Facial expressions for kids:

Games to help children decipher emotion

© 2009 - 2014 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Reading facial expressions isn't the be-all and end-all of social intelligence. People rely on a variety of information to understand other individuals, including tone of voice (Paulmann and Uskul 2014), body language (Aviezer et al 2012), and contextual cues (Aguert et al 2013).

Nevertheless, your ability to decode faces has important consequences, and may be linked with several measures of success and social competence. Research suggests that kids who have more trouble identifying emotion in faces are more likely to have peer problems and learning difficulties (Goodfellow and Nowicki 2009). Children with stronger face-reading skills may achieve more popularity at school (Leppänen and Hietanen 2001). And experiments hint that people who are better at identifying fearful expressions are more kind and generous (e.g., Marsh et al 2007).

But is all this merely a question of talent? Probably not.

First, it's clear that kids develop their ability to read faces over time. Researchers in Japan (Naruse et al 2013) and Italy (Mancini et al 2013) have confirmed that school-age children become more accurate as they get older.

Second, experiments suggest you can teach kids about facial expressions. In one study, researchers gave typically-developing elementary school students training in the identification and self-production of facial cues. After only 6 half-hour sessions, children improved their ability to read emotions compared with controls (Grinspan et al 2003).

How might we apply this research in our daily lives?

Face 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 expression. Ideally, try to use multiple models for each emotion.

Your collection should include expressions of:

  • happy
  • sad
  • fear
  • anger
  • disgust
  • surprise

These are Paul Ekman’s basic emotions, and the 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.

These include:

Imitating and guessing about faces

Facial mimicry isn't just an exercise in theater. Research suggests that it also helps us identify emotions and experience empathy (Sato et al 2013). So try this:  Shuffle the cards and put them face down. The first player picks a card, keeps it to herself, and then mimics the expression on the card. The other player(s) have to guess the correct emotion.

Explaining emotions

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 cow manure."


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.


Aguert M, Laval V, Lacroix A, Gil S, and Le Bigot L. 2013. Inferring emotions from speech prosody: not so easy at age five. PLoS One. 8(12):e83657. 

Aviezer H, Trope Y, and Todorov A. 2012. Body cues, not facial expressions, discriminate between intense positive and negative emotions. Science. 338(6111):1225-9.

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.

Goodfellow S and Nowicki S. 2009. Social adjustment, academic adjustment, and the ability to identify emotion in facial expressions of 7-year-old children. J Genet Psychol. 170(3):234-43.

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.

Leppänen JM and Hietanen JK. 2001. Emotion recognition and social adjustment in school-aged girls and boys. Scand J Psychol. 42(5):429-35.

Mancini G, Agnoli S, Baldaro B, Bitti PE, Surcinelli P. 2013. Facial expressions of emotions: recognition accuracy and affective reactions during late childhood. J Psychol. 147(6):599-617.

Marsh AA, Kozak MN, and Ambady N. 2007. Accurate identification of fear facial expressions predicts prosocial behavior. Emotion. 7(2):239-51.

Naruse S, Hashimoto T, Mori K, Tsuda Y, Takahara M, and Kagami S. 2013. Developmental changes in facial expression recognition in Japanese school-age children. J Med Invest. 60(1-2):114-20.

Paulmann S and Uskul AK 2014. Cross-cultural emotional prosody recognition: Evidence from Chinese and British listeners. Cogn Emot. 28(2):230-44.

Sato W, Fujimura T, Kochiyama T, and Suzuki N. 2013. Relationships among facial mimicry, emotional experience, and emotion recognition. PLoS One. 8(3):e57889.

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