social emotional activities

Preschool Socio-Emotional Development Through Play

As an early childhood educator, there have been many times in which it seemed like children were the ones who taught me a lesson. One of these moments was a few years ago, when a preschooler was inconsolable during outdoor play. She was sitting on a bench, screaming and crying, while a number of adults tried all the self-regulation techniques they had in the toolbox. After a few futile minutes (which felt much, much longer) she finally shouted: “Stop! I’m angry and I want to scream and cry!” And now, she’s my life coach. In all seriousness, shortly after her outburst, she stopped crying, as if whatever she was processing had run its course. She then resumed play. 

Preschool Activities That Explore Emotions

Looking back on that episode, I marvel at her ability to identify and express her emotions so clearly. Socio-emotional development in the preschool years is critical because a positive trajectory in these domains will strengthen independence, self-regulation, and cooperation. These are valuable skills to ease their transitions into older children, and can lead to a foundation of success later in life. Moreover, since a person’s socio-emotional learning is primed for development in the preschool years, it should be a key focus in any learning environment.

Here are some activities to include into your programming that will help children explore their emotions.

Polar Pals

Polar animals share many characteristics that allow them to live in cold places. The coloration of their bodies (usually white), their compact bodies and their hibernation or migration are some of them. 

Children will apply their knowledge about polar region animals through open-ended play experiences!

Feelings Chart for Calming Corner

This is an easy and effective addition to your learning environment, and it is best placed in a quieter portion of the classroom. Preschoolers can visit this chart when they feel overwhelmed, and the pictures can help them recognize and express their emotions. The addition of mirrors, pillows, and pictures that depict self-regulation techniques adds an element of play to these potentially difficult episodes. 

Shiny Icicles Art

Icicles are formed in cold places when the temperature goes below 32F making water freeze. When water drops freeze, icicles are formed. They can be found in roofs or trees, creating pointy icy spikes. 

Children will discover icicles and their characteristics by creating an icicle garland as a collaborative experience!

Dinosaur Footprints Activity

This activity is a fun and easy way for toddlers to create their very own dinosaur tracks artwork! All you’ll need are some toys, paint, paper and a disposable plate for children to build their creativity and confidence!

Goldilocks Porridge Oatmeal Sensory Bin

The story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is a classic and can teach the children how to empathize and recognize feelings. There is also a potential for communication and literacy skills to develop as the children retell stories while they play. In addition, turning the Goldilocks story into a sensory experience gives an opportunity for children to self-regulate. Whether the children follow the play instructions or not, they can still enjoy the soothing and neurological benefits of sensory play.

Giraffe Finger Painting

Art activities have the potential to hold a preschooler’s interest for a longer period of time. Within that period, a number of emotional skills are developed:

  • Regulating attention and behaviour as children are focused on a creative task
  • A positive attitude towards learning as they take creative risks through art
  • Self concept as they develop their competence through self-direction.

Naturally, finger painting also involves the nurturing of fine motor skills. There’s even a novel twist to this activity through the use of giraffe-shaped paper. Why paint on a regular piece of paper when you can paint on one that looks like a giraffe?

Bouncing Activity

Domains of health and learning are all linked, and it’s important to help children make the connections in between them. Bouncing is an easy and accessible activity to link the physical and emotional domains.

The gross motor skills of jumping and hopping are sure to create endorphins to make the children sweat and smile (not to mention help them take their naps easily). Plus, the open-ended nature of this activity means that it has plenty of variations where cognitive, social, and even literacy skills can be developed. It’s the type of activity that lets the children do what they do best – be creative, expressive, and have lots of fun!

Gratitude Wreath

An attitude of gratitude is always in season! This art activity is rooted in the preschoolers’ identification of what they are thankful for. The socio-emotional growth comes from the children’s self concept as they discuss characteristics of what is meaningful to them. If done as a group activity instead of an individual one, skills such as making friends, empathy, and cooperation are highlighted.

The activity could even be extended (for example, identifying one thing they are grateful for over a period of time) so that the group develops some self-regulation and a positive attitude toward learning.

An Emotionally Healthy Learning Environment

Emotions, as well as emotional health, in the early years are vital because these experiences have long-term effects for the tiny humans as they grow older. Experienced educators already know how imperative a positive trajectory this domain is, and the adverse effects of negative childhood experiences have been heavily researched. Maya Angelou once said: “.. people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. So when it comes to creating an emotionally healthy learning environment, instead of focusing on what the children do, shift the focus to how the children feel. 

Here are a few more engaging activities that help promote emotional learning:

Kindness Tracking for Kids

There is always a need for more kindness, and this activity helps preschoolers define what being kind means to them. There is a tracking sheet that calls for children to record kind experiences and how to sustain it throughout the day. It’s more valuable because kindness goes from being an abstract concept to something tangible, with actions items that the people can undertake.

Feelings Memory Game

In this fun, interactive game, toddlers will match cards that have different emotions on them to see that we all have different emotions, and that is perfectly okay. This helps normalize the different emotions and introduces them to other emotions besides happy and sad.

Calm Down Sensory Bottle

Sometimes when children are upset to the point where consoling is difficult, redirecting them or distracting them works great! With this simple activity, you’ll be able to get their mind off of being overwhelmed and upset to calming and soothing.

Forest Feelings

This activity will promote an increased confidence in prosocial behaviour through verbal and non-verbal communication. Children will be able to recognize feelings of others, and respond appropriately with a range of emotions.

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TJ Borile

TJ is a registered Early Childhood Educator with 5 years of experience, aspiring children's book author, and apple cider vinegar connoisseur. He loves hiking, meditation, watching animals in their natural habitat, and dancing to 90s hip hop and RNB. He currently lives in Toronto with his husband, where they have been bickering about whether they should get a dog or not for the past four years.