How Does Play Help Children’s Emotional Development? Everything You Need to Know!

When a child plays with others, they learn how their behaviour can impact the emotional well-being of themselves and people around them. They also learn about expressing emotions healthily, which builds emotional resilience and regulation.

Psychologists have found that play is as vital for a child’s development as educational lessons are. Keep reading to discover how children learn through play and enhance their emotional development. 

What is emotional development?

From birth to adulthood, emotional development involves learning about emotions, how they impact us and those around us, and how to process and express them healthily and constructively.

Aspects of physical development also influence mood and emotions, such as the development of brain-nerve connections through active play. Play involving physical activity is known to improve mood and assist in processing difficult emotions.

How does play influence and encourage emotional development?

One of the best ways for a child to learn about their emotions and how to process them is through play. Free play is especially helpful as it allows a child to create their own scenarios and experiment with emotions and emotional responses to various situations.

Play can influence and encourage various aspects of emotional development in various ways. We’ve outlined some of the most important points below:

Emotional awareness

Awareness of your emotional state is essential to managing life’s challenges and mitigating stress and conflict. Children should learn about various emotions from a young age and how to process them constructively.

Play provides a safe environment where children can explore various emotions through imaginative play and creative play. By creating different scenarios, children can identify their emotional responses and learn how best to manage each different response.

One benefit of imaginative play is that no matter the age group, kids learn various tools that influence their understanding of emotions, such as recognising facial expressions, identifying social cues, and communicating their feelings.

Children can also learn how various events affect them emotionally – if they fall, how do they feel? If someone takes their toy, are they angry or sad?


While learning about emotions and how different situations impact them emotionally, children begin to master the art of self-regulation. This is the ability to manage your feelings in a healthy and contained manner.

It allows you to name the emotion you’re feeling, identify what is causing you to feel that emotion, process how it makes you feel, and then let it go. Emotional regulation is a beneficial skill to have, as it can improve how one handles stressful situations and events that result in big emotions – such as the loss of a loved one or having to move house.

Parenting tip: If you’re having a difficult time with your child, engaging them in play – especially physical play – can assist them in releasing pent-up emotions and can help them to learn how to regulate themselves.

Conflict resolution

When children play together, they learn how best to manage conflict. Teaching children how to manage conflict when there has already been an altercation can be challenging. So, assisting with structured role-playing games can be a good way to teach them how to work through conflict. If your little one needs some new ideas, discover our list of role play ideas for kids.

A good understanding of emotions and how they affect both the child and their peers will allow them to turn a potentially negative situation into a positive learning experience for all involved and encourage the advancement of their emotional education.

Play increases self-confidence and self-esteem

Reaching goals and mastering tasks through play can greatly impact a child’s self-esteem and self-confidence. As they gain confidence, they will be able to try more complex activities, which continue to affect their mental and emotional state positively.

Free play, especially at play parks, can increase their confidence as they learn to make friends and involve others in their games.

Parenting tip: While watching your child try out new forms of physical play can be scary, it is important not to interrupt their concentration and let them be independent. Keep vigilant and go to assist them if they get stuck, but give them the space to explore so that they can gain confidence in their abilities.

Fosters social skills development

Children develop social skills when playing with others, which directly affects their emotional development. Making friends, playing with others, and dealing with conflict all help children enhance their emotional skills.

Through group play, children learn how to have positive interactions with others, as well as see the impact that certain emotional reactions have on other children. This form of play is an excellent way to encourage social and emotional development and will also positively impact their self-esteem.

Develops empathy

When children engage in play with friends, they learn about empathy. If their friend falls in the playground, a child will often stop playing and get help or try to comfort the friend. Group play helps children develop skills which enable them to interact in a kind and empathetic manner.

Older children can learn to empathise with shared experiences, which will likely be spoken about during pretend play. For example, one child may be sad that their parent has to go away for work events, and another may relate as their parent might also have to travel for work. This allows them to connect empathetically as well as identify and manage emotions.

Cultivates good mental health

Outdoor play is an integral part of a child’s development. Not only does it help them to master their gross motor skills, but it also has a significant impact on their mental health. Physical play releases endorphins, which are mood-boosting hormones. These endorphins help to relieve stress, which improves mental health.

Imaginative play helps children learn what emotions they might experience in different scenarios. It provides a safe space for them to explore various situations and feel a variety of emotions. It also allows them to process fear scenarios in a safe environment, which helps them to respond better in a real fear situation.

Assists with trauma processing

Drawing or playing with soft toys and dolls can give a child a safe space to process any trauma they have experienced, express feelings and allow their parent to understand what happened and how best to help them overcome the event. It also allows the child to get out of their heads and focus on something fun and exciting.

Builds emotional resilience

When you first start to play games with children, you’ll find that they get upset if they don’t get their way, lose the game, or need to share something they don’t want to. As they grow older and spend more time playing, their emotional skills will improve, and they will increase their emotional resilience.

This will be evident when they are more willing to share, don’t cry or throw a tantrum when they lose and can adjust more easily to play ideas that aren’t in line with what they want.


What activities help emotional development?

Encouraging children to engage in solitary play activities assists in their emotional development. These activities include imaginative play with dolls and soft toys and group play activities like role-playing activities.

A playful learning environment has many benefits for children and the development of their emotional advancement.

How can free play improve emotional development?

Kids learn about expressing emotions through telling stories and creating new worlds when engaging in imaginative play and social interaction with other children. This form of play also increases their confidence and assists in their social development by allowing them to make their own decisions and create their own sets of rules.

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