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Social-Emotional Development: Experiences and Activities

Family child care providers should offer a variety of experiences to support the social-emotional development of all children in their care. This lesson describes how you can create developmentally appropriate experiences that engage children in meaningful interactions to promote their growth and learning.

  • Learn how you can embed opportunities for social-emotional learning and development during daily routines and activities.
  • Discuss how you can support the social-emotional skills of all the children in your care.
  • Learn how to promote positive relationships among the children in your family child care home.



The children you care for need daily opportunities to participate in activities that help them learn new skills, and practice existing skills, in a fun, stimulating, and supportive environment (your home). Children develop social-emotional skills in the context of their relationships with their primary caregivers—including you as their child care provider—and within their family and culture. Children’s social-emotional development affects their ability to have successful school and life outcomes. During your daily activities and routines, you can embed opportunities to enhance children’s social-emotional learning.

Embedding Opportunities for Social-Emotional Development

The first step to intentionally embed opportunities for social-emotional development is to get to know all the children in your care. This involves observing them. You may want to write a few notes about their interests, their interactions with peers, their ability to express emotions. As you learn about the children, you can use this information to think about activities they may enjoy and how to facilitate the development of social skills and friendships. Think about:

  • What experiences do you want to provide to support the children’s abilities to learn to self-regulate?
  • How can you incorporate social-emotional learning into your daily schedule and routines?
  • How can you make snack times and lunchtime routines that support social development?

You serve as a model for children in how you express your own feelings. Placing a feeling chart in your child care area can be helpful when talking about feelings. The National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (which merged with the Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention)  offers Teaching Tools for Young Children with Challenging Behaviors including examples of feeling charts that you could use (see the “Feeling Vocabulary” section) Here is an example of a feelings chart you could use in your own program. 

examples of kids expressions alongside corresponding feelings such as a smiling child corresponding to happy


Addressing the Social-Emotional Needs of All Children

You may encounter children in your family child care setting who have special needs, developmental delays or may be experiencing challenging life events or circumstances. These challenges may influence the child’s ability to engage in positive social interactions with adults and peers. It is important to provide children with the support they need so they can benefit as much as possible from their early care and education experiences.

A caregiver and children engage in crafts and playFor some children, you will need to work closely with the family, share observations and documentation, and perhaps work with a consultant from an agency or school district that their family has contacted. An infant or toddler with special needs may have an Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) that describes all the special services for the child and family. A preschool or a school-age child with special needs may have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) that typically addresses school-based special services and supports. Children with special needs often need changes or adaptations to materials, environments, and routines. They also may have specific behavior plans that you and their parents need to carefully implement and monitor. You will want to ask the child’s family to help you receive any specific training or supports if you are expected to implement any individual social or emotional behavior strategies for a child with special needs or developmental delays.

Recognize that some children you care for may be dealing with challenging life circumstances. Such challenges may require intensive services. You help children build resilience to deal with stressful life events. As a family child care provider, you can tell families about local community services. Keep informed and have web addresses, phone numbers, and contacts for social service agencies and programs in your community handy so you will be ready to assist families when they seek services for themselves and their child.

As a family child care provider, you know the children in your home well and can facilitate helping children build peer relationships and friendships. Some ways to do this include:

  • Pair children to take turns with a new musical instrument.
  • Create small groups of mixed-age children to read a book together.
  • Teach young children to respond to a peer’s request to play.
  • Extend play by adding new materials to an ongoing pretend play activity outdoors.
  • Create personalized social stories or scripts to assist children who have difficulty with transitions, new routines, or recalling what happens next. (See examples of social stories from Head Start center for inclusion here:
  • Redirect children when they engage in challenging behavior.
  • Play games where children have to listen carefully to each other (e.g., Simon Says).


Promoting Friendships

Friendship skills begin developing in young children and change over time. Toddlers are aware of other children, but are not typically concerned with group play activities or making friends. They typically play next to other children even when using the same toys.

two preschool age children work together to build a structure with magnetic colored blocksPreschoolers are just beginning to understand how to be a friend and what it means to play cooperatively with other children. They can sustain group games and play scripts. They are beginning to form friendships that may carry over outside of child care (such as at someone’s home for a playdate).

School-age children are more drawn to peers and typically enjoy playing with others their age. They enjoy cooperative games, competitive games, playing sports, attending birthday parties, and they gravitate to other children who have similar interests. They enjoy meeting with friends outside of school and in child care settings. Some older school-age children get together with friends in special-interest clubs. Friendships become more and more important as children mature.

As a family child care provider, you can use many activities to promote friendship skills among the children in your care:

  • Include plenty of toys and materials that promote social interactions (e.g., dress-up clothes, blocks, balls, puppets, cars, trucks, and board games).
  • Arrange play areas so more than two children can play together (or side by side).
  • Read books about friends, cooperation, helping each other, emotions, and empathy.
  • Practice sharing and turn-taking during routines (snack, lunch, group meeting time).
  • Ask children to help or compliment one another during the day. Model this behavior, and ask older children to assist younger children with tasks.
  • Include the shared interests of children in areas of your home (e.g., if a child is interested in polished rocks, place some in a basket in a play area). Have her teach another child what she knows about different types of rocks.
  • Model talking about your own emotions and support children when they share their emotions. This may feel strange at first, but gets easier as you do it, “I feel disappointed because the weather forecast says it is supposed to rain a lot today, and I wanted to take us all to the farmers’ market.”
  • Make suggestions to small groups of children about play themes or what they might want to create as a group project. “I can see that several of you are interested in the types of birds that come to our bird feeder. Let’s start a project and document the types of birds we see each day.”
  • Include outdoor play equipment and toys that involve children working together (wagon, sand toys, etc.).

