Teaching kids about emotions: Games with facial expressions
© 2009 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
The evidence is accumulating: Good social skills may depend on the ability to decipher facial expressions, particularly expressions in the eye region (DeClerk and Bogart 2008).
Moreover, studies hint that people who are better at identifying fearful expressions are also more kind and generous (Marsh et al 2007).
But is this merely a question of talent? Apparently not.
In one study, researchers gave typically-developing elementary school kids training in the identification and self-production of facial expression cues.
After only 6 half-hour sessions, kids improved their ability to read emotions compared with controls (Grinspan et al 2003).
How might we apply this research in your daily life?
Facial expression flash cards
Collect photographs of people making different facial expressions. To make your own, get some models and ask them to do a little method acting, recalling a situation when they felt the target emotion and then making the corresponding facial expression. Ideally, try to use multiple models for each emotion.
Your collection should include expressions of:
These are Paul Ekman’s basic emotions, and the facial expressions people use to communicate them seem to be rather similar across cultures (Ekman 1973).
You can also add more subtle emotional expressions, like those associated with boredom or pride. Such expressions are probably more variable across cultures.
Before using your new cards with kids, test them out on adults, asking them to guess what emotion each expression represents. Throw out pictures that adults have difficulty identifying.
When you have a good set of photos, turn them into cards. One way to do this is to attach a copy of each photo to heavy card stock, and then laminate them. For a cheap alternative to lamination, cover the cards with transparent packing tape instead.
Alternatively, you can buy cards especially designed for the purpose.
Games to play
Although you can use them as flash cards, there are also several games you can play.
Imitating and guessing about faces
Shuffle the cards and put them face down. The first player picks a card, keeps it to herself, and then mimics the facial expression on the card. The other player(s) have to guess the correct emotion.
Explaining facial expressions
In this simple game, players take turns picking a card from the deck and inventing a reason for the facial expression displayed. For example, if the player picks a card with a woman showing disgust, the player might say “She just stepped in dog poop.”
Here’s a game that can be played solitaire. The idea is match each facial expression card with a situation that might evoke the emotion.
For the game to work, you’ll need to create a second set of cards, each depicting an emotion-evoking situation.
The images can come from a number of sources. If you're artistic, you can draw your own. Alternatively, stage and photograph "live" scenarios. Or use free photos or clip art you can find on the web. Whichever approach you take, make sure the action in the picture is easy to interpret. And, if there is a protagonist in the picture, make sure his face is concealed.
Here are some ideas for scenarios:
• A person receiving a gift
• Someone running from a threat
• A foot being stepped on
• An ice cream cone that has fallen on the ground (rendering it inedible)
• A tower created from toy blocks being kicked over
• A person being snubbed or ignored by others
Some situation cards may evoke multiple emotions.
Collaborative, improvisational storytelling
To play this game, put the cards face down on the table. Then players decide together on some story elements must appear in the story (e.g., an arctic wasteland, a lemur, and a banana). The goal is for the players to take turns making up the narrative, building on each others ideas and (eventually) making use of all the required story elements.
To begin, first player picks a card, and starts the narrative. He can take the story into any direction he likes, but he must incorporate the emotion depicted on the card. After a minute or two, the next player picks a card and continues the narrative. Players continue to take turns until they have used all the required story elements and reached a satisfying conclusion.
References: Facial expressions
Declerck CH, Bogaert S. 2008. Social value orientation: related to empathy and the ability to read the mind in the eyes. J Soc Psychol. 148(6):711-26.
Ekman P. 1973. Cross-cultural studies of facial expression. In P. Ekman (ed): Darwin and facial expression: A century of research in review. New York: Academic Press.
Grinspan D, Hemphill A, and Nowicki S Jr. 2003. Improving the ability of elementary school-age children to identify emotion in facial expression. J Genet Psychol. 164(1):88-100.
Marsh AA, Kozak MN, and Ambady N. 2007. Accurate identification of fear facial expressions predicts prosocial behavior. Emotion. 7(2):239-51.
Content last modified 5/10