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3 Ways to Encourage Social-Emotional Development During Play

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Whether it's sharing, caring for a hurt friend, or expressing emotions, social skills play a crucial role in children's emotional development. That's why many educators focus on early childhood activities and games that promote social and emotional development when lesson planning. These activities directly impact a child's social development as a child learns how to navigate the world. 


In fact, Ellen Booth Church, author of Getting to the Heart of Learning, notes how research demonstrates that children are more able to learn basic academic skills when their social and emotional skills are positive and strong.

Try some fun social-emotional activities with your child or classroom today! Find more activities and ideas in Getting to the Heart of Learning.


I’m Melting!

Children are fascinated by change, and melting is particularly interesting! In this activity, children will work together to explore ice and to make predictions.


  • A variety of containers such as yogurt cups, sandwich bags, and milk cartons
  • Water
  • Ice cubes
  • Liquid food coloring
  • Scarf
  • Box of table salt
  • Absorbent paper such as coffee filters, paper towels, or blotter paper
  • Magnifiers
  • Trays or pans
  • Powdered tempera paint
  • Craft sticks
  • Ice-cube trays


1. Most children have had an experience with melting ice, whether it was in their glass or on the sidewalk.

2. Place a big chunk of ice or several ice cubes on a tray, and bring it to circle time. Hide it under a scarf, and play a guessing game. Sing the following song to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little  Star”:

There is something under here

That is wet and very cold

If you step, please beware!

You could slip and fall right there.

3. Ask the children to guess what is under the scarf. Explain that, just as the song says, this is something that is really cold. They may want to touch the cloth. Listen to their guesses. When someone guesses ice, reveal what is on the tray.

4. Invite the children to talk about what they know about ice. Perhaps they have observed ice melting in a drink or on the sidewalk.

5. Ask the children to notice what has happened to the ice cube on the tray over time: It melted! Why? How? What does the puddle look like? Explain that today they will get to choose a partner to do some ice discovery together in the science art area.

Social-Emotional Skills Fostered:

  • Seeking peers as partners
  • Sharing ideas with a group
  • Problem solving


My Words and Me

Young children need lots of practice with the words for emotions. When they have the vocabulary for the nuances of feeling, they tend to express their emotions with greater ease and clarity.


1. Make the words for emotions visual and kinesthetic for children. The concept of happy is abstract until you have an expression or an action to go with it. Let’s start with some games to get things going. Play Make a Face to get children excited about working with facial expressions. Tell the children, “I am going to make the same funny face and pass it to the person next to me. That person will make the same funny face and pass it to the next person. We will go all the way around the circle so everyone has a chance to make a funny face.”

2. Make a silly smile or funny face, and turn to the child to your right so she can see it. She then makes a face just like yours and turns and passes it to the next child in the circle.

3. Continue the game, adding emotions such as happy, grumpy, shy, and sad. Social-emotional learning takes place as children begin to feel comfortable expressing emotions within the safe confines of the game.

4. Share the emotions cards with the group. Talk about the images. Ask, “How do you think this person is feeling?” Choose words to go with each card.

5. Have the children take turns choosing a card that shows how they feel today. They might be tired, happy, or excited. Talk with them about their choices.

6. Sing a song to invite the children to talk about feelings. They can use the card to add their feeling to the song, sung to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”:

Friend, friend, friend of mine (everyone sings together)

How are you today?

I feel (emotion), (one child says emotion)

We’re glad you shared today! (everyone sings together)

7. Another day, extend the conversation at circle time by using sentence starters for the children to finish. You could say, I’m happy when….” Or, say, “I’m sad when….” This simple technique is surprisingly successful for inviting children to share their feelings.

Social-Emotional Skills Fostered:

  • Sharing feelings
  • Decision making
  • Taking turns
  • Social interaction


Making Wish Flags for the World

How do we make a wish for the world? With words, art, and heart! Children will enjoy this special dissolving art technique for making wish flags to hand out on the playground.


  • Chart paper or whiteboard
  • Paper coffee filters
  • Washable markers
  • String
  • Clothespins
  • Photos from magazines or books of people and places
  • Recording of song “It’s a Small World” (optional)


1. Begin circle time with a song. You can use “It’s a Small World,” or try these lyrics to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

Wish, wish, make a wish

Send it to the world.

Merrily, merrily, happily, happily

Wishes to the world.

2. Start a conversation about the world- it is both small and big. Show the children some photos of people and places. Encourage the children to express what they notice about the photos. There may be particular images that interest the children and get the talking about similarities to and differences from them and their own world.

3. Use photos of people to invite children to suggest how the people in the photos might be feeling. “What might they be feeling or wishing?” "How would you feel if you were in the place?”

4. Tell the child, “Today we are going to be making flags to hang outside and send out to our beautiful, small world. What happens when you make a wish on a birthday cake? You blow out the candles, and the flame goes away, taking your wish with it. We are going to write and draw our wishes on the flags outside, the rain and sun will dissolve the colors and send the wishes out to the world.

Social-Emotional Skills Fostered:

  • Expressing caring and concern
  • Feeling empathy
  • Brainstorming ideas
  • Thinking about others in the world  


Want more great activities for social-emotional learning? Check out Getting to the Heart of Learning!

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