Teaching children about personal space and fostering self-regulation is arguably an early childhood educator’s most important job. Research tells us that children with strong social-emotional skills have more positive relationships, are happier, and are more successful academically than children who exhibit social/emotional difficulties. Children who are mentally healthy are generally more self-aware, that is, they understand their own thoughts, feelings, and actions, and how those things affect other people. The more self-aware you are, the more you understand your impact on other people. How, then, do we help young children begin to think about boundaries and self-reflect? How can we support them in naming their emotions and overcoming challenges? Here are 6 simple activities to get you started:
Provide opportunities for children to share items from home
We all know that young children like to bring favorite toys and other precious items from home to school. Sometimes it’s difficult for children to share these items. Nurture opportunities for sharing by having “Show and Share” instead of “Show and Tell.” Choose a day each month for children to bring in an item from home to share. Make options for this special item broad. For example, you might frame this as an opportunity for children to bring in a special photograph or photo album, stuffed animal or toy, CD, dress-up outfit, board game, puzzle, etc. Help children understand that they will want to choose an item that is special and that they are willing to share. Explain that each child will have an opportunity to name and say what they enjoy about the item. Invite the other children to ask questions. Once everyone has shown their item, break children into groups of two or three to exchange and share items. After a short time, mix up the groups so children can share with different people.
Use props to define personal space during movement and play
Personal space and self-awareness go hand in hand—when children can name their feelings, they can control their actions. When a child is struggling to name anger, they might hit. Or, when a shy child struggles to make friends, they might sit too close to children during circle time. Support children’s understanding of personal space by defining space for them. Use carpet squares, hula hoops, sheets of newspaper/cardboard, or painter’s tape to mark safe or comfortable distances during activities. For example, many educators use carpet squares during circle time to help children know where to sit and where to hold their bodies. (Home improvement stores may be willing to donate carpet squares to your setting.) Additionally, you can mark a space for each child by making shapes with painter’s tape. Consider practicing personal space during movement activities by laying down hula hoops for children to dance or jump inside of. Help them notice where their bodies are in relation to others. You may also want to try this Newspaper Dancing activity to help children understand space in general. Though this activity mentions fractions, you can revise it to make it suitable for small children by helping them understand what it means to dance in a comfortable space (when the newspaper is a full sheet) versus moving in a confined space (when the newspaper is folded). Children will become more self-aware the more you practice keeping personal space.
Play games that balance teamwork with individual effort
Playing games in early childhood often focuses on supporting children in learning to win or lose gracefully. However, game playing can also support the development of self-awareness in that some games encourage children to think about how their actions influence others. For example, games such as Jenga® or The Telephone Game, where everyone stands in line and one person whispers a word or phrase and sends it down the line, support self-awareness. In both instances, children have to work together to ensure the success of the team, but they also have to exercise a strong level of individual patience to participate. Another activity to try with children is a hula hoop balance. For this game, you would partner children or have them work in groups of three to move a hula hoop, by propping it on their fingertips, from one side of a space to the other. Some children will be tempted to hold the hula hoop completely with their hands, while others will want to move at a pace much faster than the group. Children will also need to be spread out around the hula hoop to move it successfully, which reinforces the importance of personal space. Continued practice of such activities will strengthen children’s self-awareness.
Make a “Pass the Feeling Bag“
Early childhood professors Jeannie Ho and Suzanne Funk reference this activity in their work on social/emotional development as beneficial to helping children recognize and label emotions (see link in Introduction and Background). In this activity, you will print and place an assortment of scenario cards in a bag. Have children sit in a circle. Play music and invite children to pass the bag around. When the music stops, the child holding the bag chooses a card from the bag and describes it. Ask the child how the scenario makes her feel and why. Play until each child has a turn choosing and describing a card.
Model self-awareness and keeping personal space
We know that children learn best by doing, but they also learn by observing. Every day we have opportunities to model self-awareness and personal space for the children in our care. Talk about your feelings when it’s appropriate. You might say, “I’m excited to meet our guest presenter. Having a visitor in our classroom is like a present,” or “I was disappointed to find that we’re out of purple paint, but guess what? We can mix red and blue paints to make purple!” When you see children struggling to convey their emotions, get down on their level and talk with them. Describe what you see happening. Help them find solutions. Model personal space, too, when you speak with children. You might say, “I’m so proud of you for writing your name. May I give you a hug?” Such interactions will help children understand how they function in relation to others and vice versa.
Solve problems with finger puppets
As children become more adept at managing their emotions, challenge them by acting out scenarios using finger puppets. Invite children to a special circle time where one or two puppets explain a problem and ask the children for help in solving it. Try to draw problems from interactions you’ve observed in your group. Keep the conversation objective and avoid drawing attention to specific children. Maybe one puppet is frustrated because a puppet friend keeps calling out during circle time, making it hard for everyone to participate. What ideas do the children have for solving this problem? What would they do?
Always preview books and songs to ensure they align with the needs and values of your group.
- Glad Monster, Sad Monster by Ed Emberley
- My Very Own Space by Pippa Goodhart
- Clark the Shark by Bruce Hale
- Rulers of the Playground by Joseph Kuefler
- One by Kathryn Otoshi
- I’m in Charge of Me! by David Parker
- Will You Be My Friend? and How Are You Feeling Today? by Molly Potter
- Lots of Feelings by Shelley Rotner
- How Do Dinosaurs Play with Their Friends? by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague
- Personal Space Character Counts Story by FunShine Express
- “I’m Not Perfect” by The Laurie Berkner Band
- “Best Friends” by Frances England
- “What I Like to Do” by Charlie Hope
- “Feel What U Feel” and “You Have It in You” by Lisa Loeb
- “I’m Looking For a Friend” and “It’s You I Like” by Mister Rogers
- “This Little Light of Mine” by Elizabeth Mitchell & Children of Agape Choir