Activities and games
speech & drama exercises for young children
Build self confidence in a child with speech & drama
Speech and drama activities are an ideal way to build self
confidence in a child.
If you have a child anxious or afraid of speaking up in front of a class, adults, or perhaps
even their peers, the suggestions and activities outlined below will help you to help them. The
positive benefits will spill over into all areas of their lives.
The life cycle of public speaking fear
Being afraid of public speaking is a fear acknowledged by many adults. That children are
afraid of it too, shouldn't be a
What is more of a surprise is that their fear is allowed to persist, often
unchallenged, long into adulthood. They become the grown-ups who frequently say
they would rather "die" than make a speech.
The real fear underlying public speaking
The truth is not that talking in public is a deadly disease. The real truth is many
people, children included, fear making fools of themselves in front of others. Being "looked at"
and "listened to" is the problem. People fear being seen, for fear they are "not good enough" or
will fail in some way. Being laughed at or dismissed as stupid is the pain they're
The simple remedy to side-step risking exposure many people, including children, adopt
is to keep out of the public eye and
their mouths shut. However that solution is a boomerang.
The child who is too frightened to talk or feels so self-conscious they can't relax and join
games loses out in numerous ways. They are often overlooked by peers and teachers in favor
of bolder children. The more they are marginalized the harder it becomes to join a group or
allow themselves to be seen. Then, when forced by circumstance, like for instance having to
give a formal speech in class, their discomfort and subsequent embarrassment or humiliation,
is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
How to break the cycle of fear
Non-threatening drama and speech activities can help break the cycle.
Before you use any of these suggestions to build self confidence in a child please make
- Start slowly and simply. A nervous child is easily overwhelmed. Asking too
much, too soon, will compound their problems. Choose your beginning point with care. Put
yourself in the child's shoes and ask yourself, 'Is this a little step or a giant stride?' Being
'cruel to be kind' can backfire.
- Role model the behavior you want from the child. Show them it's OK and
safe. Do the exercises with them. This has a wonderful double-whammy pay off. They feel
valued because you gave them time and attention AND they are learning new
About these activities
The activities to build self confidence in a child are separated into 'speech' and 'drama'
because although inextricably linked, they are different.
What is speech?
Speech is how a person communicates with another. It is the conduit for spoken self-
expression. A combination of vocabulary, voice and experience gives each person their unique
oral signature. This is who they are. Their speech is what carries their being, their presence
into the world.
What is drama?
Drama, by contrast, extends and embodies speech. To dramatize is to enact
something or someone; either an aspect of oneself or someone else.
Drama lifts ordinary speech into the realm of the imagination and theater. Its activities focus
on stepping into other worlds
or experiences while speech activities concentrate on developing and extending oral language
skills. Drama teaches empathy. Handled
well, it builds self confidence through providing opportunities for a child to experience the
world from perspectives other than his own. He does not become an egoistical show-off
constantly needing applause. Instead he becomes humane.
- Build self confidence in a child by making unpressurized time to talk
with them. Many of us talk to or talk at a child. We give
instructions like 'Clean your teeth' or 'Pick your toys up'. This type of communication is very
different from talking with. To talk with implies you are actively making
room or time to listen to their side of the conversation.
- Another simple way to build self esteem is to ask open-ended
questions. These require more of a response than a simple 'yes' or 'no'. Try asking 'why'
or 'how' to elicit extended answers.
- Get down to their level. If they're sitting on
the floor playing, get down with them. This reduces the gulf between big and powerful,
small and insignificant.
- Avoid doing the talking for a child. Sometimes as adults it's easy to
assume spokesperson status habitually. The child learns that you'll do all the talking for them
and they don't have to try. They also learn you'll do it better than they can anyway. In doing
the talking you rob them of practice time. Give it back to them. Even though you may have to
wait for them to find the right words at times, know you're helping!
- Avoid reinforcing baby language by repeating it frequently. This can be
hard as sometimes a child's vocabulary mistakes are delightful and we don't want to let them
go. But we must if we want them to grow. We can write down and cherish the
errors but keeping them live for too long is unkind.
- Avoid teaching a baby language. Why complicate learning to speak with
giving a child a sub-language to learn which later must be un-learnt? Support their growth
by teaching the right words from the start. By this I don't mean pedantically correct
language but giving them a vocabulary appropriate for their age.
- Build self confidence in a child through making a point of praising their speech
and correcting mis-pronounced words non-judgmentally. 'Good on you for trying
xxx (said correctly) word. It can be tricky. Let's say it slowly together.'
- Play lots of language games. (These
are great for car journeys.) Examples: Alphabet 'I spy': I spy with my little eye something
beginning with a, b, c, d etc., Rhyming word-chains: words starting with or ending in the
same sounds. Example: cat, mat, fat, flat, sat...Or flat, floor, flood, flew, flop...
- Read stories aloud daily.
