Students feel safe expressing themselves in your art room, making it the perfect place to practice social-emotional learning skills. You can help them develop these critical life skills by integrating SEL art activities into your lessons. Keep reading to find projects that expand self-awareness, build relationships, teach self-regulation, and more.
Art activities that promote self-awareness
It seems like we should know ourselves better than anyone; however, self-awareness is actually one of the hardest skills to develop. When we’re self-aware, we recognize how our attitudes, behaviors, strengths, emotions, and values influence our decisions and behavior every day. Try these art activities to help students become more introspective.
- Heart map: This project can be done with mixed media. Have students start by drawing a simple heart shape. Then, have them fill in their hearts with drawings, words, or symbols of the things they care about. Remind them to consider how the color and size of their drawings, words, and symbols can create meaning.
- Self-portraits with props: Show students different self-portraits in which the subject included an object or background that represents something about them. Ask students to make a list of symbols and objects that are important to them or celebrate who they are (i.e., awards, animals, heritage flags, or a family crest). Challenge them to paint self-portraits incorporating one or more of these objects or symbols. When students finish their paintings, ask them to tell the class about their portraits and what they represent.
- Emotions art: Help students divide a 9” x 12” sheet of paper into six sections. Have them draw or paint six different emotions. Let them know they do not have to paint faces or facial expressions. They can use color, lines, collage or other media to depict the emotion.
Art activities that promote self-management
As we mature, we learn new ways to control our emotions, impulses, and stress. But even as adults, we sometimes find our emotions or stress getting the better of us. Try these art activities to help students start developing self-management skills now.
- Worry dolls: Worry dolls, also called trouble dolls, originated in Guatemala and are small, hand-made creations. When a person is worried about something, it is said that they can whisper their worry to their doll and then place it under their pillow. By morning, their worries will be gone.
After sharing this background with students, have them make their own worry dolls. Younger students can cut their doll shape out of card stock and embellish it with fabric, yarn, and craft supplies. Older students can create the shape of their person out of pipe cleaners or a clothes pin and then wrap the body in yarn.
- Mood journals: Have students create small mood journals out of scrap paper. Let them decorate their cover any way they’d like, from torn paper to collage to ink drawings. Challenge them to create a drawing every day to express their mood (they can divide each page into 2” x 2” squares and make a small drawing or color in the square each day to express their mood).
- Color-mapping mindfulness project: This lesson plan helps students practice the art of mindfulness. They’ll create a soothing watercolor and use ink to “map” the lines and colors. It’s the perfect project for times when you notice students’ attention slipping or right before a holiday break when students are finding it hard to concentrate on a longer-term project.
Art activities that promote social awareness
Being socially aware means that you can understand other people’s points of view and perspectives. Since art is all about self-expression, it’s the perfect vehicle to gain insight into how different people see the world and live within it.
- Kindness rocks: Many people are struggling with stress and problems in their lives that are invisible to us. Hold a discussion about how people act on the outside versus how they might be feeling on the inside — sometimes looks don’t tell the whole story. Share some examples, such as worrying about a friendship, caring for a sick relative, or worrying about paying bills. Then, discuss how small acts of kindness can have an impact on people’s lives. Share The Kindness Rocks Project with students and tell them they will have a chance to participate in it.
Next, have students brainstorm positive messages they can paint on their rocks and sketch their designs. Then, pass out rocks and acrylic paint and have students work on creating their kindness rocks. Seal with Mod Podge and take a field trip to place them in a local park for others to find.
- Artist exploration: Explore the work of differently artists with disabilities, such as Mariusz Kedzierski, Stephen Wiltshire, Paul Smith, or John Bramblitt. Discuss the different types of art and techniques used and have students try creating a piece in one of the artists’ styles.
Art activities that promote relationship skills
Kids and teens are learning how complicated relationships can be. They’re finding out that communication can take many forms and look different with different people. They are also learning to cooperate with others and resolve conflicts in a healthy manner. Try these art activities to help them practice these relationship skills.
- Drawing partner: Pair students up with someone they don’t usually interact with. Use presentation boards or something else tall to create a barrier between each pair. Then, have them look through magazines or photographs to find a picture of an object they will have their partner draw (e.g., a house, boat, cat, or still life). They should not reveal the image to their partner. Once both partners have their images, have one student start by describing the drawing while their partner draws it. Remind them to use directions and descriptive words, such as “On the right side of the yellow house, draw three apple trees that are half as tall as the house.”
When the first drawing is finished, have partners switch roles without showing each other their drawings or photos. When both drawings are done, let partners reveal them to each other and compare them to the photos. What did they get right? What ended up different than the original photo? How could they have described things better so that the drawings and the photos matched?
- Memory drawings: Have students think about some of their happiest memories with another person or persons and choose one to draw. Then have them write about how they felt during that moment. What was the other person doing or saying that made them happy? Were they feeling proud, full of laughter, or calm and peaceful?
- Portrait partners: Like the self-portrait project above, this portrait project includes objects and symbols representing the sitter. However, this time, students will paint a portrait of their partner.
First, have them interview their partner to learn more about their cultural heritage, their favorite hobbies, pets, school subjects, and other things that represent them. Then, have partners paint portraits of each other that incorporate some of those things and represent their sitter.
Art activities that promote responsible decision-making
Many students are probably still making decisions based on impulses rather than facts and opinions. You can use the following art activities to teach them how to identify problems and brainstorm solutions.
- Dream school: Challenge students to brainstorm what their class’s dream school would look like. Would it have a swimming pool? A coffee shop? A petting zoo?
Once students have written a paragraph or two about what their dream school would look like, have them discuss their ideas in a small group. Have them practice providing their opinions on the other students’ ideas. Do they think animals in school are a good idea? Why or why not? After they have discussed as a group, have them make final decisions on what their dream school would look like. Then, let them use 2D or 3D materials to design or build a model of it.
- Upcycled animals: Start by leading a discussion on the amount of garbage we generate every day (about 4.5 pounds!). Many of these discarded items end up in landfills and oceans, where they can harm marine animals. Ask students if they can think of a solution to this problem (using less packaging, using recycled materials, recycling packaging, upcycling materials).
Next, challenge students to create a marine animal work of art out of upcycled materials. You can either gather packaging and other materials or have students bring in things from home. These could be paper towel rolls, plastic bottles, old clothing, etc. Let students choose their animals and be as creative as they want to craft them.
Art boosts social-emotional skills every day
Whatever projects you choose to do with your students, they’re learning skills in your classroom that will support them through life — creativity, self-expression, problem-solving, visual communication, perseverance, and more. Try some of the activities above or adding a reflection or presentation component to lessons to propel your students even further in developing valuable skills.