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Teaching emotional regulations through play

Play’s Transformative Power in Awakening Emotional Intelligence”

Learning to understand, control, and constructively express one’s emotions is an ageless skill that is especially important during a child’s formative years as they navigate the complex dance of childhood, where each day brings new discoveries and emotional roller coasters.

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We have long recognized the power of Play in a child’s life, but you may not fully appreciate how it can be an extraordinary teacher of emotional regulation. Enter the world of Play, where imagination knows no bounds, the boundaries of reality blur, and the laughter, tears, and giggling flow freely.

This article will guide you through the fascinating world of Play’s role in fostering emotional regulation, taking you on a journey through the stages of emotional regulation’s development and revealing the magic behind Play’s role in fostering this skill while also providing concrete strategies and activities that parents, caregivers, and educators can use to weave emotional intelligence into the fabric of playtime.

Recognizing and Managing Emotions

Photo: Kindel Media

We must first understand what it takes to teach emotional regulation through Play effectively, as it is the foundation of a child’s emotional well-being and paves the way to healthier relationships, better decision-making, and a more resilient approach to life’s ups and downs.

A child’s ability to regulate their emotions is like having a rudder to help them through the stormy seas of their emotional landscape. Emotional regulation involves the delicate balancing act of expressing feelings appropriately while avoiding emotional outbursts that may harm oneself or others. The ability to regulate one’s emotions is the difference between a child throwing a tantrum out of frustration and one who is able to express his or her feelings of rage or sadness in a constructive manner.

Infants initially rely on caregivers to regulate emotions through calming and soothing actions, but as children develop, they internalize these regulatory mechanisms and gain greater autonomy in managing their emotions on their own. Emotional control has many facets, including the following:

  • Recognition of Emotions: The Precise Identification and Labeling of Emotional States Being able to comprehend one’s feelings, including their origins, effects, and transient nature. Appropriate and socially acceptable means of expressing one’s emotions. Developing coping techniques to lessen or lengthen the experience of negative emotions is called emotion regulation.
  • Emotional Control: Emotional regulation is not static; rather, it progresses through stages that parallel children’s cognitive and social growth. As they learn to control their emotions, babies eventually gain the ability to self-soothe, such as by sucking their thumb or holding on to a comfort object. During infancy (0-2 years), babies rely primarily on caregivers to soothe them when disturbed. In the toddler years, children become more self-aware and may use simple language to express their feelings. However, young children’s capacity to regulate their emotions is still developing, so they may have temper tantrums or other emotional outbursts when they are unable to express their needs in other ways. By the time they reach the middle years of childhood (ages 6 to 12), children have made great strides in their ability to identify and control their emotional responses to a variety of situations. They have expanded their emotional vocabulary and learned that their behavior can have an effect on how they feel.
  • Adolescence (age 13 and up): Adolescents continue to hone their emotional regulation skills, develop a more nuanced understanding of complex emotions, and improve their ability to verbally express their feelings. However, adolescents also face new emotional challenges related to identity, peer pressure, and self-esteem. In order to effectively customize play-based approaches to teaching emotional regulation, an understanding of these developmental phases is needed. This paves the way for age-appropriate activities that help youngsters navigate the complex world of emotions and learn this vital life skill.

Play as a Tool for Emotional Regulation Instruction

In this section, we will explore the profound impact that Play has on nurturing this essential skill in children and how different forms of Play become potent tools for emotional learning due to their open-ended nature and ability to spark the imagination.

  • The Role of Play in Emotional Development: When children engage in play, whether alone or with friends, they enter a world where they can express and control their emotions without judgment, and this is why play is sometimes referred to be the “native tongue” of children. Children learn about the full range of human emotions, from empathy and kindness to frustration and conflict, through Play because it provides a safe space for emotional expression. In Play, children can try on different emotional masks, trying out roles and experimenting with different scenarios. Children’s ability to share their feelings and thoughts with others through play helps them develop emotional intelligence by laying the groundwork for productive dialogues with their caregivers and teachers about those feelings and thoughts.
  • The Emotional Effects of Different Games: Different forms of play offer varied possibilities for learning to control and improve one’s emotions.
  1. Playing pretend, or role-playing, helps kids develop empathy because they get to experience the feelings of the people they’re pretending to be. For example, while playing doctor, a kid might comfort a “sick” teddy bear, teaching them to be compassionate and caring.
  2. Physical play, such as running, jumping, and climbing, is a great way to burn off excess energy and stress while also improving one’s mood and reducing feelings of anxiety. Children who have trouble putting their feelings into words may find that engaging in artistic pursuits such as drawing, painting, and crafting provides them with a constructive outlet for expressing themselves.
  3. Cooperative Play: Games that require participation from more than one player foster social and emotional development by requiring players to work together to solve problems.To ensure a child’s healthy emotional growth, it’s important to provide them with opportunities for different kinds of play on a regular basis.
  4. Play, with its malleability and innate joy, is a potent tool for teaching emotional regulation. It allows children to explore emotions, experiment with different responses, and eventually develop the skills to navigate the rich tapestry of human feelings, as we’ll see in the next section. However, harnessing this power requires thoughtful guidance and creativity in designing play-based activities that target emotional growth.

