Children learn by doing and observing. When it comes to social-emotional learning (SEL), they learn by observing healthy norms and following classroom rules around the treatment of others.
They learn from watching how their teachers and peers interact with one another.
For our youngest students, social-emotional activities for preschoolers are a powerful tool in modeling behavior and providing opportunities for impactful, play-based learning.
These are simple ways to ensure students are exposed to key skills like cooperation, emotional regulation, and empathy.
Let’s dig into the importance of social-emotional development in young learners and how to incorporate easy SEL strategies in the classroom.
What is social-emotional development and why is it important?
Social-emotional development is about understanding social cues, self-regulation, and recognizing feelings in ourselves and others. It’s important in creating and maintaining positive relationships with others and moving through the world in a healthy way.
In the classroom, healthy social-emotional development can make the classroom a more collaborative space as children learn skills like compromise and empathy. These skills continue to improve as children gain more language skills.
What is an example of a preschool social-emotional development milestone? An example of a preschool social-emotional development milestone is the desire to make friends and to become aware of the feelings of others.
Social-emotional developmental activities for 3-5 year-olds are a good way to ensure children are getting exposed to healthy emotional growth.
Best Social-Emotional Activities for Preschoolers
Preschool-aged children learn best through play. Play-based learning is engaging, motivating, and fun while supporting essential skills in sharing, communicating, and problem-solving.
These social and emotional learning activities for preschoolers use that basic premise to help children understand concepts that support their SEL development.
1. Feelings Charades
Students act out different emotions based on visual cards prepared by the teacher. Their peers guess the feeling. Some children may need some scaffolding for more complex emotions.
STEM benefit(s): This game encourages emotional expression, empathy, and understanding the emotions of others.
2. Emotion Cards
Students find matches for emotion cards among their peers by walking around the classroom and making that card’s facial expressions.
STEM benefit(s): This activity teaches children to recognize different emotions through non-verbal cues.
3. Read-Aloud Connections
Children’s books are a great launching pad for complex topics. Choose a book that offers an opportunity to talk about big feelings, like Today I Feel or Millie Fierce.
STEM benefit(s): Students make connections between literacy and their emotional skills, priming them for doing so independently as they get older.
4. Circle Time Sharing
Use some of your regular circle time for student sharing. Have the students share their experiences or thoughts on a given topic, or have them share something positive from the day.
STEM benefit(s): Open communication in the classroom supports a sense of community, enhances students’ communication skills, and empowers students to share their feelings.
5. Friendship Bracelets
Pair students off randomly. Using colored beads and pipe cleaners or yarn, guide students in creating friendship bracelets that include kind words for their partner.
STEM benefit(s): This activity helps young students learn the value of friendship and the joy of giving.
6. Emotion Card BINGO
Play BINGO by calling out emotions or showing facial expressions. Students have to recognize those emotions to mark them on their cards for an eventual BINGO.
STEM benefit(s): This activity helps children identify their own emotions. It also improves their vocabulary around different kinds of emotions.
7. Team Obstacle Course
Lead students in navigating an obstacle course that requires them to work together to get to the end. Set up stations like elbow passes or fingertip hula hooping to promote teamwork.
STEM benefit(s): Activities like this emphasize cooperation, team-building, and problem-solving in a group setting.
8. Listening Games
Lead students in a game of Simon Says, Red Light, Green Light, or Freeze Dance that emphasizes listening carefully.
STEM benefit(s): Students aren’t just practicing listening carefully. They’re practicing monitoring their own behaviors and matching those behaviors to what’s expected of them.
9. Puzzle Pairs
Many preschoolers already gravitate to the puzzles during free-play activities. In this activity, have students work through age-appropriate but challenging puzzles in pairs.
STEM benefit(s): Students work on essential SEL skills of cooperation, teamwork, patience, and emotional regulation when a task may feel challenging.
