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Building Emotional-Intelligence Through Play

Playful ways to teach your child impulse control, emotional regulation and focus

My couch was transformed into “the Headquarters” and my toddlers ran through the halls jumping and spinning. I was no longer to call them by their birth names but by Captain America and the Incredible Hulk. 

I searched the internet the night before in my attempt to make our day off together “fun” and, instead, they chose capes and forts over my educational Pinterest find. I stood there watching them, sulking a bit. But my pity party was stopped short when my youngest handed me a cape and told me to “suit up.” 

Mommy Marvel was a little rigid at first but, as I joined them in their world of imaginative and creative play, I realized that what seemed disorganized to me, was really magical for my children. They were taking turns and problem-solving about how to save the imaginary cat from the tree, and empathizing with the girl whose balloon was stolen by the evil villain. Their bodies were receiving healthy sensory input from their gross movements. And while we were all masked in our hero gear, their learning of big life skills was masked in the guise of play. 

It was then that I realized that as parents we tend to put pressure on ourselves and our kids when it comes to play and learning.

  • “How can we create the perfect play experience” 
  • “How do I teach my kids to share and co-exist with others peacefully?” 
  • “Are my kids meeting educational and developmental benchmarks?”
  • “Are they learning enough, and am I teaching enough?”

But here’s the truly interesting thing, when we step back and let nature and biology take over, we actually see that children are wired to learn through play. According to Elizabeth Sautter, M.A., CCC-SLP, licensed speech and language pathologist, author of Make Social Learning Stick, and co-founder of the Make It Stick Program“Play is the foundation to all learning.” It is like the glue that holds everything together. And from this foundation, we can build a strong house of higher learning. 

Unstructured Play

A child’s play may appear disconnected with no observable focus or goals, and no end product. But below the surface of all of these loose parts is where the golden nuggets are hidden, because, play is not just about the outcome but also the process. Through this process of unstructured (free) play, children develop the emotional intelligence necessary for an enhanced academic quota down the road. 

Unstructured, free play affords children the freedom to explore, create, and discover while boosting social-emotional skills. Here are a few ways: 

1. Creativity and imagination: Children create their own games and guidelines which provoke their imagination and cognitive development.

2. Problem-solving abilitiesChildren work together during free play to solve problems such as who goes first, who will be which character, and establishing the rules of the game. Children are encouraged to work together to solve any conflicts that arise. When children have difficulty troubleshooting these situations, you may step in to validate each child and facilitate with questions that prompt each child to work it out.

3. Social skills: Unstructured play encourages children to take turns, share, negotiate, hear others, develop scenarios, and problem-solve together. This child-led experience allows children to learn among peers and from their peers.

In addition to these higher-level skills, different forms of unstructured play can elicit different aspects of learning: 

  • Active play like jumping from manageable heights or spinning helps children learn to make decisions, calibrate risks, and manage emotions. 
  • Interactive play helps children learn empathy, reciprocity, sharing, perspective-taking, and cooperation and fosters feelings of connection and acceptance. 
  • Creative play helps children make sense of the world around them as they build forts, stack blocks, create art, tell stories, and pretend to be other characters. 

Play And Neurodiversity

Because some children with diverse needs may struggle with various aspects of play, parents may have difficulty finding ways to interact with and relate to them during reciprocal, symbolic, or turn-taking experiences, so parents must have the necessary tools to engage their children during these interactions. 

The key here is to follow your child’s lead and choose activities that match their zone of proximal development. This means that rather than matching the child’s chronological order, focus on the cognitive, motor, and emotional levels of your child and meet them there. So, when your child initiates, match or imitate their level of play. 

According to Sautter, “Play is like a bridge between a child’s world and an adult’s world.” When we jump in and join their play without commanding or controlling it, our worlds mesh and our children are allowed to express themselves in ways that access their higher brain, affording them the opportunity to learn through play. 

Teaching Emotional Intelligence Through Play

The best time to teach a skill isn’t when we are requiring it of our child, but rather through playful connection moments. Sautter created monthly themes in her book Make Social Learning Stick, and June is all about play and celebration. As such, we wanted to offer some simple ways to add fun to your day to celebrate your relationship with your child. 

Here are some games to try with your child to teach various social-emotional skills: 

  • Telephone - Teaches impulse control, focus, and listening intently 
  • Simon Says - Teaches body awareness, motor development, following and giving directions, sequencing 
  • Red Light, Green Light - Teaches impulse control, self-awareness, self-management, focus
  • Freeze tag - Teaches coordination, emotional resiliency, self-control, social skills, problem-solving
  • Mother May I - Teaches taking turns, self-awareness, social skills, emotional regulation, impulse control, problem-solving, communication skills

Want a month’s worth of fun activities to amp up the play in your home? Check out our FREE Activity Calendar below. 


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