Teaching Emotional Control Through Play 

Photo: Allan Mas

In this section, we will discuss concrete strategies and activities that parents, caregivers, and educators can use to foster emotional intelligence while children revel in the joys of Play. Teaching emotional regulation through Play is more than just a child’s Play; it is a deliberate and skillful approach that engages a child’s mind and heart.

  •  Real-World Solutions for Parents and Teachers: Intention and guidance are the first steps in using play to teach emotional control. Here are some techniques for parents and teachers to consider. Encourage children to express their emotions and provide support and direction as they learn to regulate their own by acting as an “emotion coach” who does the same. Make sure the playground is a safe place where kids can express their feelings without worrying about being teased or bullied.
  • Use Age-Appropriate Language: Because younger children may not have the vocabulary to describe complicated emotions, it is important to use simple terminology and images when explaining things to them. When a child shows emotion, it’s important to affirm their feelings by saying things like, “I can see that you’re feeling frustrated. That’s fine, and I’m sure we can figure it out together. Play promotes independence, but it’s also vital to set ground rules about how people should behave and what kinds of expressions are appropriate while playing together.
  •  Sample Events: Emotion Charades is a fun approach to helping kids learn to recognize and express different emotions by acting them out without using words. Players take turns imitating an emotion and having their teammates guess what they’re experiencing. Children can learn about and express their emotions with an activity called “Feelings Collage,” in which they use magazines, scissors, and glue to make a collage depicting a range of feelings.
  • Emotion Stories: Use storytelling as a tool for emotional exploration by writing about characters who go through a variety of emotions and then having kids talk about how those characters dealt with their emotions. Involve children in art activities that center on their emotions, such as having them paint a picture of how they’re feeling on a specific day.
  • Feelings Journals: Encourage children to keep a feelings book where they can write or draw about their emotions each day. This journal can be a great tool for tracking emotional trends and triggers.

These activities are just a glimpse into the vast array of play-based strategies that can be used to teach emotional regulation. The key is to keep play purposeful, nurturing, and responsive to each child’s unique emotional journey. As we delve deeper into this topic, we’ll explore the profound benefits of adopting these strategies and the insights of experts in the field.

What are the Benefits of Teaching Emotional Regulation Through play?

Teaching emotional control through Play is not simply a whimsical choice—it’s a substantial investment in a child’s emotional well-being. This section will cover the many advantages of using Play to improve children’s emotional intelligence.

  • Long-term Positive Outcomes: The influence of teaching emotional regulation through Play continues far beyond Childhood. It provides the foundation for a lifetime of emotional health and resilience. Here are some long-term benefits:
  • Enhanced Self-Awareness: Play allows children to explore and express various emotions. This self-exploration builds deep self-awareness, helping individuals recognize and understand their feelings throughout their lives.
  • Effective Coping Mechanisms: Through Play, children acquire diverse emotional management skills. These tools become helpful in adulthood when encountering obstacles, pressures, and interpersonal problems.
  • Improved Relationships: Emotional regulation is a cornerstone of successful relationships. Those who have mastered this skill via Play are better prepared to manage the intricacies of social interactions, resolve disagreements, and express empathy toward others. An important part of keeping one’s mental health in check is building and maintaining resilience, and play-based emotional learning is a terrific way to do just that.

Professional Opinions

Photo: Pavel Danilyuk

Play has been shown to have a significant impact on helping children learn to regulate their emotions, and experts in child development, psychology, and education agree.

According to Dr. Jane Nelsen, a Psychologist and Educator: “Play is the language of children.” When we use play to teach children important life skills like emotional control, we are speaking their language and increasing their chances of success. According to renowned psychologist and author Dr. Daniel Goleman: “Emotional intelligence is not just about knowing and managing our emotions; it’s also about identifying and responding to the emotions of others. Children learn essential abilities for managing their emotions, including empathy and social interaction, through play.

“Play is a powerful means of self-discovery and emotional expression,” says Dr. Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and play researcher. It’s a crucial part of growing up; we shouldn’t dismiss it as frivolous. When we provide children opportunities for play, we help them develop emotionally.

According to these authorities, play is more than a harmless diversion; it’s a powerful agent of change that determines one’s long-term psychological health. In the following section, we’ll address common misconceptions and concerns related to this approach, ensuring a comprehensive understanding of the power of Play in emotional development, and why teaching emotional regulation through Play is an investment in the future emotional health of our children.

