Photo by La-Rel Easter on Unsplash

Want to improve young children’s social-emotional learning? Let them play.

By Megan Hillegass

Four-year-old Carina* is in tears. She and her best friend Yolanda have been reenacting the story of the gingerbread man in the dramatic play area of my Preschool for All classroom, and have had a serious disagreement about how long the gingerbread man should stay in the oven. I bend down and put my arms around her, murmuring softly to help her calm down so we can talk about the problem. Suddenly, I feel a tapping on my shoulder. It’s five-year-old Alejandro, who has noticed Carina’s tears and come over from his play in the block center. “I’m the Sadness Captain,” he tells me, “I’ll help her.” I step back and he steps in, putting his arm around Carina and guiding her in taking deep, calming breaths. When the sobbing has slowed to a hiccup, he tells Yolanda, “Carina is the saddest one. Let her do it how she wants.” Yolanda nods solemnly, and everyone is back to the noisy business of play.

There has been a lot of talk lately about how to teach social-emotional skills in all grade levels. Schools are learning about trauma-informed practice, researching social-emotional curriculums, and hiring coaches to train teachers in social-skill instruction in their classrooms. School districts across the state and country are realizing that children cannot access the academic curriculum unless their social-emotional needs are being met. They have to know how to regulate their emotions, recognize others’ feelings, and handle negative feelings appropriately. All of this is good news, particularly for the preschool teachers like me who have been including this skill development in our curriculum for years. These skills are finally being validated in the elementary school curriculum, and reinforced in the Kindergarten classrooms that our students will move on to. But what’s missing in many of these Kindergarten classrooms is the chance to practice those skills in real-time situations. How can we allow children time and opportunities to apply their social-emotional learning to real-life peer interactions? Through play.

Alejandro knew how to help Carina, and it wasn’t by accident. His actions were the result of a six-week study during which children in my low-income, bilingual preschool classroom learned the names of the feelings raging inside them. They learned how to calm themselves down when having feelings they didn’t like, and how to use their words to express those feelings and resolve conflicts. They learned how to recognize feelings in others, and how to help others feel better. All of these skills are essential to functioning in a classroom at any grade level, but the most important part of this curriculum for young children is the opportunity to practice these skills during our 60-minute daily free-play period.

One of our classroom jobs, as important as the Line Leader and Marker Passer, is the Sadness Captain. The Sadness Captain is on the alert for classmates in tears, and uses his or her new social-emotional skills to help them get past their sadness and solve their problems. I designed the role to give children meaningful opportunities to regulate their feelings and resolve conflicts with peers as they arise naturally during play.

Next year Alejandro and Carina will go on to Kindergarten. Like many other kindergartners across the state, they will move from a play-based classroom to a full day of school in which rote skills are emphasized and play is rarely allowed. Their hardworking teachers will enthusiastically teach social-emotional skills with the support of our new districtwide Social Emotional Learning coach, and the children will sit on the rug, nodding in agreement about the best way to handle strong feelings. What I worry about is that it will end right where it started: on the rug, talking about the skills out of context, with no opportunities to practice. Play is the work of young children, and five-year-olds in Kindergarten need the chance to learn, grow, and interact through play. They need teacher support as they negotiate, compromise, and calm themselves down. They need Sadness Captains, and calming breaths, and suggestions from friends for conflict resolution. They need play.

We all want our children to be fully adjusted and emotionally competent. As an early childhood teacher, I can tell you that achieving this goal has gotten harder in the past 10 years. We live in a culture of immediate gratification, which doesn’t lend itself well to emotional competence and self-regulation. The good news is, we can teach social-emotional skills and give children the tools they need to thrive in their community and the world at-large. Rich, well-designed play experiences in school allow children to practice and integrate those skills in a meaningful context. We should all advocate for our schools to make more room for play in Kindergarten, so kids like Alejandro can continue on their road to success.

  • All students’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.

Megan Hillegass is a bilingual Preschool for All teacher at Horace Mann School in Blue Island, Illinois. She is a 2018–19 Teach Plus Illinois Early Childhood Educator Fellow.