This is huge when we think about the kids we serve and the ability to develop and strengthen self-esteem.

      These inventors believed they could learn new skills with enough effort and practice. Giving up was not an option for them. If they had given up on their “mistakes”, and not persevered with their ideas, they would not have invented some amazing products!   

      I don’t believe these inventors “got lucky” or “were in the right place at the right time”. Perhaps they did have a little fortune on their side in their innovation, but most of them had the growth mindset, and will to succeed.  

      If they had not invented what they did, they probably would have gone on to create something else, or reach other an achievement. 

      Mindset is the difference between those who excel and those who give up. The issue is that there can be discomfort in making errors…and then persevering.

      Learning from mistakes and moving forward drives people to succeed. It offers a chance to reframe mistakes into another chance, a new opportunity, or another try. Some people innately have this drive, while others need to develop it. 

      Mindset Tools for Mistakes

      Below are some mindset tools to help us make mistakes with a growth mindset. These are new strategies, but also tools to support mindset.

      As therapy professionals, educators, or parents, we can drive the enthusiasm in persevering or trying again. The obstacles kids struggle with are part of the course, and we can support that development with words of encouragement. The OT Toolbox is featuring several posts involving mindset to help create a treatment plan for yourself, or the learners you work with.

      Use these tools in a growth mindset lesson to support self-awareness skills.

      Develop Brain Skills- Brain activity happens with learning, and making mistakes is part of that learning process. Using persistence to complete a task is not only an executive functioning skill, it’s also an opportunity to develop grit, or resilience. This is an important life skill!

      • Amazon (affiliate link) has a great Growth Workbook for Kids. It is a fun and engaging activity book, for ages 8 to 12, that can help you train your brain and develop creative problem-solving skills through practice and perseverance. You’ll learn how to foster a “can-do” attitude and celebrate your mistakes as a path to ultimate success.
      • Mindsetkit has a great presentation on the critical role of mistakes.  

      Give yourself permission to make mistakes- Switch thinking from an error that means starting over is a bad thing. Mistakes can be permission to achieve a new skill. 

      Sometimes, as humans, we view mistakes as something bad. But when we stretch mistakes into something good, it’s switching the perspective in our brains. We can try a different strategy. We can use new skills that we learned as a result of that mistake. 

      Working with kids is a great opportunity to try again, but an important one that can have a huge impact!

      Learn from mistakes- There is always an AHA-moment mistakes allow. At some point, maybe long after the mistake has happened, that we have a moment of “Aha!” where we learn something about ourselves. We can ask ourselves a few questions as part of this mistake learning:

      • What have you learned from making mistakes?  
      • What did the mistake teach me?
      • What did I do that contributed to this mistake?
      • What can I do differently next time?
      • What tools can I use next time?
      • Was this a “big mistake” or a “small mistake”?
      • What did I learn from this mistake?

      Talk about different kinds of mistakes- Not all mistakes are life threatening, or high-stakes mistakes! We can work with kids to identify different types of mistakes. Ask kids to identify different scenarios on a scale of intensity.

      • small mistakes
      • big mistakes
      • life-threatening situations 
      • learning curve errors
      • sloppy mistakes

      Find courage to try again- I have learned that there is not much that can not be undone or fixed. This gives me the courage to try. Talking about this concept of trying again can be helpful for kids. We can even bring up times in our life that we as therapists have had to try again.

      • Don’t like that paint color in your bedroom you just painted?  Paint over it.
      • Not sure about the tattoo you just had done? Get it removed or “painted over”
      • Not thrilled with the way your hair color/cut came out? It will grow back, or try again with another color.
      • Cookies came out overdone? Chop them up and sprinkle over ice cream, or feed them to the goats.

      Mistakes can be spun as a trial run. Every mistake is good practice for the next time!

      Use self-talk- Kids can use self-talk as a strategy to hush that inner critic that tends to “beat up” our emotional state. Instead of repeatedly thinking “I’m so dumb”, “How could I make this mistake”, or “I’ll never be good enough”, we can teach kids the emotional regulation strategy of self-talk to support their mindset. 

      Positive self-talk is a huge asset to teach to switch the perspective of mistakes as a bad thing to just part of the learning and living process. There is power of the word that  we speak to ourselves!

