Activities and games
speech & drama exercises for young children
How to build self confidence in a child
Speech & drama activities for kids
By: Susan Dugdale | Last modified: 05-29-2021
Speech and drama activities are an ideal way to build self confidence in a child. If you have one who is 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.
They range from ideas suitable for little children just learning to string sentences together to ones for kids up to around middle school age.
You'll see, once you delve into them, they're really easy to set up, and many fall into the, "Of course. That's just commonsense!", category.
While it's an understandable response, many of us, myself included, don't naturally have this sort of commonsense! We don't automatically know the better ways to encourage a child to speak up. We have to learn them.
The positive benefits children receive from these activities will spill over into all areas of their lives. Effective communication skills, being able to speak up for themselves and to speak on behalf of others is empowering.
What's on this page
- notes to help you understand public speaking fear: the life cycle of public speaking fear, the real fear underlying it, the cost of allowing it to take hold & how to break the cycle
- about these activities: the difference between speech and drama
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 really be a surprise. What I find more of one, is that their fear often goes unchallenged, all the way from childhood through to adulthood. These children become the grown-ups who frequently say they would rather "die" than make a speech.
The real fear underlying public speaking fear
The truth is not, that talking in public is a deadly disease. The real truth is many people, children included, fear being singled out in front of others.
Being publicly "looked at" and "listened to" is the problem. People fear being seen, for fear they are "not good enough" or that they will publicly humiliate themselves in some way. Being laughed at, making fools of themselves, or dismissed as stupid is the pain they're avoiding.
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 cost of NOT speaking up
The child who is too frightened to talk up or feels so self-conscious they can't relax and join their peers in games loses out. They are often overlooked by their classmates and teachers in favor of bolder children.
The more a child is marginalized the harder it becomes to join a group or allow themselves to be seen. Then, when forced by circumstance, like 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
The non-threatening drama and speech activities below will help break the cycle.
Before you rush to use any of them please make
- Start slowly and simply. A nervous child is easily overwhelmed. Asking too
much of them, 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 badly.
- 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 speech and drama activities
The activities are separated into "speech" and "drama" because although inextricably linked, they are different.
What is speech?
Speech is one of our primary means of communicating with each 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. It is an integral part of what carries their being, their presence
into the world.
The speech activities focus on gaining and refining personal communication or presentation skills.
What is drama?
Drama extends speech. To dramatize is to enact.
Drama takes speech into the realm of the imagination and theater. Its activities focus
on stepping into other worlds
or experiences, i.e., acting.
It teaches empathy. Handled
well, drama builds self confidence through providing opportunities for a child to experience the
world from perspectives other than his own. In doing so, he does not become an egoistical show-off
constantly needing applause, something many parents fear. Instead he becomes humane.
- Build self confidence by making unpressurized time to talk
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 mispronounced 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.
are great for car journeys.
Examples: Alphabet "I spy": I spy with my little eye something
beginning with a, b, c, d etc., or 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.
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 and have fun. 'Old
Macdonald Had a Farm' works well.
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.
Here are 8 beloved classic children's poems to get you started. Click the link and you'll find activities, audio, as well as a printable of them all.
- 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
- Actively encourage 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.
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 stories read by trained actors.
- Limit the amount of screen time a child has and monitor what they
A lot of screen time has been shown to have a significant impact on the development of a child's brain*. A child watching is not actively working. They're passive. In comparison, making
your own play is hard work physically and mentally. Turning off the screen will really help
build skills and positive self-esteem!
For more see "What Does Too Much Screen Time Do to Children’s Brains?" by Jennifer F. Cross, M.D., Pediatric Behavior & Development
- 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. We had "Pascal" living with us for a while.
- Allow for 'mess' to happen. The easiest way is to say where and
when the play can occur without inconveniencing everybody.
- Play yourself.
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 be counter productive. 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
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 taking part in group or chorus work
before taking on solo parts.
Instant solo focus or an 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.
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 acting it out 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.
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 into the argument or, go into long explanations about how it is good for them.
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 while 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.)
A very freeing benefit of this activity is the discovery that when they are playing at being someone other than themselves, they do not feel the same vulnerability as they would if they were simply themselves.
Return to Top
AND my last tip...
Please do not ask a child to do things you are unwilling to do yourself. If you are
nervous about speaking up in public and show it 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 in the children close to you, 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 lead in time so it doesn't spring up 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 to be given to a chosen few
- Be sure to praise any move however small toward conquering 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.