Kids can learn that a happy face means feelings of joy.

How to Teach Toddlers Emotions With Pictures

by Kathryn Hatter

Facial expressions are a universal method of communication, telling the world exactly how you feel by the screwed-up look on your face. The National Association for the Education of Young Children advises that the more describing words for feelings your child knows, the more likely she'll be to talk about her feelings. The good news is that this extensive vocabulary should help avoid those nasty meltdowns at your feet when she's frustrated.

Browse through old magazines with your toddler to find images of people showing different emotions. Look for pictures showing happy, mad, sad, surprised, fearful, nervous, irritated, bored and disgusted to create flash cards with the most common emotions. Cut out the heads or faces of the pictures. Glue the pictures onto index cards.

Sit with your toddler in a comfy chair with your stack of homemade emotion flash cards. Tell your little one that we can often tell how people feel just by looking at their faces to notice how their eyebrows, eyes and mouth look. Begin by looking at one of the cards and giving a name for the emotion depicted in the picture. Say it a couple more times and ask your toddler to say the word, too. Go through the whole stack of flash cards, naming and repeating each emotion. Practice this naming activity as often as your little one feels cooperative -- once a day at least.

Move on to quizzing your toddler about the emotions in the pictures. Ask her what the person in the picture is feeling. If she gives the right answer, give her lots of positive feedback. If she doesn't quite nail it, tell her what emotion you think you see in the picture. Keep going through the flash cards until you get back to the top of the pile. Do it again, if your toddler wants to repeat the activity.

Ask your little one to pick a flash card and copy the emotion she sees on the card for you to guess what it is. For example, if she picks the "surprised" flash card, she might raise her eyebrows, make her eyes big and screw up her mouth into a little "O." You'll guess "surprised," and she'll squeal with pleasure. Take your turn next, and pick a flash card. Make your face look like the card, creating a "sad" face for your toddler to guess. Chances are, she'll be able to shout out the right answer when she sees your downturned face.

Point out emotions in the people around you. When watching a movie, pause it to show a character's mad face and ask your toddler to identify the emotion. When reading books, ask your toddler to tell you what the characters are feeling by looking at their faces. You might even people-watch with your little one at the park or the mall, commenting on how various strangers might be feeling by their expressions. By practicing the skills of noticing and deciphering emotions, your little one will be an expert in no time.

Items you will need

  • Old magazines
  • Scissors
  • Glue
  • Index cards


  • Another option for flash cards: Take pictures of family members making various faces. Print out the pictures and attach them to index cards.

About the Author

Kathryn Hatter is a veteran home-school educator, as well as an accomplished gardener, quilter, crocheter, cook, decorator and digital graphics creator. As a regular contributor to Natural News, many of Hatter's Internet publications focus on natural health and parenting. Hatter has also had publication on home improvement websites such as Redbeacon.

Photo Credits

  • Ryan McVay/Lifesize/Getty Images