      A final note on growth mindset mistakes 

      I once took a pottery sculpting class years ago on a whim (actually after a bad breakup).  My coil pot was crooked, bumpy, and leaning to the side.  Instead of becoming discouraged, I took a step back.  It kind of looked like the sorting hat from Harry Potter.  I painted it and proudly display it as a sorting hat replica!  What could have been a mistake and failure, turned into a one of a kind art piece.

      Victoria Wood, OTR/L is a contributor to The OT Toolbox and has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

      Social and Emotional Development Milestones

      social emotional development milestones

      Wondering about social and emotional development milestones and what social emotional development should look like in young kids? Social emotional learning occurs from birth and continues on for many years to impact learning and interacting with others. Let’s break down HOW social emotional development happens at each age and stage.

      We’ve covered social emotional toys and even books to support emotional development because these skills are something that every child learns through play and interacting with others.

      Social and emotional development milestones

      Social and emotional Developmental Milestones

      Social skills have become one of the most discussed milestone checklists as children re-enter the world after being out of social situations due to being at home for most of their early years. Included in this progression, are the stages of empathy development.

      As children start to socialize, adults are noticing that, without opportunities to play with other children, social development can become impacted. By the time a child enters Kindergarten, they are expected to be able to participate and learn new skills while other children are in the classroom.

      This is only achieved through practice being around other kids.  This blog will discuss how different developmental milestones impact social development, and where to go for more supports if social skills are a concern. 

      When children enter preschool, they are immediately bombarded with play opportunities with peers. This is a wonderful time for children to learn how to share space, share toys, build friendships, learn from children and new adults.

      As children develop their cognitive, communication and play skills, their social skills become more advanced. Here is a list of the social skills preschoolers are able to do (by age).

      Early Preschool: 3 years

      • Express emotions
      • Copy adults and friends  
      • Show affection for friends without prompting  
      • Turn taking in games, with prompts
      • Show concern for a crying friend (empathy) 
      • Understand concepts of “mine” and “his” or “hers” 
      • Separate easily from mom and dad  
      • May get upset with major changes in routine  

      Mid-Preschool: 4 years-

      • Enjoy trying new activities
      • Playing with different toys or types of toys   
      • Play imagination and interactive games with others “mom” and “dad”  
      • Are more and more creative with make-believe play  
      • Would rather play with other children than alone 
      • Cooperate with other children  
      • Often cannot tell what is real and what is make-believe  
      • Talk about what they like and what they are interested in 

      Later Preschool: 5 years-

      • Want to please friends  
      • Want to be like friends  
      • Are more likely to agree with rules  
      • Like to sing, dance, and act, also aware of gender  
      • Can tell what is real and what is make-believe  
      • Show more independence (for example, may visit a next-door neighbor by themselves with adult supervision) 
      • Are sometimes demanding and sometimes very cooperative

      When in the classroom, it is important that we give children ample opportunities to practice social skills through large group, small group and free play activities. Giving children the ability to engage in play allows them to create their own rules, investigate social norms and understand how to work within a team with other children. One of the best ways to encourage social interaction is through pretend play. 

      Keeping these stages of development in mind when creating self-regulation IEP goals is very helpful.

      Activities to support social and emotional Development Milestones

      Here are my 5 favorite ways to encourage social growth within the pretend play area:

      1. Change up the play space with prop boxes.

      The pretend play area doesn’t just have to be a play kitchen. Pretend play is a way for children to interpret the world that they see everyday.

      This includes places they go, things they watch on television and different roles they see in the community. Prop boxes for pretend play are buckets filled with items related to a theme.

      If you notice children are interested in a specific topic (such as the hair salon, the grocery store, a train station), you can grab a prop box and allow children to expand on their knowledge of the topic together!

      1. Encourage role play.

      As children start to play together within the pretend play area, adults can facilitate different roles. One year, the children were very interested in drive through restaurants.

      They pulled over the puppet theater that had a chalk board front on it. With some support, they decided who was going to be the cook, who was going to take orders, who was the person deciding the menu, who would be the cashier and who would be “Driving” through the drive through!

      After some negotiations, everyone had their roles. They loved this so much they created menus and opened up the rest of the classroom tables for dine-in for the rest of the children. As the preschoolers worked together, they were learning communication, problem solving and turn taking skills through play. 