Some children may need extra encouragement from you to learn to play with another child. You will have to teach the child to take turns, ask for a turn, take on a role in a play scheme, etc. Pay close attention and be mindful about when it is good to intervene in the children’s play and when it is better to intentionally stay out of the situation.

Problem-Solving Activities

Just as in any groups, conflicts may arise at times in your family child care home. Conflicts or disagreements are teachable moments, an opportunity for you to teach children problem-solving skills. This is something you can practice (it often takes repetition) with the children as part of a small-group activity. Characters in children’s books often have problems they need to solve, and you can use those problems as examples. When reading or telling a story, ask the children to think about ways the character in the story solves a problem. Allow children to brainstorm ideas and perhaps even write them down and post them if they think of different solutions to the character’s problem.

There are many resources that describe how to teach children problem-solving steps. Some caregivers use a peace table to indicate a physical space where children can sit down together and solve a disagreement.

Diane Trister Dodge and her colleagues (2009) recommend using the following sequence or steps for teaching children problem solving:

  1. Identify the problem. For example, perhaps children building with blocks are interfering with children playing a board game on the floor.
  2. Brainstorm possible solutions. Invite children to share ideas about how to solve the problem. Invite everyone to suggest a solution. Write the ideas on paper and go over them with the children.
  3. Agree on a solution. Restate the children’s ideas and ask them to think about the best way to solve the problem. Make sure everyone has the same understanding of the solution. Clarify any questions.
  4. Try the solution and see how well it works. Remember to give the solution enough time to work. If the original solution doesn’t solve the problem, help the children try another idea.

Family Involvement

As a family child care provider, you have the wonderful opportunity to communicate (sometimes briefly) with each child’s family on a daily basis. Families are a wonderful resource when you are planning activities that promote social-emotional development. Parents know their children best and can inform you about their child’s interests, family outings, pets, and other news that can enhance your relationship with each child. Posting family pictures of your own family and the families of the children you care for helps make your home warm and nurturing.

Take time each day to speak positively to the families of the children in your care. Your relationship with a family helps enhance their child’s social-emotional development. You are an important adult in their child’s life. Children need to see the important adults in their lives (parents and caregivers) talking and treating each other respectfully.

Families may want to arrange play dates with other families and get to know one another. It’s important to ask families if they want you to share their contact information with another family.

Planning Experiences and Activities

Zero to Three has three excellent articles about ways to support young children’s social-emotional development. At the end of each article is a handout that you can post in your program or share with families. The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning also has a number of resources to target specific situations, such as: Promoting Positive Peer Social Interactions and Using Environmental Strategies to Promote Positive Social Interactions. Review these two sites here:

In addition to the above websites, the References & Resources section below (see end of lesson) may be helpful in finding engaging experiences and activities that support all children’s social and emotional development.


Review and complete the following handouts and use the examples to think about how you can embed social-emotional learning, problem solving, friendship building, and creating a caring community into your family child care home. Share your responses with your trainer, coach or family child care administrator.


You may be caring for children in various stages of social-emotional development. Intentionally planning for mixed ages of children can be challenging. It’s important to have a clear idea of what you want the individual children to be able to do during a planned play activity. Read the handout, complete it, and share your plan with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator. What social-emotional strategies might you embed into your activity?


Social stories:
Personalized short stories that describe social activities and behaviors used to support children in learning and using appropriate social skills
Developmental delay:
When children do not meet developmental milestones at the expected times; delays can occur in any area of development


A first step to intentionally embed opportunities for social-emotional development is to observe all the children in your care. Select which option illustrates you carrying out your observation.
What item or activity does not promote friendship skills among the children in your care?
True or false? To support social-emotional development, children need to see the important adults in their life (parents and caregivers) talking and treating each other respectfully.
References & Resources

Center for the Social and Emotional Foundations for Young Children (CSEFEL). Resources: Practical strategies for teachers/caregivers: Scripted stories and book nooks. Retrieved from

Dodge, D. T., Rudick, S., & Colker, L. J. (2009). The Creative Curriculum for Family Child Care. Washington, DC: Teaching Strategies.

Harms, T., Cryer, D., & Clifford, R. (2007). Family Child Care Environment Rating Scale (rev. ed.). NY: Teachers College Press.

Head Start Center for Inclusion. University of Washington. Social Stories. Retrieved from:

Head Start: Early Childhood Development, Teaching and Learning, Social and Emotional Support. National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning Materials. Retrieved from

Playworks. (2020). Game Library. Oakland, CA: Sports4Kids. Retrieved from

Zero to Three. Developing Social-Emotional Skills. Retrieved from