Preschooler play: why it’s important for emotional development
Play is the natural way that children learn and develop. It’s important for all areas of development, including emotional development.
Preschoolers are learning about emotions all the time. Play gives them a chance to explore emotions and express them in different ways, including words. Play with you and other children also gives preschoolers the chance to practise managing their emotions. This is good for your child’s self-regulation, behaviour and relationships.
Preschoolers watch how you express your feelings, and you can set a good example when you manage your feelings in positive ways. For example, you send a powerful message when you respond to your frustrated child with calmness and understanding.
What to expect from preschoolers and emotions
At around 3-4 years, your preschooler will probably:
- use words to describe basic feelings like sad, happy, angry and excited
- understand and relate to how others are feeling
- feel generous and show an understanding of sharing – but don’t expect your child to share all the time
- do things that show affection for friends – for example, your toddler might make a drawing for a friend without you suggesting it.
At 4-5 years, your preschooler will probably:
- use words to describe more complex feelings like excitement, frustration and embarrassment, particularly if you’ve been encouraging your child to do this
- hide the truth about something if they feel guilty, embarrassed or frightened. Your child might even say ‘I didn’t do it’ when they did
- be better at managing strong emotions like anger, frustration and disappointment and have fewer tantrums
- feel anxious about going somewhere unfamiliar, like a birthday party, especially if they have a less sociable temperament
- play cooperatively with other children – for example, your child might agree to be the customer and let their friend be the shopkeeper in a game of shops.
By five years, your preschooler will probably:
- use words to describe complex feelings like disappointment, guilt and jealousy
- be more aware of their feelings towards others and act on them – for example, your child might be kind to friends and family and want to help you more
- try hard to follow the rules to avoid getting in trouble
- have more patience when waiting for things.
Play ideas to encourage preschooler emotions
Playing with you and with other children helps preschoolers explore and understand their feelings. Here are some play tips for you and your child:
- Give your child opportunities for messy play, like playing with sand, mud or paints. This is a great way for children to express feelings like happiness or sadness.
- Look for imaginative and creative ways for your child to play. Your child could act out feelings with puppets or toys, or use old clothes for dress-up games and pretend play. For example, your preschooler could pretend to be kind and concerned like a teacher or a doctor.
- Take your child outside to play in a park or open area with space for running, tumbling and rolling. This can help your child let out emotions.
- Encourage your child to paint and draw as a way of expressing emotions. Painting and drawing can soothe and calm your child if they’re frustrated or sad.
- Encourage your child to jump around and ‘act out’ music or make music with simple instruments.
- Give your child chances to play with children of all ages and abilities. By playing with other children, your child can learn how to understand and manage emotions.
- Read stories that feature characters who are experiencing similar situations and emotions to your child. This can help your child understand new emotions like grief about a pet’s death or worry about starting school.
- Let your child lead play. Your child might find it easier to express feelings if they feel in charge.
If you’re concerned about any aspect of your child’s development, it’s a good idea to talk with your child and family health nurse or GP or your child’s preschool teacher.