      1. Bring pretend play outdoors. 

      There is no hard and fast rule saying that all pretend play has to be inside. Bring those prop boxes outdoors and set up an area for children to use them in a large space. This type of play can be so exciting when outside in nature.

      Children can use leaves, sticks and other items as props in their play. When there is ample room to run and play, sometimes more children become involved in the play experience. This is also a great time to support children with sensory needs. Check out this sensory processing disorder checklist for more information.

      In play, being indoors around too many kids might be overwhelming to them. Inviting them to engage in outdoor play in open space with plenty of areas to take sensory breaks with proprioception activities,  supports children of all sensory processing needs, giving them opportunities to partake in important social practice. 

      1. Give children the ability to create their own space. 

      One of most powerful aspects of pretend play is to let children lead. When we step back and allow children to create, engage and develop on their own, they are able to practice social development freely.

      Without adult intervention (unless needed), children are able to work on problem solving skills and create a play narrative that adults may not think of. Giving children time to decide play roles may bring up some uncertainty with taking turns, but it allows them to work through their disagreements together.

      When adults aren’t always in the middle of play, magic happens. 

      1. Don’t limit the amount of children allowed to play in one area.

      Often times I see preschools limit the amount of children allowed to play in one area of the classroom due to the size of the space.

      This may mitigate overcrowding but it also prevents children from learning how to socialize freely in different sizes of groups. If multiple children desire to engage in the pretend play area, instead of limiting the amount of children, push some other classroom areas to the side and expand the pretend play area.

      6. Be aware of when children need support interacting with each other. 

      It’s important to remember that preschoolers (even adults) are still learning how to interact with groups of children. Sometimes adults need to step in to support cooperation during social play. Frustration can present as a sensory meltdown or a tantrum.

      When a child becomes frustrated and needs to calm down, self-regulation strategies can support the emotional regulation needs. Using a problem solving tool like the (Amazon affiliate link) Soothing Sammy Program to help them. After children calm down with “Sammy Time” use the prompts in the story to encourage problem solving communication between the children.

      Sometimes all children need is a break to gather their thoughts and help to communicate their feelings. You can find some more problem solving activities.

      Others may benefit from a social story to consider options that might happen in a given daily task.

      Emotional Milestones and other areas of development

      A child’s development is greatly impacted by 8 key areas of growth.

      This includes::

      1. social development
      2. emotional development
      3. gross motor development
      4. fine motor development
      5. language development
      6. cognitive
      7. sensory
      8. self-help skills.

      When delayed in just one of these areas, other areas of development may also be impacted, including emotional milestone achievement, because of the deep connection between emotional regulation and cognitive processing.

      When a child is delayed in language, they are unable to use words to communicate their needs to their peers.

      If they are having a hard time understanding directions, they won’t be able to participate in some social activities or games.

      If a child is impacted by sensory differences or  delayed in their cognitive milestones, they may find it frustrating or difficult to engage in imaginative games with their peers.

      If they are unable to keep up with gross motor or fine motor activities, they may feel left behind.

      If you are concerned about a child’s development in any area, and they are under three years olds, reach out to your local Early Intervention Program for a free developmental assessment.

      If your child is between the ages of 3 and 5, your local school district can complete a developmental assessment free of charge. This social skills checklist is a wonderful tool to help know where to start. These emotions playdough mats are another great hands-on activity to explore emotions with preschoolers and toddlers.

      Social and emotional development milestones are an important skill that preschoolers learn through experiences. With ample opportunities to practice and the right supports, children will learn how to engage with their peers and how to problem solve. As children are exposed to different play situations with different people, and in different settings, the social skills they learn will benefit them throughout their entire lives. 

      Jeana Kinne is a veteran preschool teacher and director. She has over 20 years of experience in the Early Childhood Education field. Her Bachelors Degree is in Child Development and her Masters Degree is in Early Childhood Education. She has spent over 10 years as a coach, working with Parents and Preschool Teachers, and another 10 years working with infants and toddlers with special needs. She is also the author of the “Sammy the Golden Dog” series, teaching children important skills through play.

