This is our guide to mental health activities for primary school children – including 50 of the best activities that work for teachers around the world!
Starting a new school year can be stressful for all kids, and having a mental health struggle or a mental illness can make the transition even tougher.
Most kids will experience a mental health issue at some point in their lives – and it’s usually between the ages of 12 and 18 that these challenges arise.
That’s why helping your child learn how to get through a rough patch, while also encouraging positive mental health habits, is a necessary challenge that parents and schools should be ready to take on.
Luckily, there are a number of kid-friendly mental health activities that could help young students develop positive mental health skills.
We spent over 6 hours researching the 50 best mental health activities that teachers find most effective with their students. They are organized in 8 categories that your classroom can focus on.
1. Mental health vs. mental illness awareness activities
Yep, “mental illness” and “mental health” are two very different things that are often used interchangeably. It’s important that children learn the difference so they can better understand how they feel.
The main difference between mental health and mental illness is that mental illness is a diagnosable mental health condition such as depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia.
The good news? Mental illnesses are just as normal and important as physical illnesses, and they can be treated!
Mental health is a general term that describes a person’s state of well-being. The holistic concept of mental health can include mental well-being, physical, and social well-being.
Try these kid-friendly mental health awareness activities with your primary school students so that they can learn what it means to be healthy in both a physical AND mental way!
- Implement this free mental health lesson plan made by Can We Talk.
- Show your young students this quick 2-minute animated video (by Susie Shep) that explains mental illness in a way that a primary school child can understand:
- Show your students this animated 5-minute video on the basics of what mental health can mean for different children:
- Are your students still struggling with COVID-19 and its aftereffects? Share this 2-minute animation about mental health for kids in COVID times:
- Some of your students might have parents who have a mental illness. In that case, this kid-friendly video could help all of your students know what that can look like and how to support their peers (I’m hoping this video could reduce bullying of kids who have parents with mental illnesses):
- If even have some students who have family members with mental illnesses, it could be worth reading these great picture books to your whole class:
- A Kids Book About Suicide
- A Kids Book About Addiction
- A Kids Book About Depression
- A Kids Book About Anxiety
Pro Tip: Tell the students that these books can make them feel big feelings and that if anyone feels like their feelings are too big, they should tell the teacher or counselor so that the class can take a pause.
- If your class has students who struggle with feeling like they “belong” in the classroom and it’s affecting their behavior, try reading these books to your entire class so that they can develop positive habits regarding these tough topics of belonging:
- A Kids Book About Disabilities
- A Kids Book About Adoption
- A Kids Book About Diversity
- A Kids Book About Being Inclusive
- A Kids Book About Feminism
- A Kids Book About Racism
- A Kids Book About Being Transgender
- A Kids Book About Being Non-Binary
- A Kids Book About Autism
Pro Tip: Tell the students that these books can make them feel big feelings and that if anyone feels like their feelings are too big, they should tell the teacher or counselor so that the class can take a pause.
2. Daily activities for emotion regulation
The goal of emotion regulation is to help kids regulate their emotions and feelings in an adaptive way. By helping young children develop emotional intelligence that they can rely on throughout their lives, you are helping them to handle problems in a healthy way.
But, what does this actually involve?
Luckily, there are plenty of fun mini-activities that can help teach kids important emotion regulation skills in daily classroom life.
The best part is, you don’t have to be a child psychologist to use them!
- Print out this free “I feel….” practice worksheet for all of your students.
- Use these 52 puppy-themed “sentence completion” cards to help your your primary school students talk about their feelings.
- Read this amazing picture book called A Kids Book About Emotions and this one called A Kids Book About Optimism. They’re both part of one of my favorite children’s book series called “A Kids Book About” which uses child-friendly explanations and illustrations to introduce complex topics to kids!
- Use this 12-minute guided mindful meditation video for kids:
- Play this “Emotion Charades” game made by a fellow teacher! It’s a free download on TeachersPayTeachers.
