Babies Walkers to 2 2s to 3s 3s to 4s

Overview and benefit

In order to grow up as kind and caring adults it is very important that young children learn empathy for others. Children learn to interpret how others are feeling by their behaviour and facial expressions – it is an important part of non-verbal communication. Young children recognise the basic emotions first ‘Happy’, ‘Sad’, ‘Angry’ and ‘Scared’. Helping the children to recognise these basic emotions will help them explore and control their own emotions.

Equipment required

exploring emotions balls picture

  • Large photos of children’s faces
  • Face balls (see picture – these are simply ball pit balls with faces drawn on in permanent pen)
  • Containers for the balls (depending on version used)
  • Parachute (depending on version used)

Link to resources

Training Videos

Exploring Emotions from MAD Academy on Vimeo.


Two to three weeks

How it works

Each child will have a collection of face balls and some photos of children with various facial expressions. The carer and child will examine the balls and pictures and discuss which ones are happy and sad.

What to do in the class

Explain to the carers that this exercise is designed to help the children identify emotions in others using their facial expressions. Explain to the parents that when doing any of the activities described below it is important for them to talk to their child about how they can tell what the face is showing (e.g. crying, tears, upturned mouth, down-turned eyes etc)

There are a variety of different ways you can explore happy and sad faces in class.

Version 1

In the pictures file there are lots of photos of children’s faces showing either happiness or sadness. There are also 2 pictures with the word ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ on, along with the corresponding icon.

Put the icon/word pictures for happy and sad on opposite walls of the hall. Put a container under each picture. Put you happy/sad balls in 2 labelled containers in the middle of the hall. Have the parents and children standing around you and the containers. Explain that you are going to show them a picture of a child who is either happy or sad and the parent and child must look at the picture and discuss which they think it is. Now show them one of the faces photos. Once the child and parent have decided which emotion they think the photo is showing, they go and gets the relevant ball (happy or sad( from the centre and run to the corresponding wall (either happy or sad) and put it in the container under the picture. They then come back and the instructor shows another picture to the class. Whilst waiting for all the children to return, the instructor can tell those who have already returned if they were right and ask the children to make a similar face as the picture and perhaps ask what might have made the person in the photo feel happy or sad. When everyone is back, they show another picture.

Version 2

Have some happy and sad music prepared (see tips below). Place the photos of the faces on the walls around the room. Place a container (a bucket or ice-cream box) underneath each picture. Put on the happy music and explain that first we are going to find the happy faces. Have a large container of happy balls in the centre of the room. Each parent and child takes a happy ball and chooses a picture on the wall which they think shows someone who is happy. They put their ball in the container under that picture and return to collect another ball and repeat. The adults help the child to decide which is the happy picture and also find the happy ball. Next put on the sad music, help the child find the sad pictures and match them with the sad ball.

Make sure that the music is playing fairly quietly in the background to leave room for the adults to talk with the children.

Version 3

Seated – Have all the children and parents seated in a circle. Have a mixture of happy and sad balls in a bucket and pass it around the circle. The parent takes a ball and makes the corresponding face. The children have to guess whether it is happy or sad. Then they could all try to make a happy or sad face back.

Standing – Or to make it more physical, have the children run to the other side of the room to retrieve a ball from a bucket. Then run back to their parent and ‘make the face on the ball’ so the parent has to guess which one it is.

Version 4

Have the children and parents in a large circle holding the parachute. Put on some happy music and put all the balls (20 with happy and 20 with sad faces on) on the parachute. Ask the children and parents to make a happy face and ask what makes them happy (really just expecting the parents to answer). Now work together to flip all the balls off the parachute. Now ask the children to go and find all the ‘happy’ faces and bring them back to you until you have all 20 back again. The following week you could repeat with the sad music and faces.

Adaptations for 2s to 4s

More verbal children should be able to discuss the things that make them happy/sad using the photos as prompts.

What to do in a nursery setting

Show each photograph in turn to the children, give the children three balls each, get them to hold up the ball with the emotion that matches the picture. Discuss as a group what makes the children happy, sad and angry. Discuss with the children whether the music matches the emotion in the picture.


Musical suggestions – Happy

  • Happy from Despicable Me
  • Mexican Hat Dance
  • Minute Waltz – Chopin

Musical suggestions – Sad

  • Prelude in C Minor – Chopin
  • Concerto de Arunjuez – Rodrigo
  • Sicilienne – Faure