The Benefits of Play, Part 1: Social Emotional

We will never stop sharing how very valuable play is to the development and growth of all people (not just kids!). We will also never stop sharing the incredibly LONG list of benefits play offers. In this series, we will look at those benefits more in-depth, including how caregivers can foster the growth both as it happens, as well as when play ends. 

This three-part series will include social-emotional benefits, physical benefits, and cognitive benefits, one each month this first quarter. The Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota commits to being a resource for families and the community in all things PLAY!


Minnesota has always been at the forefront of research on early childhood development. The nation’s first ECFE (Early Childhood and Family Education) classes were created here. As such, Minnesota has an excellent resource for all developmental needs, which we will use in this series as a resource, and we encourage you to do the same. Help Me Grow is an interagency initiative of the State of Minnesota (Department of Education, Department of Health and Department of Human Services) partnering with all local service agencies. They define social emotional needs as the child’s experience, expression and management of their emotions, and the ability to establish positive and rewarding relationships with others.

Their list of milestones (including social emotional!) across the age groups look like this:

Help Me Grown Social-Emotional Milestones
Image Courtesy of Help Me Grow, Minnesota

You can see from the list that social and emotional development includes a lot of things. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that children, even the youngest of children, are capable of the same emotions adults are, but they don’t have the proper ways to express them yet. This is confusing and frustrating to the children, so as caregivers, it’s our job to help them develop those ways. Play is an excellent way to achieve that goal. 


An important goal for children’s growth is for them to gain trust, autonomy, and initiative. These three things can be achieved through play. Look back at the list of milestones; specific actions for play are among the list: shows excitement, enjoys playing with others, enjoys playing games, shows interest in other children, plays simple pretend, tries new things, hands things to others as part of play, takes turns in games, prefers playing with other children than playing alone, seeks new experiences, and becomes more creative in make-believe play. Just to name a few. 

Digging in the Grow it Gallery at CMSM

Imagine your child is 18 months old. They have their hands in the garden in the Grow It! Gallery, exploring the sensory experience of the “dirt” and the “plants.” They look up and are immediately distracted by the group of toddlers carrying eggs from the coop to the kitchen. They are transfixed. They drop what they were doing, just to follow the toddlers and watch them play. They might not approach and engage in play with the older children, but they will grow just from watching. 

Imagine your child is one of the toddlers. They were playing with the eggs and another child approaches them to ask what they are doing. They start hatching a plan to “cook” the eggs in the kitchen. They load them up in their arms–maybe negotiating how to carry them all at once– and toddle through the Gallery. They might not even notice the younger child watching them, because they are so excited for their own new friend. 

Every opportunity provided to young children to experiment with their peers and decisions aids in the development of those skills. If one child took all the eggs? How would the other child react? How would they experiment with not only their feelings about it, but also with the resolution? They must be given situations to navigate in order to flex those brain muscles. By trying–and failing at–new things, they’re also developing self-esteem and confidence. They work with others and learn how to act in social situations. 

Play–even when playing alone–also offers children an opportunity to release and experiment with their full range of emotions. Pretend play especially can be very beneficial to the release of emotions from trauma. Free play has proven to be therapeutic for children who are emotionally distressed from traumatic situations like child abuse, family disruptions, and/or the experience of natural disasters or war. Play therapy is an ever-advancing technique for healing. (If your child would benefit from this, check out the Association for Play Therapy.


A lot, frankly. Caregivers can support children’s social and emotional learning and wellness by both modeling good skills themselves, and also by providing the opportunities for children to interact (which was stunted over the last two years in all age groups). Children don’t necessarily pick up basic social and emotional skills on their own. They learn them over time, through practice, and through interactions with others.

Children playing together in the Mud Kitchen at the Children's Museum in Mankato

For authentic play, children should be mostly left to lead and explore on their own, even at young ages, so when do caregivers get involved? The best way for caregivers to be involved is to be nearby. Clearly intervene when safety becomes an issue, but beyond that, exist on the fringes of play spaces, so children can call on you as they desire. Never take over, but allow children to lead you. 

By age groups, caregivers can support social emotional growth in many ways: 


  • Offer physical comfort and affection.
  • Hold while feeding babies.
  • Talk, read, and sing to children from infancy.
  • Respond positively in words and tone.
  • Exhibit consistency and predictability in responses.
  • Acknowledge emotions.
  • Offer names for the child’s feelings.
  • Set fair limits firmly and calmly.
  • Establish daily routines.


  • Encourage curiosity and independence.
  • Stay calm and offer comfort after outbursts.
  • Address anger as a valid emotion.
  • Maintain consistency in allowed activities.
  • Talk to your children and use names for their feelings.
  • Offer praise and encouragement.
  • Model empathy for others.
  • Encourage social games and taking turns.
  • Model effective communication with others.


  • Help children develop trust in other caring adults.
  • Give children your full attention when they talk.
  • Offer opportunities to play with others.
  • Keep interactions positive and express your own feelings verbally.
  • Encourage initiative.
  • Discuss the feelings of others.
  • Offer praise and encouragement.
  • Give positive feedback when feelings are expressed appropriately.
  • Encourage playing with others, taking turns, and sharing.
  • Engage in feelings activities.

Helping children learn and grow in this area is so important. Social and emotional development continues our whole lives, and the more practice we get, the better! Come back next month to learn about the physical benefits of play! 

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