- Play this free “Social Emotional Bingo” game with your students!
- Print out this “Supporting Children in Uncertain Times” poster and go over it with your primary school students.
- Try breathing exercises like the Darth Vader Breath exercise to help young students ground themselves in the present-moment. It’s a fun and engaging breathing exercise that goes like this:
1. Breathe in deeply through your nose.
2. Keep your mouth closed and exhale from the back of your throat, making a “Darth Vader”-style noise as you do.
3. Show your child how to do it, then practice it with them.
- Split your class into small groups to play one of my favorite therapy games for kids – Togetherland! This game helps kids develop emotional intelligence and strong communication skills. The game is suitable for children with ADHD and focuses on emotions such as anger, sadness, fear, confidence, and empathy.
- Read this free 2-minute meditation script.
3. Physical activities that help with mental health
Physical activities can play a big part in helping with mental health, and can help with more than just a child’s physical wellbeing.
Climbing, in particular, has been shown to offer a host of benefits, from developing upper body strength to boosting kids’ self-confidence.
Being able to develop these skills could boost kids’ self-esteem, and make them feel mentally and physically better.
In fact, exercising is a good way to feel in control when you are anxious or worried. Many professionals suggest that 40 minutes, 5 times a week can help you stay in great mental health!
Here are some physical activities that teachers can use in their classroom…
- Take 3-minute dance breaks throughout the school day! Dance to some fun kid-friendly songs on YouTube or Spotify.
- Use meditation cards for kids. These ones are my favorite because teachers and therapists use them to help kids practice mindfulness, empowerment, focus, and relaxation.
- Try out these 30 Fun Ways for Kids to Chill Out, Tune In, and Open Up!
- Use the colorful Yoga Pretzels card deck to practice 50 types of fun yoga, breathing, and relaxing exercises for kids and adults!
- Try this fun and simple “Pin Wheel Breathing Exercise”. The teacher and every student should have a pin wheel for this to be most effective.
1. Sit with your backs straight and your bodies relaxed.
2. Blow on your pinwheels together using long, deep breaths. Notice how you feel—calm and relaxed? Having trouble sitting still?
3. Next, blow on your pinwheels with short, quick breaths. Notice how you feel again—do you feel the same as you did when using long, deep breaths?
4. Blow on the pinwheels as you normally would. Again, notice how you feel.
5. Think about the different types of breathing you engaged in, and discuss how the different breaths made you feel (Gelles, n.d.).
- Play the “Mindful Movement game from Education.com. This is one of my favorite kid-friendly games that combines mindfulness and physical activity. Here are the instructions from the worksheet which you can download for free by clicking here: “Sometimes when we want to be mindful we are still. We can also be mindful when we move. Practice walking like a deer. Move slowly and deliberately, with purpose, and pay attention to where you are going. Practice pausing in stillness, as though you are camouflaged.”
- Have your students sit on the floor in a comfortable position and follow-along to this 5-minute listening game. It’s a great mindfulness activity that focuses on breathing and grounding.
4. Mental health activities to strengthen confidence and academic performance
Mental health activities that focus on strengthening confidence and academic performance are an important part of the mental health of children.
If kids have improved confidence in their progress, they will be able to develop their capabilities to enhance academic performance.
Here are some activities that can help children strengthen their confidence and academic performance:
- Read this amazing picture book called A Kids Book About Failure. It’s part of one of my favorite children’s book series called “A Kids Book About” which uses child-friendly explanations and illustrations to introduce complex topics to kids!
- Read the beautifully illustrated picture book Ready to Remember: Jeremy’s Journey of Hope and Healing. It is a free PDF download on the website of the National Federation of Families here.
- Print out this free “Stress Action Plan” worksheet for all of your students so that you can help them build a plan for what to do when they get stressed or anxious about things at school.
