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Play to Learn Critical Social & Emotional Life Skills

  • Researchers have identified 5 Social Emotional Learning Core Competencies that all kids need to live well:

    • Self-Awareness
    • Self-Management
    • Social Awareness
    • Relationship Skills
    • Responsible Decision Making

    Check out fun social-emotional learning toys at ThinkPsych.

In our fast-paced world, the significance of play is often underestimated, particularly in the context of kids’ social and emotional development. As both a licensed psychologist and a parent, I have seen firsthand how important playtime is for nurturing kids’ growth into excellent humans. Play is the foundation of how we learn many of life’s most important lessons. For example, playing games teaches our kids how to get along with others, how to solve problems, and how to handle disappointment.

What is Play?
But first, a bit about words. What do psychologists mean when we talk about play? There is a lot of different definitions, but I like this simple one: play is anything we do “just because.” We don’t need any external rewards and we do it because it brings us joy or a sense of purpose. Playtime often involves imagination, creativity, and positive emotions. But sometimes playtime can be frustrating, difficult, and boring. That’s OK too. Learning to manage negative emotions and continuing to play is part of what makes it such an important activity for healthy social & emotional development.

Play can be something you do on your own or it can be a social activity you do with others. It also changes over our lifespan. For kids, they may play imaginary games with peers in the school yard. Adults may play by engaging in their hobbies or playing sports. Some adults even have the privilege of considering their work to be play.

Play as a Fundamental Human Activity
It may surprise you to learn that play is absolutely foundational to being human. It is not something that has to be taught. Babies, without any prompting, start to play at a very young age. One of the earliest games my two sons learned to play as babies was very simple – if I clap, daddy claps too. This brought them a lot of giggles and excitement in their earliest days of life.

Why do we seem to be hard-wired to play? Psychologists believe that play is how we learn and practice new skills for life. For example, you may notice that your kids love to imitate adults in their play – whether it is driving a car or pretending to cut imaginary fruit in their kitchen. Play is the pathway to learning, self-expression, and self-discovery. We start to figure out “what” and “how” we like to play.

Helping Kids Live a “Good Life”
As parents, we all want our kids to live a “good life.” I put this in quotes because the meaning of what constitutes a “good life” varies somewhat from family to family, generation to generation, and culture to culture. But in general, most parents would agree that they want their kids to be happy, kind, and productive in some way that’s important to them. We want our children to have a good moral character, be loved by others, and able to pursue their goals in life.

There are no guarantees in life and raising children well sometimes feels like an impossibly difficult task. However, play is a surefire way to equip your kids with the skills they will need to live a “good life.” What are those skills they will need to thrive? Researchers have identified 5 Social Emotional Learning Core Competencies that all kids need to live well:

  1. Self-Awareness
  2. Self-Management
  3. Social Awareness
  4. Relationship Skills
  5. Responsible Decision Making

1. Self-Awareness:
Self-awareness involves understanding your emotions, strengths, weaknesses, values, and goals. Playtime provides a safe environment for kids to explore and identify their feelings and preferences. Through imaginative play, children can step into different roles, which helps them understand their own perspectives and those of others. For instance, playing doctor or pretend cooking allows children to experience different social roles and emotions, fostering self-awareness by reflecting on how they feel in each scenario. As a parent, you can ask guided questions when your kids play such as “what do you like about pretending to be a doctor?”

2. Self-Management:
Self-management refers to the ability to regulate emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively. Playtime encourages self-control and impulse management as kids navigate social situations and conflicts during play. Games that involve turn-taking, sharing, and resolving disagreements, such as board games or team sports, are especially great for this. Kids can practice patience, empathy, and conflict resolution skills. These experiences contribute to developing strong self-management skills that are valuable throughout their lives. As a parent, you can encourage the development of these skills by modeling them and encouraging them during particularly challenging situations.

3. Social Awareness:
Social awareness involves understanding and empathizing with others' perspectives and emotions. Playing with others helps us to build these skills. It can be especially helpful to play with kids from different backgrounds and cultures which can foster social empathy and understanding. Play-based activities like role-playing, storytelling, or collaborative projects encourage children to consider others' feelings and viewpoints, promoting social awareness and tolerance. Parents can make an active effort to help kids develop these skills by watching shows depicting other cultures, traveling, or going to community events.

4. Relationship Skills:
Relationship skills encompass communication, cooperation, empathy, and building healthy connections with others. Playtime provides opportunities for practicing these skills in a relaxed and fun way. Cooperative games, group activities, and pretend play all contribute to developing strong relationship skills. For example, playing team sports teaches collaboration and effective communication, while imaginative play with peers enhances empathy and understanding of social cues.

5. Responsible Decision-Making:
Finally, responsible decision-making involves making thoughtful choices considering ethical standards, safety, and social norms. Playtime allows kids to practice decision-making in a low-stakes environment. Whether it's deciding on game rules, resolving conflicts fairly, or choosing roles in group activities, kids learn to weigh options, anticipate consequences, and make responsible choices during play. These experiences translate into improved decision-making skills in real-life situations. Parents can further promote these skills by giving their children the opportunity to make decisions for the family and observe their impact!

Quick Tips for Fostering the 5 SEL Competencies:
  • Encourage imaginative play that allows children to explore different roles, emotions, and perspectives.
  • Provide opportunities for cooperative play, such as board games or team sports, to foster collaboration and communication skills.
  • Create a safe and supportive environment where children can practice self-control, patience, and conflict resolution during play.
  • Promote empathy and social awareness by exposing children to diverse play settings and encouraging them to consider others' feelings and experiences.
  • Use playtime as a time for open communication and bonding between family members, strengthening relationship skills. Family game night is great for this!
  • Encourage problem-solving and creativity through play-based activities like building projects, art, or science experiments.
  • Model positive behaviors and SEL skills during playtime, such as active listening, empathy, and respectful communication.
  • Incorporate SEL-focused toys, books, and games into playtime to reinforce learning and make it fun and engaging for children.

As a licensed psychologist, I have witnessed the transformative power of play on social and emotional development. Play is not merely a pleasurable pastime; it is an essential aspect of our lives that contributes to personal growth, emotional well-being, and healthy social interactions. By cultivating play experiences to facilitate the development of these critical social-emotional skills, we can help ensure that our kids grow up to be good, kind, and productive adults. You can check out the fun social-emotional learning toys we create at


  • Researchers have identified 5 Social Emotional Learning Core Competencies that all kids need to live well:

    • Self-Awareness
    • Self-Management
    • Social Awareness
    • Relationship Skills
    • Responsible Decision Making

    Check out fun social-emotional learning toys at ThinkPsych.

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