Young children are absorbing information from everything around them, but they haven’t yet developed a “filter” through which to assess that information, which is part of why it’s so important to discuss the media they are taking in with them directly.
I hope to introduce you to both specific books with excellent opportunities for conversation with young children, and also some jumping off points to carry into your discussions about books and other media as you consume it with the children in your care.
To start off, a classic: The Little Mouse, The Red Ripe Strawberry, and The Big Hungry Bear.
This is one of my favorite books to consciously introduce young children to the amount of information they can get from facial expressions and body language. Before reading it to the children, flip through and notice the huge variety of emotions that are readily apparent on the Little Mouse’s face. Pride, surprise, fear, regret, anxiety, confidence, and joy all stand out to me on different pages.
As you read, pause to notice out loud how the mouse appears to be feeling. Mimic the expression on your own face and see if the children do it as well. With older children, you can “wonder out loud” with statements like “I wonder what the mouse thinks the bear will do?” or “I wonder what he’s planning,” or invite discussion with prompts such as “I think he looks scared, here; look at his eyebrows. Do you see anything else that might tell me he’s scared?”
Using books to teach social-emotional competence gives children a low-stakes time to practice reading others’ emotions. When children haven’t had the opportunity to practice “reading” others’ faces, they have to learn on the fly, which can mean more conflict and more social struggles. For example, a three-year-old might not notice that the friend he’s chasing in a game of tag isn’t having fun anymore until that friend is in tears, rather than seeing his friend’s facial expression and other non-verbal cues and stopping the game.
Learning to read body language and facial expressions takes time and comes more easily to some children than others. When we take the time to consciously teach children about it, we can help build their empathic skills as they learn more about other people.