- When your class is showing a pattern of low-confidence or stress with school, use this deck of cards with 58 kid-friendly solutions to negative thoughts and anxiety. They gives some great tips on how they can overcome their negative feelings and experiences at school.
Some activities in the next section “Activities to build self-esteem and character” could also help with confidence and overcoming failures.
5. Activities to build self-esteem and character
Positive self-esteem and character are crucial parts of a child’s mental health.
Children with healthy self-esteem and positive character could have greater self-awareness, greater social awareness, and could more likely direct their own lives rather than be led by others.
These skills help kids be resilient, so they can develop compassion for themselves, for others, and can help them move forward in life after a setback.
- Play the card game “I Like Me 123”. It’s a game that child therapists use for kids ages 7-15 to help reduce social anxiety and build self-esteem by using humanistic psychology and a growth mindset approach. Get it here!
- Read this amazing picture book called A Kids Book About Body Image and this one called A Kids Book About Shame. They are part of one of my favorite children’s book series called “A Kids Book About” which uses child-friendly explanations and illustrations to introduce complex topics to kids!
- Have your class sit on the floor in a comfortable position. Then, read them this free meditation script that is focused on building self-compassion. It’s a great meditation that guides kids through identifying a mistake or a part of your personality that you don’t feel great about. It then tells kids how to accept those feelings that come with those situations.
- Have your young students create two collages: One collage is titled “Who I am”, and the other collage is titled “Who I want to be”. After they make their collages, ask them about why they chose the images on their collages. Then, ask them to talk to their classmates what each image means to their identity, home life, etc. (Idea adapted from PsychCentral)
- Give a blank piece of paper to all of your students and have them write “Who am I?” at the top. Then, ask your class to write down the first 20 answers to that question as quickly as possible. This is so that they don’t have time to question why they’re writing it down. Then, discuss their answers and give them time to explain why they think they wrote what they wrote. (Idea adapted from PsychCentral)
6. Anger awareness activities for kids
Anger is an emotion we all experience on a regular basis and it can be a powerful emotion that tells us that something is bothering us.
Parents and teachers are often concerned about anger in children because they view it as a sign of potential aggression, hostility or emotional problems.
This may not always be the case!
The important thing is to recognize that anger is a universal emotion that can be a healthy part of human life, as long as it is expressed in appropriate ways.
Learning how to recognize and express anger can help children avoid destructive and harmful ways of expressing their emotions.
Here are some school hour activities that can help teach kids about anger regulation.
- Split your classroom into small groups and have them play 2 rounds of Jenga. During the first round of Jenga, allow the kids to be distracted and let their minds wander. After the first round, help your students practice calm and clear thinking through mindful breathing. Then, play the second round!
- Download this ready-made, no prep lesson plan on anger management with presentations and worksheets included! It’s made by MyleMarks – a great resource for classroom activities.
- Play this free anger bingo game with your class!
- Anger can be caused from situations that teachers, counselors, and schools are not aware of. These situations include sexual abuse. It’s important to make kids aware of sexual abuse so that they know when it’s happening to them and what they can do to get help. There’s a great picture book called A Kids Book About Sexual Abuse that is age appropriate for primary school children.
Pro Tip: Tell the students that this book can make them feel big feelings and that if anyone feels like their feelings are too big, they should tell the teacher or counselor so that the class can take a pause.
7. Depression awareness activities for kids
Depression and anxiety is more common in children and teens than you might think. Mental health conditions are common, affecting 1 in 10 children and 1 in 5 teens.
There are many activities that are designed to raise awareness about depression.
While some of them might seem silly, or they make the people taking part in them feel uncomfortable, they are an important part of addressing depression in children. This is because simply talking about depression can be very stigmatizing, even for adults.
For kids, the problem is compounded, since many children are surrounded by adults who may be embarrassed or ashamed to admit that they struggle with depression – or they simply don’t know how to have a conversation about it.
Try these kid-friendly activities to bring awareness to children about depression.