10. Emotion Songs
Lead students in sing-alongs to simple songs like “If You’re Happy and You Know It” or “This Is a Happy Face.” Have the students show their emotions as they listen.
STEM benefit(s): Songs are a fun, familiar way to teach about emotions and experience them in a safe space.
11. Empathy Towers
Guide students in building towers where each piece represents an emotion. In order to make their towers taller, they share why someone may feel that emotion before putting it in place.
STEM benefit(s): This easy exercise is an introductory lesson in empathy and emotional understanding.
12. Puppet Show
Use puppets to act out different scenarios with your students related to feeling “big” feelings. The puppets can also be used to teach social skills and reinforce positive norms.
STEM benefit(s): This is a playful, non-threatening way to encourage emotional expression and understanding.
13. Feelings Collage
Students are given magazines or other materials to identify, cut out, and paste faces showing different emotions. Once they’re done, lead discussions about what they found.
STEM benefit(s): This activity is an easy way to explore what different emotions, e.g., sad, surprised, happy, look like.
14. Empathy Art
Lead students through art activities where they draw a picture of what they think an emotion looks like. Have a whole-group discussion about shared traits of those emotions.
STEM benefit(s): This is another way to help students learn about non-verbal cues when it comes to identifying emotions in others.
15. Feelings Visuals
Help students create tools like visual thermometers or feelings wheels to help them express their emotions when they can’t seem to get the words out.
STEM benefit(s): These kinds of activities encourage emotional awareness and help students learn how to express their feelings visually before they can get there verbally.
16. Role-Play Games
Lead students through role-play games where they imagine they’re in scenarios where emotional regulation may come into play, e.g., birthday parties, restaurants, and grocery stores.
STEM benefit(s): These activities help students practice their social skills in a safe space with guidance along the way.
17. Classroom Jobs
Classroom jobs help students feel a sense of ownership over the classroom environment. Create a visual chart of jobs updated weekly or monthly to set students up for success.
STEM benefit(s): Students learn important skills in cooperation and responsibility in their community.
18. Empathy Rocks
Students paint rocks with positive messages or images, then leave them where they’ll be seen. You can even involve them in collecting rocks on a nature walk, another way to build community.
STEM benefit(s): This is a great way to encourage kindness, empathy, and the power of positive emotions.
19. Preschool Yoga
Practice easy yoga exercises with young students, like deep breathing using balloon imagery. This is where they pretend like they’re inflating and then deflating a balloon using their breath.
STEM benefit(s): This activity promotes self-regulation and helps students control their bodies when they feel angry or frustrated.
20. Gratitude Journals
Allow students to keep simple journals — these can be images only for your youngest learners! — with prompts on topics like gratitude, a positive attitude, and friendship.
STEM benefit(s): This activity can help students get into a more positive headspace and even promote a sense of community in the classroom.
21. Calm-Down Supports
Calm-down jars, kits, or quiet spaces in the classroom are a great way to offer students the time and room to refocus when those big feelings hit. It doesn’t need to be a corner, either.
STEM benefit(s): Children begin to feel responsibility and over their emotions and learn self-regulation tools.
22. Feelings Check-In
A feelings chart is a way to emphasize that the classroom is a safe space. Have students start their day by pointing to a visual of what they’re feeling on an easy-to-access chart.
STEM benefit(s): Children learn how to regularly check in on their emotions and connect with their teacher.
How do you implement social-emotional learning in preschool?
You can implement social-emotional learning in preschool by supplementing academic instruction with SEL activities that promote healthy emotional recognition and self-regulation.
Put more simply, any activity that teaches social-emotional skills like empathy, self-awareness, and positive relationship-building with their peers contributes to overall SEL.
Regulation activities for preschoolers don’t have to be complicated.
So much of this is likely already happening in your classroom, thanks to the supportive environment you’ve built.
If you’ve built a classroom where students can express themselves, work to resolve conflicts, and feel like they belong, you're cultivating a safe space that supports social-emotional learning.