      Turn Taking

      turn taking

      We all use turn taking on a daily basis. Taking turns in conversation, walking through a doorway, during meals, at appointments, while shopping, and even while driving are just some examples of how turn taking occurs day in and day out. While learning to take turns is a part of social emotional development, this can be a real challenge for some kids. Here, we’re covering all things turn taking: development, how to teach kids to take turns for functional independence and self-care, and turn taking activities.

      turn taking

      Turn Taking

      So what does turn taking mean? Turn taking, or the act of taking turns in a situation, conversation, or even means sharing space and time with another individual. Turn taking can look like many things:

      • Speaking and then listening when others speak in a conversation
      • Taking turns in a game
      • Taking turns in line to get a drink from a water fountain
      • Waiting one’s turn in a food like like in the cafeteria
      • Taking turns in speaking during circle time or sharing time in the classroom
      • Taking turns with a favorite toy
      • Waiting while others have an opportunity to receive services such as a food server in a restaurant
      • Waiting for one’s turn in a scheduled event such as at doctor’s appointments or waiting for one’s number to be called at the deli counter
      • Taking turns in moving situations such as when walking through a door or when turning at a stop sign
      • Sharing a responsibility such as when taking turns taking out the family garbage or caring for a family pet
      • Taking turns to get on or off a school bus, or while waiting in line at the car drop off line
      • Taking turns with a toy in the home or in the classroom
      • Taking turns using equipment like slides, swings

      As you can see, taking turns is part of daily life. There can be limitations to aspects of turn taking in some situations, for those with intellectual or behavioral considerations, particularly in the social circumstance of conversation or sharing a toy.

      Other circumstances that offer a more concrete environment such as waiting for one’s turn in a doctor’s office waiting room can be an opportunity to practice the components that allow for turn taking skills.

      Throughout a preschool day, children are expected to wait often. This could be while they wait for a snack, wait to go to the bathroom, wait during a transition, wait for a toy or wait for a turn in a game. As children become exposed to more opportunities to practice taking turns, they get better at it and more patient. But when they first start out, taking turns can be frustrating for children and teachers alike! This aspect of turn taking incorporates the working memory skill in transitions for children.

      Turn Taking in Conversation

      Turn Taking in Conversation- This component is one that is modeled, and a part of social emotional learning. Interrupting a conversation, speaking out of turn, and interrupting instruction is an important skill to understand.

      Turn taking in conversation is important for social reciprocity, but also safety. This skill requires auditory processing skills and receptive language skills.

      What is social reciprocity?

      Social reciprocity refers to the give and take of social interactions, including conversation, verbal interactions, or physical interactions.

      Social-emotional reciprocity (SER), or the give-and-take of a social interaction is also a part of the turn taking continuum. Social reciprocity refers to an individual’s ability to engage in social interactions between two or more people.

      This ability can be difficult or impossible for some individuals, and may be a consideration especially with some, but not all Autistic individuals.

      Taking turns with others, or social reciprocity, is a social emotional skill that is needed for many areas including learning, play, interacting in the community, conversation, and other areas. Let’s cover social reciprocity and how turn taking games or activities can be used to develop social emotional skills.

      Social reciprocity develops from birth. We see this when babies mimic facial expressions, or eye gaze. This interaction occurs with the parent or caregiver during feeding, but we see this give and take develop very quickly.

      Continued back-and-forth interactions occur through play, vocalizations, and in daily activities like during dressing, wake/sleep time, etc.

      With development of verbal communication, social reciprocity further expands, particularly as verbalizations progress from sounds, to words, to monologue communication, into a conversation.

      When children grow, typically we see a conversation ability expand. This develops as executive functioning, inpuarticular working memory skills, develop.

      We see references to previous conversations or information. We see social interactions in various situations. We see public speaking, or speaking out in a group. All of these are part of social reciprocity and the use of turn taking in social situations.

      For some of the individuals we work with, particularly Autistic individuals, we may see a preference to talk about one particular topic. The give and take of the conversation, or the reciprocity aspect is not there. It might be that they either do not respond to these social initiations because they do not realize that there is a back-and-forth aspect. Or, it could be that the social cues (such as verbal fluctuations, pauses in communication, eye-contact, and other nuances of a conversation or social situation are not addressed.  