- Read this amazing picture book called A Kids Book About Depression. It’s part of one of my favorite children’s book series called “A Kids Book About” which uses child-friendly explanations and illustrations to introduce complex topics to kids! Pro Tip: Tell the students that this book can make them feel big feelings and that if anyone feels like their feelings are too big, they should tell the teacher or counselor so that the class can take a pause.
- Read the picture book Hector’s Favorite Place to help kids relate to a character that doesn’t leave home but realizes that they can to learn to be brave and try new things.
- Read this picture book called A Kids Book About Belonging to help teach kids about loving themselves for who they are.
- Go through this kid-friendly “What Is Depression” handout made by MyleMarks – a great resource for classroom activities.
8. Anxiety disorder awareness activities for kids
Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder in the United States.
A staggering 40 million adults experience anxiety on a regular basis, often without even knowing it.
Since anxiety disorders often can be rooted in lack of mental health awareness during childhood, it’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of anxiety in kids.
One way to help children identify anxiety is by participating in activities and events that raise anxiety disorder awareness.
- Read this amazing picture book called A Kids Book About Anxiety. It’s part of one of my favorite children’s book series called “A Kids Book About” which uses child-friendly explanations and illustrations to introduce complex topics to kids! Pro Tip: Tell the students that this book can make them feel big feelings and that if anyone feels like their feelings are too big, they should tell the teacher or counselor so that the class can take a pause.
- Go through this kid-friendly “What Is Anxiety” handout made by MyleMarks – a great resource for classroom activities.
- Help your primary school students change their anxious thoughts with this free printable “Changing Anxious Thoughts” worksheet!
- Have your students throw around this “Anxiety Thumball” to each other as a way to help them learn about how to cope with anxiety.
- Use this free worksheet to give your young students a chance to draw out their perfect “Peaceful Snapshot” that they can think of when they get anxious.
Where can families start?
The truth is mental health is not a one-size-fits-all term, and we don’t always know what to do when we realize our kids are going through something that requires more time and attention.
So where do families begin?
One of my favorite resources is the National Alliance of Mental Illness. They are a national organization in the US that’s involved in mental health and mental illness education and research.
Families can look at their infographics here to get more involved in building positive mental health habits with your children. One of my favorite infographics for mental health in children and teens is this one here.
Download the monthly Family Activity Calendar from the National Federation of Families. They update the calendar every single month! It’s a great resource for bonding with your kids through fun and meaningful activities. You can find the download here and click on the calendar image as shown below:
What are schools doing to help mental health?
Any child can suffer from mental health problems. That’s why all schools should have a clear action plan in place for dealing with them.
But does your child’s school really have what it takes to support all its pupils?
The answer is probably maybe. Unfortunately, the quantity and quality of mental health education and resources depend on the school.
Some schools have a curriculum that includes lesson plans on mental health and wellbeing. But some schools don’t.
Some schools also have better trained counselors and teachers – and even a designated social worker – to better prepare your young primary school students with mental health skills.
If you are in the process of looking for a primary school that has high-quality mental health and mental illness support, here’s our advice: Try looking for schools that believe students can be taught to recognize signs of mental illness and can be given resources to help them handle it.
How do you teach students about mental health?
It is recommended to teach young primary school students about the mechanics of mental health and NOT the specifics.
This means that giving basic explanations of “What is ___?” and “Ways to cope with ___” are a good start for younger children. (Wait to explain the specifics when the children are older.)
The reason why it’s recommended not to mention specifics to young children is because young children can feel big feelings that might be too overwhelming for them. That’s exactly why it’s very important that children understand that mental health exists and how to build positive mental health habits from a young age.
Kids learning the mechanics of mental health at a level of their understanding is critical for them to develop the emotional intelligence and skills to learn about the specifics when they are older.
For young students in primary school, there are plenty of fun and engaging ways to introduce mental health.
You could start with introducing children to mindfulness activities in the classroom such as guided meditations, breathing exercises, and emotion regulation activities throughout the school day.
