Extending vocabulary when talking or listening to children is a good way to develop their emotional language. Margaret Collins describes two ways of doing this.

The ‘draw and talk’ activity
This activity is adapted from the draw and write research technique for schoolchildren, which was developed by the late Noreen Wetton of the University of Southampton. It is a useful activity to help children to discuss their feelings, initially in private with an adult. They need to know that first they will draw something at your instruction, and that when they have finished their drawing they will go to an adult individually to talk about what they have drawn, who they have drawn and how the people in their picture are feeling. It is important to make sure that children are willing to share their pictures and feelings with the rest of the group or class. No unwilling child should be persuaded to share their work.

In small groups, or as a whole class, ask the children to draw a person in a situation that will allow them to explore that person’s feelings – for example, a positive situation such as someone at a birthday party, at a barbecue, going on holiday or a negative situation such as someone in danger, running away, scared or worried. If you are concerned about some feeling or activity that is an issue for one or more of your children, you could use that specific issue – for example, someone hurting another child, someone not sharing, someone being unkind.

While the children are drawing, remind them about the situation you have asked them to illustrate and ask them to think about how the people in their picture are feeling. You may like to prepare yourself by writing down some prompt questions to help the children to explain their pictures.

For example, ask the children, perhaps in small groups, to draw a person getting up on Christmas morning (or another festival day relevant to your children) and finding their stocking filled with things. Ask them to draw other people in their picture and to think about how they are feeling. As they are drawing, remind them to think of the feelings of everyone in the picture. As the children finish they should bring you their pictures. Ask them to place them at the bottom of a pile and find another activity to do. You, or another member of your team, then select the top picture, call that child to you to talk about the picture. It is useful if you can talk in private so that children don’t influence each other on what they say.

First, ask them to tell you about their picture and the people that they have drawn before you ask any prompt questions. In this case the prompts could be:

  • How does your person feel when they first find the stocking?
  • How would they feel if the stocking were empty?
  • How do they feel when they put their hand inside and bring out the first toy?
  • How do the other people in your picture feel when they see them doing this?

Write in a corner of the child’s picture all the ‘feelings words’ they use. When everyone has talked about their picture, come together in circle time to share and use their feelings words.

If you wanted to do this activity under strict research conditions, you could count up the numbers of the feelings words used by each child, or the words used within the whole group and the numbers of times that they had used them. You could do this by writing down each feelings word and putting a tick alongside it when other children have used it. This would provide baseline data for a repeat session later in the term. You may decide to work on specific kinds of feelings, helping the children to broaden their vocabulary. If you repeat the same activity, you could again count the number of times the feelings words are used in order to see if the children are using more descriptive words for that situation.

Stories or rhymes
These provide the perfect arena in which to explore feelings and extend emotional vocabulary. Use books that you know, read the story through and enjoy it and then go back to parts where the character has shown some feeling or come to some decision. Ask the children to suggest words that will show how this person is feeling at this point. Collect their words and talk about them. Ask them to suggest what the person might do next and how they would feel if they did this. Collect and talk about these words. Then ask them what they would have done if they had been in the story – could they have helped? What would they say to the character? For example, in the story of Cinderella, use the following scenes:

  • Cinderella is not allowed to go to the ball – how does she feel? What can she do? How could they help? What would they say?
  • Cinderella’s fairy godmother helps her to look beautiful and go to the ball – now how does she feel? What would they say?
  • Cinderella has to leave the ball and her clothes turn back into rags again – how does she feel now? What can she do? What would they say to her?

Do you really use nursery rhymes, or just sing or chant them? There are lots of feelings in these common rhymes, for example, how did Jack feel when he fell down the hill? How did Jill feel? How did Miss Muffett feel when she saw the spider? How did the spider feel?

When children help to make wall pictures of the stories or rhymes you use, these can be enhanced if you add all the feelings words around the picture – and keep on drawing the children’s attention to these feelings!
And remember: every time you listen to or talk with a child or children is another opportunity to develop their emotional language skills.