      So, as you can see there is a huge social aspect to turn taking.

      Turn Taking Development

      Young children are learning new skills everyday, and even more-so when they are in groups with other children. A child’s environment can include a variety of objects that they would like to use the same time that others are using them.

      Taking turns isn’t a skill children are born knowing how to do. In fact, as babies, we are all very self-serving and aware of only individual needs. This developmentally, serves the infant and baby. Crying out is a survival instinct. There is no “turn taking” in sleeping through the night or wanting to be fed at all hours of the day!

      Turn taking develops as a skill through modeling and observation…and then practice with age.

      There are several developmental components that play a role in turn taking abilities:

      • Awareness of self
      • Awareness of others
      • Executive functioning (working memory, attention, task completion, etc.)
      • Intellectual awareness (first, then concepts)
      • Spatial awareness

      Young children learn how to share through ample opportunities and supported facilitation from adults. When children are in a group with other kids, opportunities to learn how to take turns or comes in a variety of forms, waiting for an object, waiting to participate in an activity and waiting for their turn when they are in a large group of children completing a similar task.

      Below, you will learn some simple ways to support turn taking activities using visuals.

      Turn taking activities

      Turn Taking Activities

      We can support turn taking skills through activities driven by modeling, practice, and play.

      Visual Supports- Visuals support children in understanding what another person wants. Visuals can be utilized with a parent-child relationship, a teacher-child relationship, and even a child – child relationship.

      As children learn more words, they are able to comprehend directions (both new and familiar), but before they learn meanings of words, visuals will help a message be communicated. 

      Other visual supports can include:

      Verbal supports- As an early childhood educator, I like to give children the opportunity to play with an object for as long as they would like without putting a time limit on it. I don’t use timers in my class to signify when a child has to be done with a toy.

      When children are playing with toys, they are using that object for a purpose, and it can be frustrating to hear a timer go off in the middle of their game. This can cause frustration from the child around having to end their play and some friction around the child that will be receiving the toy.

      Instead, we say the phrase “when you are all done, then _________ would like to play.” Typically a child is done using a toy within 15-20 minutes and the next child gladly accepts the toy. 

      Verbal supports can include:

      • Verbal prompts
      • Music or other auditory prompts
      • Modeling
      • Social stories

      activities to promote sharing and turn taking

      In the classroom environment, kids may have their first experience with turn taking and sharing.

      Here are my five favorite ways to teach sharing and turn taking with preschoolers.

      1.Use a turn taking chart. 

      When multiple children are excited about using a toy (such as the tricycle outside), it may take a while for one child to be done playing with that object. When there are multiple children waiting for one item, they tend to become frustrated because they don’t want to loose their spot in line.

      That is where the turn taking chart comes in!

      This chart is simple. It can be made with a chalkboard or white board, hung outside near a highly desired item. When multiple children are requesting an object, the adult can write their name in order on the white board. When one child is done with the object, the teacher can cross that name off and go to the next name on the list.

      This allows children to feel confident they can play with something else while they wait and they won’t be forgotten or skipped. As a bonus, this activity teaches written name recognition to children, as they learn how to read the list and find out when their turn will be.  

      2. Use turn taking cards.

      One of the most common times that “turn taking” becomes an issue in the preschool room, is when a child gets up to go to the bathroom or get a drink, and they come back to find the objects they were using have been swiped up by another child or put away by a teacher cleaning up.

      Turn taking cards are my favorite way to prevent this from happening. This simple 5×7 card has a child’s picture glued to the front and the words “ (child’s name)’s turn!)

      Every child in the classroom has one and they can place it on an object they are using if they need to step away for a minute but want to return to finish what they were doing.

      Children and teachers understand that the child is coming back to continue working and leave the object alone. A wonderful children’s book that has some more examples of turn taking cards is the book (Amazon affiliate link) “Sammy Learns to Share: A Lesson in Turn Taking!”

      3. Teach Large Group Turn Taking. 

      During large and small group activities, such as circle time, centers, specials classes (gym, music, etc.), lunch time, recess, or group activities, children have to wait their turn to participate.

      This could be waiting to share an idea during circle, stir the cookie dough at snack, or wait to be the Goose during Duck Duck Goose!