Then, you could introduce what “mental health” and “mental illness” are (remember: mechanics NOT specifics!) with the activities mentioned above.
Bookmark this list of mental health activities for games, videos, and worksheets that you think your primary school community could benefit from.
How can schools raise awareness for mental health?
Mental health is an issue that is quickly gaining global awareness, with celebrities such as Prince Harry speaking out about his experience with mental health issues and U.S. President Barack Obama launching a campaign called “Let’s Start Talking” to encourage people to talk about their mental health.
While these efforts are great, if we want to improve public mental health, we need to start at a young age and encourage children to build positive mental health skills.
Schools can raise awareness for mental health by implementing mental health activities into daily classroom activities. This can be as simple as doing 2-minute breathing exercises together during snack times.
Use this article for inspiration on what mental health activities your primary school students could enjoy!
Here are some more ideas…
- Schools can also raise awareness for mental health by holding Mental Health Awareness Day events where a child therapist comes in to speak to children about mindfulness and mental health.
- Primary schools could also hold regular “Mental Health Assemblies” where the entire school (or grade level) does kid-friendly yoga together, plays kid-friendly therapy games, does meditation together, or even simply watches mental health awareness videos.
Making sure that every primary school child has as much mental health support at school is the ultimate priority.
This can come in the form of accredited school therapists, dedicated mental health lesson plans, and dedicated mental health days where kids can discover and check-in on their own mental health.
Pro Tip: When doing mental health activities with your young students, tell them that certain activities can make them feel big feelings and that if they feel like their feelings are getting too big, they can tell the teacher or counselor so that the class can take a pause.
What is a good mental health activity?
A good mental health activity is one that makes you feel happy and relaxed.
If you find yourself getting frustrated, angry, sad, or just feeling out of sorts, you could benefit mindfulness and mental health activities.
A growing body of research finds that mindfulness (aka, “paying attention to something in the present moment”) is a powerful way to develop positive mental health habits and reach your goals.
Knowing how to be more mindful can also help you stay on track when facing tough life challenges (like dieting or quitting smoking), and can even help you feel more at peace in everyday moments.
It’s pretty easy to get started! Here’s a great follow-along mental health activity for young children:
Can school stress cause mental illness?
The short answer: Yes, school stress can cause mental illness. But it’s a little more complicated than that.
Most of us have experienced stress and anxiety at one time or another.
However, when stress and negative feelings become overwhelming and last for a long period of time, they can take a toll on your health and well-being. This increases a student’s risk of developing a chronic mental health condition like depression or anxiety disorder.
That’s why introducing mental health activities at a young age is really important for a child’s mental health.
School environments are full of stress and pressures that students give themselves, give each other, and adults give the students. Try to give your young elementary school students the tools and skills to cope with stressful situations and negative emotions.
You can’t control everything, but what you can do is help your young students develop strong emotional resilience and coping skills so that they can better deal with their mental health as they grow older.
What percentage of students struggle with mental health?
The hard truth is this: 1 in 5 children ages 13-18 have, or will have, a serious mental illness.
You might think, “Oh, but this age range doesn’t apply to my elementary school children”.
But lack of mental wellness awareness and resources at a young age is one of the main reasons why children develop mental illnesses in their teen years.
Did you know that suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in youth ages 10 – 24 (source)?
Did you know anxiety disorders affect 1 in 8 children (source)?
When it comes to the topic of kids and mental health, we’re often told that we need to talk about it more.
Because the more we talk about it, the more we learn about it, and the more we learn about it, the more comfortable children will be to come forward and ask for help when they need it.
But there are so many different ways to talk about mental health issues in children, from how to identify behavioral changes in a child, to how to help children cope with bullying, to how to get kids to open up and talk about their feelings.
One of the best ways to get kids to open up about their mental health is to build a sense of community and connection with one another.
I hope you can use the activities in this post to help you and your students start a positive mental health journey!