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Early Childhood Education | Social Emotional Learning | February 19, 2024

Movement-Based SEL Activities for the Classroom

Creative movement can help children develop important skills, including social-emotional learning (SEL) skills. In this article, we will explore the benefits of creative movement and suggest three simple SEL movement activities that build social-emotional learning skills for young children.

The Benefits of Creative Movement

Children love to move! As a dance educator, I enjoy engaging young children in playful and fun movement explorations. These activities also help children develop valuable skills. Some of the benefits of movement for children are readily apparent: children are physically active, usually practicing large-motor skills; they are gaining body awareness; and they are developing spatial awareness as they move in different directions in the shared space. If there is a musical component, children are also learning to recognize and move to a beat and to discern rhythmic patterns.

One of the wonderful gifts of creative movement is that it also provides a perfect vehicle for nurturing social-emotional skills. The very nature of creative dance (also called creative movement) embodies the idea of creativity and developing self-awareness. Some other SEL skills that are often addressed through guided creative dance are delayed gratification, impulse control, goal-setting, individual or group problem-solving, teamwork, self-discipline, and group cooperation.

3 Creative Movement Activities

Here are three simple creative movement activities. Each activity addresses key SEL skills. These skills are listed, along with the guidelines for presenting the SEL movement activities to young children and expanding the activity.

Let’s Make Rhythms!

This activity can be done while children are sitting or standing in a circle. This activity will take five to ten minutes and addresses the following SEL skills:

  • Delayed gratification
  • Group cooperation
  • Problem-solving
  • Impulse control 


Choose a category of items, such as colors. Ask the group to choose four different colors. Say each color and clap its rhythm. Then put them all together into a rhythm sentence. For example, “Purple, yellow, black, red!”

If the children are sitting, ask them to say the colors and clap the rhythm with you, and then add stomping the rhythm with their feet. If they are standing, ask them to march in place to the rhythm as they clap and say the colors.

Perform the rhythm sentence several times in a row. Do it slowly at first, then go faster and faster. Repeat with other categories—for example, winter clothes or vegetables:

Hat, coat, mittens, boots!

Carrot, celery, broccoli, peas!

Expand the Activity

For a livelier activity, ask the children to take the rhythm sentences around the room. Along with marching, add large-motor skills such as galloping, hopping, and jumping.


Crawl, Jump, and Fly

This activity will spark children’s imaginations and works best in a large, unobstructed space. Plan to spend ten to fifteen minutes on this activity, which addresses the following SEL skills

  • Creativity
  • Problem-solving
  • Self-awareness
  • Group cooperation 


Explain to the children that this is a movement game about insects. Ask for a suggestion of an insect, and then ask, “How does that insect move?” Allow the children to move freely in the large space as they explore this idea. Give them time to respond to this prompt, then ask for another insect suggestion and let them explore that insect’s movement, as well. Repeat with another insect, and so on.

Here are some ideas to supplement the ones the children suggest.

Crawl like an ant, then imagine you are carrying a heavy leaf while you crawl.

Crawl like a spider, then spin a web.

Roll to one side, then to the other side. Now curl up in a tight ball like a pill bug.

Jump like a cricket. How far can you jump? How high?

Fly like a bee. Land on a flower, and then on another one. Now go back to the hive!

Imagine you are a butterfly. You are in your cocoon. Can you push your way out? Try out your wings. Fly away!

Finish the Activity

Say to the children:

You are a bug stuck on your back! Wave your arms and legs. Finally, you figure out how to turn yourself over. Take a rest, little bug!

It’s My Turn!

This activity works well for circle time or for a lively brain break. Devote fifteen to twenty minutes for this activity. You’ll also need at least one note card per student. Lively musical selection is optional. This activity addresses the following SEL skills.

  • Delayed gratification
  • Group cooperation
  • Problem-solving
  • Impulse control

Prepare for the Activity

Write simple movement ideas on several note cards. Here are some suggestions.

Hop on one foot, then the other.

Jump as high as you can.

Balance on one foot and count to five.

Make a high shape.

Make an upside-down shape.

Shake your whole body.

Make a sad face, then a happy one, then sad, then happy.

Balance on your tiptoes for as long as you can.

Walk a small circle around yourself, then do it walking backward.

Stomp your feet.

Go down to the floor as slowly as you can. Then come back up quickly.

Clap your hands in front of you, then in back.

March 10 times and swing your arms.

Touch your knee to your shoulder.

Make a shape with two hands and two feet on the floor.

Make a twisty shape like cooked spaghetti.

Walk around stiff like a robot, then again like a floppy scarecrow.

Turn around in a circle, then try it hopping.

Do five jumping jacks.

Turn around quickly on your tiptoes.

March in slow motion, then as fast as you can.

Make a silly shape.

Make a rhythm: clap, clap, stomp, stomp. Repeat it three times.


Have the children stand in a circle, evenly spaced. Ask one to choose a card and perform that movement. Then everyone tries the movement. Have the next student choose a card and perform the movement, with the others following suit. Continue this all the way around the circle.

Expand the Activity

Mix up the cards and go around the circle again or make enough cards so that each child gets a new card the second time. Ask a child to pick three cards and try the movements in the order chosen. Then everyone tries the three-movement dance. Shuffle the cards and continue until everyone has had a turn.

Finish the Activity

Play the lively musical selection. Ask the children to do a free dance using movement ideas from the cards.

Creative movement has so many benefits for children, including social-emotional learning. Build skills with these 3 and other SEL movement activities for young children. For more creative movement activities, explore From A to Z with Energy! 26 Ways to Move and Play by Connie Bergstein Dow, MFA and illustrated by Gareth Llewhellin.



Author Bio:

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Connie Bergstein Dow, MFA, Author

Connie Bergstein Dow has an MFA from the University of Michigan and is the author of One, Two, What Can I Do? Dance and Music for the Whole Day; Dance, Turn, Hop, Learn! Enriching Movement Activities for Preschoolers; From A to Z with Energy; and Tap and Rap, Move and Groove. She also wrote a preschool teacher handbook for WeTHRIVE!, with movement activities that address the Ohio Early Learning Content Standards for language arts and mathematics, and contributed to the development of a dance...

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