Games and Activities that Build Self-Regulation Skills
Posted on February 8, 2023 by CHS
Self-regulation is the ability to control impulses and behavior, focus, identify emotions, and respond appropriately to people and situations. Children with good self-regulation skills can manage their own behavior and are more likely to succeed in school. Self-regulation is an ability that grows over time. It is shaped by life experiences, relationships, and knowledge learned from infancy throughout our lives. You can make the development of self-regulation skills fun by using games and activities that engage children in play.
Support infants in developing self-regulation through the use of positive interactions and consistent routines. For example, when an infant cries to signal discomfort, your response creates a learning experience for the infant. If you approach the infant, smile, gently stroke their arm, and say in a pleasant voice, “I hear you crying, and I’m here to help,” then the infant learns to trust help will come. This allows them to learn how to soothe themselves as they wait for help. In time, the sound of your voice alone will calm the infant’s cries because they will know help is on the way. These responses build trust and teach infants what to expect from caregivers.
Continue building self-regulation skills by using consistent routines, offering opportunities to be independent, labeling emotions, and role modeling strategies for self-control. For example, giving toddlers spoons to feed themselves builds independence. If they are hungry, they might ignore the spoon and eat with their hands, but in time they will learn to pause and be patient enough to use the spoon. Playing music such as If You’re Happy and You Know It or The Freeze by Greg and Steve can help toddlers learn to control their bodies and emotions.
By age four, children’s experiences have taught them how to regulate much of their own behavior. This can be seen in their ability to share materials, take turns, and work cooperatively, such as on a group project. You can continue to support self-regulation skills by building emotional literacy, practicing strategies for coping with emotions and stressful situations, role modeling strategies for handling conflicts, providing opportunities for learning through play, and teaching children how to relax. Use the following games, activities, and strategies to support children in developing self-regulation skills.
Games, Activities, and Strategies:
- Practice identifying emotions to teach children how to express their feelings in healthy ways. Attach pictures of emotions to a keyring you can carry with you. Children can flip through the pictures and show you how they feel, or you can make a game out of it by seeing how fast they can name the emotions or think of a way to handle each emotion.
- Use puppets or stuffed animals to role model how to express emotions and act out situations where there is a conflict to negotiate with a friend.
- Read children’s books about emotions and behavior to start discussions and introduce coping strategies to children.
- Encourage children to practice deep breathing skills when they are calm and able to learn. Talk about how deep breathing can help us feel calm when we are angry, frustrated, or sad. Teach children how to breathe in through their nose, and out through their mouth. One easy technique is for children to cup both hands palms up under their nose and pretend it is a bowl of hot soup. They can inhale to smell the soup, and exhale to cool the soup. You can also use the Sesame Street Belly Breathe song to remind children to practice deep breathing.
- Help children learn to cope with stress and setbacks by teaching them how to slow down, remain calm, and make a plan. For example, create an “I Plan” they can use when facing a problem. “I stop. I breathe. I think. I act.” Cut out solution kit cards and put them on a key ring. Children can look at possible solutions when they are ready to make a plan, and choose one to try.
- Yoga and other stretching activities give children the opportunity to practice controlling both their bodies and their breathing. This activity also improves balance, flexibility, and spatial awareness. Start with some of the poses in this free Shape of Yoga book. There are also links to yoga videos for kids below.
- Play or sing music where children have to listen (wait) and respond, like in the songs Bingo, Toom-bah-ee-lero, Tooty Ta, or Scat Like That.
- Turn-taking activities such as blowing bubbles, hopscotch, jump rope, hand clapping games, board games, obstacle courses, passing games like hot potato, and ball games.
- Try playing games that require children to stop and start their whole bodies. Some games to try are Freeze Tag, Simon Says, follow the leader games, and Red Light, Green Light.
- Play with games or work on projects that encourage children to slow down and move with precision. Examples include: building with snap together blocks, connect the dots puzzles, lacing cards, crafting or art projects, building models, and playing dexterity games like Jenga, Pick Up Sticks, or Perfection (often available in your public library).
- Make a mindful jar children can use to soothe themselves. Children can use mind jars to help calm their thoughts and relax. Explain that shaking the jar represents anxious or busy thoughts. Ask children to take deep breaths as they watch the glitter settle and feel their minds calm down. To make a mindful jar, you will need a clear jar with a tight lid, water, clear glue or glitter glue, and dry glitter. Fill the jar about ¾ full with water, then add glue and glitter until it is full. Glue the lid on tight, and you’re all set.
- Develop a routine for relaxing before bed. Choose one or two activities for winding down at the end of the day that you can do together as a family. For example, read a bedtime story like Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, sing a favorite lullaby, listen to relaxing music, do some deep breathing together, or listen to a short meditation for kids.
References and Resources
- Children’s Printable Book List to Promote Social and Emotional Development by the National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI); or access their searchable database of books
- Dexterity Games for the Family (video) by Play the Game HQ
- DIY Mikado Pick Up Sticks Game (tutorial video) by Animaplates
- Easy DIY Lacing Cards for Toddlers and Preschoolers by Live Well Play Together
- Feeling Faces Cards in English and Spanish by the National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI)
- Fifty-Nine Free Connect the Dots Worksheets from the Spruce Crafts
- Game Library by Playworks (Instructions for Simon Says, Freeze Tag, Hot Potato, and Red Light, Green Light)
- Self-Regulation Skills: Breathing Strategies in English or Spanish by the National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI)
- Sesame Street in Communities: Exploring Emotions (resources)
- Sesame Street in Communities: Self-Regulation (resources)
- Shape of Yoga PDF booklet by the California Department of Public Health in English or Spanish
- Solution Kit: Classroom Edition (Spanish) and Home Edition (Spanish) by the National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI)
- Take Five Mindfulness: Make a Mindful Jar video and printable instructions from Mission Healthy Kids
- Ten Classic Handclapping Games to Teach Your Kid by Parents Today
- Twenty Classic Ball Games article by VeryWell Family
Music Videos and Recordings for Kids
- Belly Breathe by Sesame Street
- Bingo by Super Simple Songs
- If You’re Happy and You Know It by Jack Hartman
- Me Want It (But Me Wait) song with Cookie Monster by Sesame Street
- Move and Freeze by the Learning Station
- Scat Like That by Greg and Steve
- Stop and Think Song by Sesame Street
- The Freeze by Greg and Steve
- Toom-bah-ee-lero by Ella Jenkins
- Tooty Ta by Dr. Jean
Educational Videos for Kids
- ABCs of Yoga for Kids (ages 4 and up, 10 minutes) with Teresa Power
- Five Minute Guided Meditation for Kids by Flaxseeds and Fairytales
- Ian McKellen Teaches Cookie Monster to Resist by Sesame Street
- Jon Hamm and Murray Get Emotional by Sesame Street
- Name That Emotion with Murray by Sesame Street
- Sea Otter Cove: A Relaxation Story for Bedtime by Stress Free Kids
- The Waiting Game with Guy Smiley by Sesame Street
- Top 3 Yoga Poses for Toddlers in Training (ages 2 and up, 3 minutes) with Teresa Power
- Yoga for Beginners (ages 3 and up, 20 minutes) with Yoga Ed.
- Yoga for Kids (ages 4 and up, 25 minutes) with Sophia Khan from Storyhive
- Zac Efron and Elmo: Patience by Sesame Street