When they're very small start with stories built around repeating phrases and rhymes. If you
read the same story frequently enough, your child will begin 'reading' it along with you. Miss
bits and they'll correct you. Talk with them as you go about the pictures. Get them to tell you
about what's happening in them.
- Singing songs. Get
your child singing along. If it's a favorite you can take alternate verses or take turns making
songs about whatever is going on around right now. Pick a well known tune ('Old
Macdonald Had a Farm' is good.) and have
fun. I remember our son enjoying variations like, 'Our Big Boy James is putting on his
boots, e, i, e, i, o. He puts his right
foot in and wriggles it around, e, i, e, i, o' ...etc.
- Read poetry aloud. Children love the
sounds of poetry and will readily imitate them. Try nonsense poems, fantastical poems, or
ones with a strong beat full of words sounding their meaning. Your local library will have
anthologies in the Children's Section. Ask for help if you can't find them.
- Encourage 'talking time' at the dinner table. Make sure each child has a turn, is listened to, and not interrupted. If need be put a
time limit in place for the one who goes on and on! When they're finished, paraphrase what
you heard and respond.
- If your child has difficulty speaking clearly and you're worried it could be a
physical problem, get it assessed sooner rather than later. The problem may lie in their
hearing or the formation of the physical organs and body parts needed for speech. Specialized
therapists will do a superb job of advising the right way to address the matter. If you allow a
speech fault to establish, they become harder to stop.
- Going to a local play-group or kindergarten will definitely help build self
confidence. They'll learn in a protected safe environment to interact with people
outside of their family circle.
- Take your child when you go visiting or shopping. It doesn't have to be all
the time but enough for them to learn to feel comfortable in new situations with new
- Teach your child simple good manners and expect them to use them as a
normal part of daily living. Making their own requests politely and thanking people for things
or services received will build esteem and is a valuable first step toward
solo public speaking.
- Model good listening and speech. A child learns from those closest to
them. If you don't listen or speak well, it becomes more difficult for the child to develop the
confidence to do so.
Return to Top
- Build self confidence in a child by actively encouraging their imagination and
allowing them to experiment and play with dress-ups. We had a large wicker basket of
old clothes. There was a cloak, coats, some hats, lots of scarves, shoes, bags etc, etc. I found
the more definite the costume, the less it appealed. The more flexible the items were, the
more readily they were put on. The cloak was magical one day because it made the wearer
invisible and the next it became a glamor item for going to the ball.
Also favored were
discarded 'father' or 'mother' clothes. These allowed children to experiment with being
- Encourage the retelling of stories in
their own words. Choose either true family events or a familiar tale that's been read and read
as a bedtime story. Within these, encourage taking on the voices of the characters. How did
the wolf talk? What did the Grandmother say? How did her voice sound? Can you make that
- Take your children to listen to story-tellers or children's theater
- Listen to story CD's or tapes read by trained actors.
- Limit the amount of television a child watches and monitor what they do
see. Television programs have been shown to deaden the imagination rather than
encourage it. A child watching is not working actively, they're passive. In comparison, making
your own play is hard work physically and mentally. Turning off the television will really help
build positive self-esteem!
- Allow 'truth' or 'reality' to be suspended
providing the play is safe. Jumping off the garage roof with an umbrella for wings is
going to hurt but having an invisible friend or changing your name for awhile is relatively
harmless. Provided it's accommodated without undue fuss (either negative or positive), your
child will let it go when they're finished with it.
- Allow for 'mess' to happen. The easiest way is to say where and
when the play can occur without inconveniencing everybody.
- Play yourself. Your example will build self confidence in a child. Get
involved without taking over the direction of a story or piece of play acting. This way you're
showing it's OK to 'pretend' and leaving the authority with the child. We've eaten dinner with
spare chairs and places set for
invisible guests who asked for special foods. I remember a toy train that talked, a teddy bear
who threw temper tantrums...
- If the child volunteers to make a play, tell a story, sing a song for the family to
watch, help them to do it without taking over. Ensure any comment or feedback is constructively positive and
- Do discuss the plays or fantasies your child creates with other adults in their
presence but avoid ridicule or mockery. Be careful too, about setting them up as
entertainment outside the family particularly if they are under eight. Too much attention and
praise for being clever, amusing, a real clown or for copying an adult performer can slow
their character development. There is a fine line between learning about being
another and learning to be one's self. You don't want a child whose sense of
well being is largely derived from being the center of attention and someone else!
- If you decide to take your child to drama lessons or a group, check the agenda
before enrolling. Some groups offer
wonderful programs designed to enrich and extend appropriately. Others are not so
scrupulous. A child is a child. They should
be allowed and encouraged to be one. Ask to see a curriculum and talk over teaching
A very shy child can be
encouraged to participate gradually through for instance taking part in group or chorus work
before taking on solo parts.
Instant solo focus or insensitive comparison with a more outgoing child will shut a tender one
- If you do offer criticism because you were asked,
make sure it follows a commend-recommend-commend model. Do not
compare one child with another. If you must compare do so with what that particular
child did yesterday and what they did
today or in this part of the play and that part of the play. Be specific rather than global in
your comments. Telling a child
he did a great job or that it was awful doesn't communicate anything useful.