Dispelling Myths and Addressing Concerns

While the concept of using play to teach emotional regulation is gaining traction, there are some common beliefs and potential problems that need to be addressed to provide a greater grasp of this beneficial approach.

  • First Fallacy: Play Is Only for Entertainment; It Has No Serious Value, The reality is that children learn most about the world and themselves via play because it is a risk-free environment in which they can try out new ways of interacting with others and new ways of handling their own emotions.
  • Second Fallacy: Games Don’t Help With Developing Emotional Control, The reality is that children learn best through play because it provides them with opportunities to practice identifying and expressing their emotions, acting out different scenarios, and trying out different coping mechanisms.
  • Thirdly, the belief that emotional education is best handled in the classroom. In reality, learning to control one’s emotions is a process that begins at home and continues with the help of teachers and caregivers in formal and informal educational settings.

Can Play Therapy Help Troubled Kids?

Photo: Gustavo Fring

Children who are experiencing emotional difficulties may benefit from play-based interventions such as play therapy or emotionally-focused play, yet in some circumstances, children will need the assistance of a trained expert.

When children express unpleasant emotions during play, it’s an opportunity for adults to have a dialogue with them about feelings and help them find more positive ways to express themselves. Play can improve, rather than hinder, cognitive and emotional development, thus it is important to incorporate it into everyday routines and educational activities.

In the following section, we will delve into real-world success stories that demonstrate the tangible benefits of teaching emotional regulation through Play. It is a holistic approach that nurtures emotional intelligence and equips children with vital skills for life.

Examples of Actual Success

In this section, we will share illuminating real-life success stories of individuals who have benefited from learning emotional regulation through Play, and in doing so, we will demonstrate the transformative power of Play in shaping emotionally resilient and empathetic individuals, which is the true measure of any educational approach.

  • First Case Study: Maya’s Struggle to Know Herself

Maya, a reticent and shy seven-year-old, had trouble expressing her thoughts and would often bottle them up, which would then lead to rare outbursts. Maya’s parents, realizing the need of emotional regulation, integrated Play into Maya’s daily routine.

They introduced art therapy as a form of Play, encouraging Maya to use painting and drawing to express her emotions. Maya’s artwork eventually revealed her inner thoughts and feelings, and she gained the confidence to talk about them openly as a result of these sessions.

Maya’s parents believe that the power of play was crucial in their daughter’s development of artistic talent and the ability to articulate her feelings.

  • In Case Study 2, we meet Sam, a ten-year-old boy whose parents sought help from a licensed play therapist who specialized in trauma and emotional regulation after he exhibited anger, anxiety, and social withdrawal in response to his traumatic experience.

Through play therapy, Sam was able to safely rehearse and process his traumatic memories, using toys, art, and imaginative play to communicate and make sense of his feelings and emotions. Sam’s progress is a testament to the powerful impact of play-based interventions on emotional healing; as time went on, his emotional outbursts lessened, and he developed healthier coping mechanisms thanks to play therapy.

  • Third Example: Emily’s Social Success Through Teamwork

Emily, a nine-year-old who had trouble establishing friends and participating in group activities, attended a summer camp where the emphasis was placed on working together to achieve a common goal. During camp, Emily participated in team-building activities, games, and projects that required her to communicate with others, work together, and control her emotions in a social setting.

Consequently, Emily’s camp experience improved her social skills and established the groundwork for a more emotionally balanced and confident future by allowing her to make new friends and build the emotional intelligence to manage disagreements and collaborate effectively with peers.


We conclude our investigation of how to teach emotional regulation through play with a rich tapestry of insights and possibilities that promise to shape the future of our children’s emotional intelligence and their ability to navigate the complex journey of childhood.

We have seen how Play, with its limitless creativity and adaptability, serves as a potent catalyst for emotional learning, and we have uncovered the complexities of emotional regulation, from its definition to the developmental stages children pass through as they learn to navigate their emotional landscapes. We have explored the realm of play-based activities and practical tactics that parents, caregivers, and educators can utilize to foster emotional intelligence in children, so enabling them to detect, understand, and constructively manage their emotions.

Expert voices have echoed the notion that play is not a frivolous activity but a transforming instrument for emotional growth, with advantages ranging from increased self-awareness and efficient coping techniques to stronger relationships and lifetime resilience.

We’ve addressed frequent worries and misunderstandings to reiterate that play is an important activity for emotional development and that it can help children with major emotional issues develop emotional intelligence. The power of Play goes beyond theory, and we have seen the actual impact of teaching emotional regulation through Play through uplifting real-world success stories.

In conclusion, teaching emotional regulation through Play is not just a pedagogical option; it is a significant investment in our children’s emotional well-being because it helps them develop the self-awareness, empathy, and resiliency they will need to successfully navigate the complexities of their own emotional experiences.

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