SEL – that’s Social Emotional Learning – is hugely important when it comes to helping children of any age understand and manage their emotions, build relationships and express themselves. Working SEL into playtime at home will help give your child the best possible start in life. It’s also a fantastic bonding experience and can be a lot of fun for everyone. Here are some of our favourite ways to build SEL skills through hands-on play.


What is their face saying?

A child using Big Feelings Pineapple Deluxe Set

Learning to understand how people reflect their emotions through facial and body expressions is an important skill for children. It helps them to respond to others with empathy as well as equipping them with the right skills to show the world how they are feeling.

Make it fun with this bright and colourful Big Feelings Pineapple Deluxe Set. Using the 40 face pieces and 3 pairs of arms included, encourage your child to build a face that mirrors their feelings, or create one yourself and see if your child can work out what emotion the pineapple is feeling.

Telling stories

A Dad reading to his daughter during story time

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Working SEL into story time is a great way to engage preschoolers with the fundamentals. This could be as simple as choosing a book that handles feelings in a child-friendly way, but if you want to make it a more interactive activity you just need a collection of toys and your imagination.

First, lay out a selection of soft toys or toy figures – anything from dinosaurs or farm animals to dolls will work perfectly. Then make up a simple story or read aloud a book you have at home, and ask your child to use their toys to act out the emotions – whether that’s stomping about when angry or skipping when happy, etc.

The feeling matching game

the All About Me Feelings Activity Set

If you’re looking for a fun SEL group activity, this feeling matching game is perfect for getting siblings playing and learning together. Identifying how different emotions are shown through facial expressions and body language is a key part of SEL development and the All About Me Feelings Activity Set turns it into an accessible game that kids of all ages will enjoy.

Ask your children to take turns to pick an emotion card – 18 cards that feature either a photograph or line drawing demonstrating a particular feeling. Get them to pick out one of the multicoloured feeling counters – little models with different facial and body expressions – which they think matches the card the best, then talk about what the emotion might be.

5 key benefits of SEL
  • May increase empathy
  • Encourages better communication with others
  • Helps children to understand their emotions
  • Can build stronger relationships
  • Supports a wider vocabulary

Making worry dolls

Someone painting over a lolly stick

If something is playing on your child’s mind, encourage them to talk to you about their worries. Rather than a sit-down, face to face chat, children often open up more through hands-on activities like crafting, which is why making worry dolls together is great for SEL.

There are many different ways to make worry dolls, so just choose a project that suits your child’s age and ability the best. For younger children, help them to wrap lengths of coloured string around a lolly stick, then let them draw a little face at the top. Talk together about whatever is worrying them first, then let your child tell the doll their worries too. Your child can then place the doll under their pillow and the doll will take all the worries away by the morning.

Create your own emotion masks

Two children holding up to their face a paper plate emotion mask

Many SEL games make excellent rainy-day activities. Creating paper plate emotion masks is a fun way of exploring emotions, getting creative and working on those fine motor skills. To get started, cut some paper plates in half. If your child is able to read, write a simple emotion on the back of the plate, otherwise make a face and see if your child can guess what emotion you’re trying to express.

Use this process to talk a bit about emotions, then draw mouths onto the paper plate to reflect these. Stick the plates onto lolly sticks or pencils, then use as a mask for the bottom half of your face. Just have fun trying to make your eyes match the paper plate mouth emotion – or do the opposite, for example angry eyes with a big smiley mouth.

Feelings check-in

A child holding up an 'the Express Your Feelings Sensory Bottle'

A key aspect of SEL is letting a child know that it’s important to talk about how they are feeling – and that every feeling is valid. No matter their age, having a ‘feelings check-in’ once a day creates a safe, non-judgemental space for children to chat about their emotions.

Pick a time of day when you think this would work best – maybe that’s in the morning before school or nursery, or at bathtime, when you’re getting your child ready for bed. Using visual props like the Express Your Feelings Sensory Bottles can make it easier for young children to demonstrate how they are feeling. These 4 brightly coloured bottles each feature a different expression to represent an emotion. The bottles are also filled with liquid to create a flowing action that represent that feeling, for example gold glitter for happy and a slow-motion, blue lava lamp-like effect for sad.

Today I will be kind

A mother and her daughter looking at a ‘I will show kindness’ chart stuck on the fridge door

A really beneficial part of SEL is helping to raise a child that is kind and empathic. Talking about the importance of kindness and the effect is has on others and the world around us in general can be done at any age.

To encourage kindness in school age children, why not create an ‘I will show kindness’ chart at home? Add actions such as ‘help clean up’, ‘share something’, ‘say thank you’, ‘let someone go first’ and ‘ask someone to play’, and either let your child choose which one they want to do each day or see how many kind actions they can do at school. Keep track of their kindness with a sticker chart or kindness jar, where they get to add a marble for every kind act.