Painting a self-portrait can help your preschooler understand her feelings.

Exploring Feelings With Children Using Paint

by Martha Mendenhall

As frustrating as it may be at times, your preschooler’s display of strong emotions is developmentally right on target. Look on the bright side: Fierce, angry determination to wear that ready-to-be-laundered shirt can suddenly shift into joyful laughter at his new puppy’s antics. Your youngster is developing the cognitive awareness to recognize and label his and others’ feelings, so assist him in understanding emotions through a variety of painting activities.


Looking into a mirror and painting what she sees will put your preschooler in touch with what she looks like when she’s mad, sad or glad. Get out the paper, brushes and paints and give her an opportunity to put on paper what she sees reflected in a mirror. Ask questions such as, “What is your glad face?” or “How do you look when you are mad?” Let her glare or smile into the mirror and record what she sees with paint. Help her capture the details by pointing out, for example, what her eyebrows are doing when she changes her expression. She can label, with your assistance, each self-portrait she paints with its corresponding feeling.

Colorful Emotions

Set out paper, brushes and a selection of primary colors – blue, green, yellow and red – in clear plastic cups. Talk with your preschooler about the emotions he associates with things that are colored blue, green, yellow and red. If, for example, he associates red with fire trucks, he might connect them with feelings of excitement or fear. If he associates yellow with the sun, he might connect it to feelings of pleasure or happiness. Have him take the colors, one at a time, and paint his expression of each color’s feeling. Encourage him to paint with strokes that add further expression to each color's feeling -- long swooshes of color for happiness or little dots of color for anger, for example.

Symbol Painting

Your preschooler is making symbolic associations every time she sees a picture of a cake and thinks of birthdays or thinks of family beach vacations when she sees a bucket and shovel. Use a picture book to investigate what symbols your youngster associates with certain emotions. Refer to a page with a selection of images on it, and ask her questions such as “Which one is happy?” or “Where do you see sadness?” Let her paint the images that symbolically connect her to specific feelings. If, for example, a house stands for happiness to her, let her create a scene that features her happy house at its center.

Empathetic Painting

Developmentally, preschoolers are beginning to understand and empathize with the feelings of others. Assist your youngster in this growth by providing him an opportunity to paint the feelings of his favorite movie, web series or TV character. Let him watch a snippet of the show, prompting him to notice the character’s feelings. Have him label and paint his own rendition of that character's emotion, encouraging him to choose facial expressions and colors that signify the feeling he most associates with his favorite character.

Photo Credits

  • Katy McDonnell/Digital Vision/Getty Images