Introspective Swirls: Lesson Plan

Want to include social emotional learning in a classroom? Want a fun lesson plan to getting students thinking about what makes them individual?

…Don’t care about any of those things, but are curious about the social implications of the movie Inside Out and group interactions?

Look no further, my friends!

This lesson plan will give you what you need to create this cute swirly brain person from my last post and incorporate social emotional learning (SEL). Especially after a hit movie like Inside Out, the timing is great for students to be thinking about interiority, emotions and what makes them unique. What I think is great about Inside Out is that it presents complex content about emotions, mental health, theory of mind in a applicable way for young people. This lesson plan continues the work of examining the inside of a person, but uses the group setting to explore empathy and recognizing how what’s going on inside effects the way we interact.

Lesson Plan

Objective: Examine emotions and self-identity to uncover unique qualities that make up the group.

How to get started: Make sure you have colored/patterned paper, plain white paper, scissors, scotch tape and colored pencils/crayons. Warm the class up by asking some questions. Who are some of your favorite characters? What qualities do you like about them? How do you think they feel when they use show those qualities?


1. Have students start with drawing a self portrait on the plain white paper. It should only be the face from the nose up and span lengthwise all the way across and only go to about halfway heightwise. This is where they can think about what other people see when they look at them. As they wrap up, it might be good to encourage them to write down what things they were thinking about in their self portrait are conveyed on the outside.

Cartoon Self Portrait

2. Start the swirl station! Prepare the colored/patterned paper and scissors. Students should pick about 3-4 sheets (number of sheets correlates to complexity). They will cut the paper in a spiral, starting on the outside and working in.

Swirls Spiraling

3. Have the students write along the swirls qualities about themselves that makes them special inside. Each swirl can be a different quality or attribute and challenge them to explain it as much as they can to take up the whole length of the swirl. Encourage them to think about things they feel or experience internally that are important to them, but that the outside world doesn’t always get to see.

This engages with the SEL guidelines of identifying and managing one’s emotions and recognizing personal qualities (SEL 1A and 1B).

4. Wrap up the swirls into little coils. This is what makes them extra curly. I recommend curling them with the writing on the inside, so that it is inside when it unravels. Roll it up so that it fits in the hand tightly, give it a little squeeze, hold for a couple seconds and voila!


5. Then attach the swirls to the top of the self-portrait. Once all the swirls are prepared, the should be twisted together and arranged on the top half of the paper. Then ends can be attached with scotch tape (or a glue stick).

Share: Students can share their work touching on 1) what they put in their self-portrait that others see and 2) what they wrote on their swirls about what is inside. Make sure students feel comfortable and aren’t pressured to share more than they are comfortable. Setting up rules about sharing decorum ahead of time is a good way to help make this feel safe. I like to set terms of: we listen when some else is sharing like we want to be listened to and we give everyone a round of applause.

Reflect: Once everyone has shared their work, wrap up with some questions to summarize the key points.

What similarities surprised you across the group? In what ways do we show our inner self? How do we create interactions that help us feel celebrate our full self?

This extends the activity to the next step of the SEL guidelines, recognizing the feelings and perspectives of others, recognizing individual and group similarities and differences and using communication and social skills to interact effectively (SEL 2A, 2B, 2C). It will get the group connecting with one another and themselves all while developing important life skills.


Extending the activity: This would be an excellent activity for elementary school students, but can be taken to the next level for middle school by extending the lesson to then talk about the person they want to be. To help middle school students recognize external supports (SEL 1.B), they can create a strand that is their future self. Middle schoolers can make this intellectual leap better. Then the lesson will shift to helping them strategize using their unique qualities and emotions to achieve their goals. Thus, demonstrating skills related to achieving personal and academic goals (SEL 1.C). and  considering ethical and societal factors in making decisions (SEL 3A).

Social Emotional Learning is valuable to any classroom or group of people of any discipline because it guides us to engage with each other on a human level for greater understanding. Art is a great vehicle to convey these complex concepts in a condensed, fun way!

Hope you enjoy and can apply some of these ideas!


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