      There are some fun ways to visually share whose turn it is now and who will be next. If you are going around in a circle (which is often the easiest) the child whose turn it is can hold onto an object. This could be a  “speaking stick” or a “stirring chef’s hat” they are wearing for a cooking project.

      4. My turn Your turn cards- Printable cards that simply say “my turn” and “your turn” could also be used! When children are able to see whose turn it is and who will be next, their patience increases! 

      5. Turn taking routine charts.

      These visual boards are great to use during everyday routines, such as bathroom time, snack time or lunch time. I also add children’s pictures to these visuals, when practicing taking turns during routines.

      Add children’s pictures in a specific order, so the children know who is next to complete the daily task.

      Using visuals communicate to children what is expected of them and when. As they become used to the routine and taking turns, fading out this visual tool may be possible. 

      6. Play turn taking games.

      Turn taking games are fun ways to practice the skill of taking turns. I love giving children plenty of opportunities to practice taking turns with their peers and siblings. When young children have time to practice new skills, including social skills, they will become familiar and attentive to situations where they need to put these skills into practice.

      Luckily, the skill of taking turns and sharing time, space, and physical objects can be practiced with almost every game. This is especially great for toddlers through preschoolers and utilize items that you already have.

      Meltdowns with Taking turns or sharing

      What if after all of these strategies, kids are still frustrated with taking turns? You have probably seen a meltdown or temper tantrum because a child or even teenager or adult is asked or required to take turns or share.

      It’s important to remember with young children or individuals with Autism or other considerations, that turn taking is asking too much of the individual. There is not the ability to cognitively or physically see the reasoning to share or take turns.

      When a meltdown or temper tantrum occurs, what is going on behind the “behavior” or actions that we are seeing? It is likely that the physical or verbal responses to this request is inability to communicate one’s wishes or needs. Or, it could be that the individual simply does not see the reasoning for the turn taking or sharing request.

      Sometimes, children still have a hard time with waiting and taking turns. They could become upset and need a few moments to calm down or be redirected to a new activity.

      Addressing self-regulation tools as a strategy to address emotional regulation needs can help.

      The (Amazon affiliate link) Soothing Sammy Program is a wonderful way to support children in calming down if they become upset or overwhelmed. The sweet story begins with children visiting Sammy, a golden retriever, when they are frustrated, sad or mad. Sammy shares some calm down items with them (such as a drink of water, a squishy ball, a place to jump, etc).

      When the children are calm, Sammy helps them devise a plan so they can decide what happens next. In the back of the book, there are instructions on how to build your own Sammy house for your home, classroom or clinic, for the Sammy plush included in the program. Children can visit Sammy to calm down when they feel overwhelmed. You can find the full Soothing Sammy program here.

      Young children are just learning how to engage in play with peers and their social skills are also developing at a pace that sometimes seems frustrating to adults.

      As children are exposed to more opportunities to take turns, and are given the visuals and extra supports needed to learn how to respond to frustrating situations, they are able to adapt, learn new skills and eventually take turns with minimal interventions.

      Visual supports are a wonderful way to remind children that they are heard and that their turn is coming! Which visual supports are your favorite?

      Jeana Kinne is a veteran preschool teacher and director. She has over 20 years of experience in the Early Childhood Education field. Her Bachelors Degree is in Child Development and her Masters Degree is in Early Childhood Education. She has spent over 10 years as a coach, working with Parents and Preschool Teachers, and another 10 years working with infants and toddlers with special needs. She is also the author of the “Sammy the Golden Dog” series, teaching children important skills through play.

      Elf I Spy WOrksheet

      elf worksheet for elf I spy activities

      Are you looking for a holiday themed activity to address emotional regulation in the weeks leading up to Christmas?  This Elf I Spy worksheet is a great way to address emotional regulation, while working on visual perceptual skills at the same time! Print off the free I Spy printable and use it to build skills. This would even go REALLY well with an Elf on the Shelf coloring sheet to add to your holiday activities! This elf worksheet goes perfectly with our recent Santa I spy printable.

      Elf worksheet for working on emotions I spy with kids.

      Elf Printable

      Many students have experience with an elf arriving at their house this month so be prepared to hear all about the hijinks that might be going at home when you use this activity in your therapy sessions. 