The first gives him nothing to improve or build on. (It's all good, so why bother?) The second
denies anything of value happened. (Again, why bother?)
Also practice asking them for their critique. They will know what happened. Help them to
learn to trust and refine their own judgement.
Return to Top
As a child gets older drama can become more structured or
In a classroom setting this can take place as a natural
extension of a lesson or as a lesson in itself.
If you're a parent at home looking for
simple drama exercises to help build confidence try these:
- Re-telling well known stories in which the child takes on the voices and
actions of all the characters. Examples: Little Red-Riding Hood, Goldilocks and The Three
Bears, or some of the wonderful Dr.Seuss stories. ( Don't get carried away with
costume and make-up. The less, the better. The key is not the trappings but the drama itself
and living into it as vividly as
- Take a theme from a current lesson to
turn into a mini-drama. This could focus on the people involved or the things. The cycle
of the seasons for instance adapts well. It could be taken from Winter's point of view, then
Spring's etc, etc. With imagination any lesson has dramatic potential. The idea is to keep it
simple. Once they get too complicated they can spiral out of control and become
overwhelming. The length should be about 3 minutes maximum to start with. Encourage
Introduction, Middle or Development and Conclusion.
- Talk as if...you're a showman at a fair, you're a Queen, you're a radio
announcer, you're a rock star, you're an elderly person, you're very brave...
the changes promptly allowing about one minute between each. Do it with your child. Once
they get confident swap suggestions back and forth. If you get met with refusal to play, don't
buy the argument or go into long explanations about how it is good for them. Instead, step
back and realize they are probably feeling afraid of getting it wrong! Show them by doing it
yourself that you don't have to be perfect.
- Walk as if...you're a cat, you're very tall, you've got wobbly legs, you've got
one foot always wanting to go its own way, you're important, you're very shy, you're the
President, you're walking on ice...
Again the key is rapid changes of body
language. This is a fun game to play in the park or going for a walk. Watch though that you
don't expose the child to ridicule either through your own antics or theirs. Choose your
- Swap a hat...Have a collection of hats. Each denotes a different character.
When you're wearing this one, you talk and move like this. When you're wearing another, you
behave differently. The more radically different the hats the better. You can source these very
cheaply from your local thrift shop.
- Swap a face...Make a face and have your child copy it as exactly as they
can. Hold it and speak as you think the face demands. Now it's you child's turn to give a face
to you. Keep going. Making faces is fun and can be played anywhere!
- Make a small speech (story) about xxxx ( What I want for Christmas, My
little brother,...) as if you were the King of the world, the man from the corner shop,
Grandma...(Pick subjects and people or models the child knows so they don't to work too
hard to imagine them.) The principal way this works is that being someone other than
themselves, they do not have to feel too vulnerable because it's not them. It's someone
Return to Top
AND my last tip...
Do not ask them to do things you are unwilling to do yourself. If you are
nervous about making a fool of yourself and express that through criticism or throw-away
comments, you feed and normalize the fear a child feels. They'll pick up your anxieties very
If this is you and you want to help build esteem, be prepared to overcome,
or at least own, your own doubts and insecurities.
An absolutely safe and supportive way for you to do this is to join a local Toastmaster's
Group. This is an international not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping people
become confident public speakers. You'll find them fun, interesting and challenging as well.
You'll learn new skills, meet new people and soon be doing all sorts of public speaking you
never thought possible. Look on the website. You're bound to find one near you. Ring and
AND, yes, there is one more
If you're a teacher reading this and you have a fear-filled child plus a curriculum
demanding that they give solo speeches, take the time to make it easier for them by:
- Giving lots of advance time so it doesn't spring on them.
- Ensuring there is topic selection help available.
- Providing models (especially older children who have been there, done that, and
survived) to share their experiences and
- If the class dynamic supports it, using a buddy-system for planning, writing, and
rehearsal. Team up people so as the
doubtful are placed with those who can support with care. Provide clear guide-lines for good
- Organize rehearsal times in which you will be present to give suggestions. This gives
a scared child experience of the
space and speaking ahead of the real thing.
- If circumstances permit, be flexible enough to allow speeches said to a chosen few,
on tape etc.
- Be sure to praise any move toward conquering their fear.
Do you need help with speech topics suitable for children?
There are dozens of speech topics for kids here, ready for you to take as is or adapt for your own needs.
Or check here for more public speaking games. You'll find activities to adapt as well as ongoing links to more.
Breaking the cycle of fear in adults
Maxwell Maltz (1889-1975), author of "Psycho-Cybernetics" said, "Low self-esteem is like driving through life with your hand-brake on."
If you've got the hand-brake on and want simple effective strategies to remove it and boost your self-esteem read this article from the Cornerstone Edu blog: Life Long Learning Matters.