Mimicking faces helps your toddler recognize emotions.

Emotion Games for Toddlers

by Cara Batema

A toddler’s emotions are a bit like weather in the Midwest -- if you don’t like it, wait five minutes and it’ll change. Toddlers are notorious for mood swings, and they often experience emotions they don’t understand yet; welcome to the number one cause for temper tantrums. Playing emotion games with your toddler will help him better understand his emotions and practice skills for emotional regulation.


Your toddler is getting smarter and more capable, so use his ability to play matching games to your advantage. Make or purchase a set of flash cards that have pictures of real people or drawings to depict various emotions, including neutral, happy, sad, surprise, anger, fear and disgust. These emotions make up psychologist Paul Ekman’s basic emotions, which are fairly consistent across cultures, says Gwen Dewar of Parenting Science. You should have two cards for each emotion. Place one set face up so you can see each card, and place the other set face down in a pile. Let your toddler pick a card from the pile and match it to the corresponding card that is face up. Alternatively, you can have a set of emotion cards and another set of cards with a situation that might evoke certain emotions. Let your toddler match the emotion cards to the scenario. Make the game fun and silly, sometimes. Pretend to match a sad card with a picture of a person receiving a present and let your adamant toddler tell you that you’re wrong and it’s really the happy card you want.

Making Faces

Your toddler is no stranger to crinkling his nose in disgust when you put vegetables in front of him or furrowing his brow when he angrily shouts, “No!” Use the same emotion cards for matching to encourage your toddler to make faces. You and your toddler each pick a card and mimic the emotion you see. Name the emotion and even add a little story as to why you feel that emotion. For example, pretend to look scared and say, “I’m scared because I think there’s a monster under my bed.”


Children’s stories are full of characters in a whirlwind of emotions. When you read to your toddler, point at the pictures and ask, “Look at Tommy. How do you think he feels?” Your toddler might say, “He’s sad.” Follow up with a question about why your toddler thinks he’s sad, and your toddler could respond, “He’s sad because he’s crying.” Make the reading game more active by asking your toddler to act out the emotions. If the character is sad, ask your toddler what he could do to make himself happy.

Role Play

Whether or not you have a future diva in your midst, your child’s ability to pretend is a skill developed in the toddler years, so encourage it. Use hand puppets or stuffed animals to role play a particular situation with your child. For example, act out a situation where the characters have to share, and add names to emotions by saying, “I’m frustrated because I don’t want to share my toy.” You can even have your characters pretend to throw a tantrum. Ask your toddler what your character could do next time instead of having a fit. Act out the alternate option.

Modified Favorite Games

If you’re not feeling wildly imaginative, there’s no need to come up with new games every time your toddler tugs on your jeans and begs to play. Try a “Simon Says” game, but instead of an action like hopping on one leg, say something like, “Simon says make a happy face.” This activity gives your child practice making faces, and you can also use activities like stomping around because you’re angry or jumping because you’re excited. You can also draw emotion faces on a bingo board and play bingo with feelings.

About the Author

Cara Batema is a musician, teacher and writer who specializes in early childhood, special needs and psychology. Since 2010, Batema has been an active writer in the fields of education, parenting, science and health. She holds a bachelor's degree in music therapy and creative writing.

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