      While the elf or other traditions can be fun and exciting for children, it can be hard for some people to manage the ups and downs of the holiday season.  This worksheet provides a framework for discussing all the emotions your students might be processing at this time of year.

      Maybe your elf on the shelf can deliver this worksheet from the North Pole as an easy elf themed activity that develops skills!

      Elf Emotions

      When you begin working with your students using the Elf I Spy printable as an emotions worksheet, focus your students attention to the bottom of the page.  It will be important for your students to study the elves first to be able to use their visual discrimination skills to identify the similarities and differences. 

      Some of the differences are quite subtle so encourage your students to notice the small differences like the shape of the eyes or mouth.

      The next step includes assigning a color to each of the elves at the bottom of the page.  You could let your students choose whatever colors they prefer or you could ask them to match the colors to the Zones of Regulation: red, yellow, green, and blue.  

      Once the colors have been assigned, it’s time to start visual scanning and coding the elves at the top of the page.  Encourage your students to scan in an organized way.  Students who struggle with executive functioning might have a hard time completing this task in an organized and efficient manner.  Here is an opportunity to provide some coaching on how to improve their execution of this visual task.  

      For students who struggle with visual perception, you could provide the following intervention strategies and accommodations:

      • Demonstrate how to use a tracking tool such as a ruler to help keep their place as they work
      • Try covering some of the elves with another piece of paper to limit the amount of visual information.  Move the paper down as they scan.

      Other ways to address Emotional Regulation

      The Zones of Regulation program is often used by school staff to address emotional regulation with students.  You may be wondering about other ways you can address emotional regulation during your therapy sessions.

      Mindfulness is a proven tool for promoting regulation in children as well as adults.  With the hustle and bustle of the holidays, it may be a great time to start incorporating a “mindful minute” into the beginning or end of your sessions with students.  A “mindful minute” is just what it sounds like!  Have your students find a comfortable position sitting on the floor or at the table. Take a deep breath and exhale. On the inhale, start a timer for 1 minute.  Count the number of breaths you take in and out in 1 minute.  For students who may have a hard time taking deep breaths, you could encourage them to lie on a yoga mat with a little stuffed animal resting on their belly.  Can they give the stuffed animal a ride as they take deep breaths in and out?  

      Here are some other mindfulness activities and resources:

      Another great strategy for promoting regulation is deep breathing.  Deep breathing encourages self regulation by sending a message to the brain to slow down.  Taking deep breaths is an effective way to calm the sympathetic nervous system.  Here are a couple more holiday themed deep breathing resources for you to print and use with your students:

      These are perfect to incorporate into your mindful minute or to use as students transition into your therapy space or back to the classroom.  

      Identify Elf emotions on the Elf Worksheet

      Asking your students to identify 2 tools for each zone using the elf emotions is another way you could extend this activity in your therapy sessions. 

      For example, what are some tools a silly elf could use to move from the yellow zone to the green zone?  Would deep breathing or stretching theraband help the elves regulate?  Have the students practice the tools that match up with each zone.  This will help them build their own tool box for self regulation!

      Free Elf Worksheet for I Spy Emotions

      Want to add this elf worksheet to your holiday therapy toolbox? Enter your email address into the form below and the printable will arrive in your email inbox. OR, if you are a Member’s Club member, just log into your account and find this and hundreds of other resources ready to download.

      Free Elf Emotions I Spy Worksheet

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        Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

        Looking for done-for you therapy activities this holiday season?

        This print-and-go Christmas Therapy Kit includes no-prep, fine motor, gross motor, self-regulation, visual perceptual activities…and much more… to help kids develop functional grasp, dexterity, strength, and endurance. Use fun, Christmas-themed, motor activities so you can help children develop the skills they need.

        This 100 page no-prep packet includes everything you need to guide fine motor skills in face-to-face AND virtual learning. You’ll find Christmas-themed activities for hand strength, pinch and grip, dexterity, eye-hand coordination, bilateral coordination, endurance, finger isolation, and more. 

        Printable Santa Emotion Worksheet

        Printable Santa Emotion Worksheet

        Want a printable Santa emotion worksheet designed to support facial expression identification? This Santa emotion PDF is just that! And even better yet, if you are looking for ways to address visual discrimination using visual scanning activities with your students, this Santa Claus Emotions I Spy will check all the boxes!  Not only will you be able to address visual discrimination and visual scanning skills with this fun printable, but you can easily incorporate many other skills addressed in occupational therapy including fine motor control and emotional regulation.  Not to mention, this feelings worksheet is an easy way to have some fun this Christmas season in your treatment sessions with your students!

        Kids will love this printable Santa emotion worksheet to work on emotion identification and visual discrimination skills.

        Visual discrimination is one skill that makes up our visual perception. Visual discrimination is an essential skill for students to participate in school in both their roles as a student for tasks such as reading and writing, as well as their role as a friend.  We use our visual discrimination skills to read others emotions or changes in the environment.   As you can see, it is so important to address visual discrimination skills using scanning activities. This printable Santa Emotion worksheet I Spy activity will make it easy!

        What is visual discrimination?

        Visual discrimintation is the ability to recognize similarities and differences between visual images or objects.  Visual discrimintation is an important skill for students in school because of its link to reading and writing.  When looking at words on the page, readers need to be able to discriminate between subtle differences in letters like “b” and “d” or “5” and “S”.  Providing opportunities to build visual perceptual skills helps students engage in their occupations as a student! 

        Why is visual scanning important?

        Visual discrimination is a component of visual perception, but in order for students to use visual discrimination skills effectively, they also need to use their visual scanning skills.  Visual scanning sends the visual information to the brain, visual discrimination tells us why that visual information is important.  In order for the visual system to work, we need both!  Visual scanning is an important component of visual perception and there are so many fun ways to address scanning in your treatment sessions.  Try marble painting, using a flashlight, or looking at a Christmas I Spy book to address visual scanning.

        As mentioned before, students also need to rely on visual discrimination skills when reading other’s emotions.  When you begin this activity with your students, start by reviewing the pictures of Santa at the bottom of the page.  Talk about the similarities in the pictures, then talk about the differences.  Have the students select a color to match with each emotion.  This would be a great place to include Zones of Regulation colors and terminology if you use that program.  Emotional regulation is essential for social participation and this is a great way to hit on that skill with your students.  

        identifying emotions worksheet with a Santa Theme!

        Once you have reviewed the visual information and the emotions and filled in the coordinating colors, now it’s time to start coding or coloring in the Santa faces!  As the student scans and discriminates each Santa, watch to see that their visual system is working to support their performance.  There are many ways you could adapt or modify this activity to meet the needs of your students. 

        Here are some ideas to support visual scanning:

        • Use another paper to cover some of the visual information
        • Teach a strategy to help scan by making a mark on the page to indicate which row they are working on
        • Use a ruler to help students keep their place as they are working

        More ways to use this feelings worksheets pdf

        • Use bingo daubers for students who have not yet developed fine motor precision skills
        • Use tape or sticky tack to secure the printable Santa emotion worksheet to a vertical or inclined surface to address shoulder strength
        • Set up a container of markers on one side of the room and put the worksheet on the other side.  Have the students use a scooter board back and forth to retrieve the markers they need.
        • Use tongs and pom poms or beads to work on fine motor skills at the same time

        If your focus is on emotional regulation, you can easily extend this activity to target the student’s ability to identify their emotions.  When discussing Santa’s emotions, ask your students to think of a time when they felt happy, sad, excited, or mad.  It may also be fun for students to think about the self regulation tools Santa might use to help him regulate his emotions throughout the Christmas season!

        Free Printable Santa Emotion Worksheet

        Do you know a kiddo that would love this printable Santa emotion worksheet? You can download this emotions PDF and start working on skills like visual discrimination, scanning, coloring, feelings identification, and more!

        Free Santa Emotions I Spy Worksheet

          We respect your privacy. Unsubscribe at anytime.

          Katherine Cook is an occupational therapist with 20 years experience primarily working in schools with students from preschool through Grade 12.  Katherine graduated from Boston University in 2001 and completed her Master’s degree and Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study at Tufts University in 2010.  Katherine’s school based experience includes working in integrated preschool programs, supporting students in the inclusion setting, as well as program development and providing consultation to students in substantially separate programs.  Katherine has a passion for fostering the play skills of children and supporting their occupations in school.