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    • Describe the importance of play and social-emotional development.
    • Define cooperative learning and how it supports social and emotional development.
    • Identify the core abilities that should be included in activities and experiences that promote social and emotional development.
    • Discuss how you can support the social-emotional skills of children with special learning needs in your program.




    The activities and experiences available in the learning environment should support the social-emotional development of school-age children.  Your role will be to observe children in this environment and plan opportunities for them to play, interact, and socialize with their peers. 

    The Importance of Play

    When observing children at play, it may appear to be all fun and games, but there is actually a lot of hard work and learning occurring. School-age children have many responsibilities and expectations during their structured school day, so in their after-school program, they need time for unstructured play. Free play allows children to use their imaginations for pretend play and to create, dream and explore. Play is one of the most important ways children use to develop their social skills. Studies have shown that when children are  engaged in play, they aren’t just having fun, they are working hard at the following:

    Fun objects

    • Practicing social skills such as negotiating, taking turns, sharing, compromising, expressing emotions, and listening to another’s feelings
    • Learning how to participate in a conversation with another person and understanding when it is time to listen or respond
    • Learning how to behave appropriately when winning or losing a game, sport or activity
    • Understanding qualities such fairness and justice
    • Learning how to follow rules and developing self-regulation
    • Developing empathy and motivation
    • Enhancing creativity and problem-solving skills

    Further, research has shown that, in addition to the skills they are learning and developing, there are many other positives from having children engage in play:

    • Children who engage in social and dramatic play are better able to view situations from another’s perspective and are considered as more intellectually and socially competent by their teachers. (Connolly & Doyle, 1984; Sawyer, 2001).
    • Outdoor play helps improve children’s physical well-being, attention, conflict resolution skills, coordination, and weight (Clements & Jarrett, 2000; Council on Physical Education for Children, 2001; Fjortoft, 2001; National Associaton of Early Childhood Specialislts in State Departments of Education, 2002).
    • Children who play out events in a story have improved story comprehension and develop a stronger theory of mind—which is the understanding that others have different feelings, thoughts, views and beliefs (Pellegrini & Galda, 1980).
    • Positive links between children’s dramatic play and early reading achievement have   been found (Pellegrini, 1980).

    Learning social skills occurs in almost any play experience; however, those that are dramatic or theatrical in nature provide more opportunities for children to practice their social skills with their peers. Dramatic play allows children to act out real life or fantasy scenarios and situations. As children grow, these scenes become more complex and may last days or even weeks. When interacting during dramatic play, children practice having conversations, sharing information, empathy and teamwork.

    It is crucial that children have opportunities for unstructured play each day. As a school-age staff member, it is your role to foster and encourage children to develop their imaginations and creativity. Allowing children to relax, be silly and enjoy their downtime will give children the time they need to practice the skills they are naturally developing.

    Cooperative Learning

    Cooperative learning refers to a learning environment organized in groups of peers who work together toward a common goal. This type of learning is most effective when learners work together in a supportive learning environment under a teacher’s careful guidance. This theory is widely used in the school environment, and it can be used in the school-age program as well. The basis of cooperative learning is that when children, preferably from a mixture of backgrounds and capabilities, work together toward a common goal, learn together, and develop social and cognitive skills. Other benefits and outcomes of cooperative learning are:

    • Children increase their friendship and respect for one another.
    • Children’s self-esteem is enhanced.
    • Children are motivated to participate in higher-order thinking.

    Kids play outdoors with building blocks

    As a school-age staff member, you can plan opportunities for cooperative learning by having children work together on projects. You can develop groups that consist of children with varied temperaments, personalities and capabilities so that they can learn from each other. By putting children in a small group to work with toward a common goal, you are helping them practice the social skills necessary for real world situations and experiences. 

    Activities and Experiences

    As a school-age staff member, you will be responsible for planning activities and experiences that help promote social-emotional development. Attached to this lesson, you will find a resource list to help plan these kinds of activities for school-age children. Although many of the resources may be focused on children who have difficulty developing social skills, all children can benefit from well planned experiences aimed at supporting a child’s social-emotional development.

    Activities and experiences that help promote social-emotional development are those that include core abilities, such as:

    • Self-awareness and self-control: Children are aware of their feelings and behaviors and know how to use self-control to regulate their emotions and behaviors as appropriate.
    • Effective listening and observation: Children are able to participate in a conversation and understand the time for listening and responding. Children also understand how to read another’s body language and non-verbal cues.
    • Knowledge of a range of emotions: Children understand a range of emotions, both of their own and their peers and how to respond to another’s feelings.
    • Imagination: Children are able to see things from another’s point of view and empathize with others.
    • Tolerance and acceptance: Children respect and celebrate differences in others.
    • Problem solving: Children are able to use thinking skills to work through problems.

    Although it is good practice to plan experiences and activities that will directly help to promote the social-emotional development of school-age children, it is also important to understand that this will happen naturally in the learning environment. Through play and learning experiences, children will be interacting and observing others, which will give them the opportunity to practice their social skills and behaviors. To support this, give children unstructured time for free play. This will allow conversations and interactions to occur. Use conflicts and situations that arise as a learning experience for children be sitting down to discuss what happened and what could have been done differently. Take time to help children express what they are feeling to one another and always encourage an atmosphere of respect and kindness.

    Addressing the Social-Emotional Needs of All Children in your School-Age Program

    Children with developmental disabilities in your program may also experience challenges with social-emotional skills. These challenges may affect the child’s ability to benefit from high-quality education and to engage in positive social interactions with peers and adults in your school-age program. Challenging behaviors are typical for children, but some children show persistent challenging behaviors that may affect their overall school experience. It is important to provide children with the support they need so they can benefit as much as possible from their school experiences. For these children, you may need to adapt your curriculum, environment and classroom experiences to enable them to be successful. Think about your activities, transitions, meal times, free-play time indoors and outdoors, or other program events. What are you during these times to ensure you address the needs of all children in your program?

    A caregiver works with special needs children

    Some children in your care may have conditions that affect their social-emotional development, including developmental delays, autism, neurological and perceptual disorders, or language and communication delays. Children with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) have a specific plan in place to help them meet their educational goals. Very often, these children will need changes or adaptations to curriculum, program environment, and daily routines. You will also have to work with children’s families and schools to ensure consistency between school and home.

    A caregiver works with a special needs child

    Peer-mediated interventions involve strategies in which teachers purposefully pair children who have advanced social-emotional skills to work with children who are working at developing these skills. These strategies ensure that children have multiple opportunities throughout the day to practice social skills during routines and activities. For example, you can pair children to support practice and learning of skills such as sharing materials with a friend, reading a book with a friend, taking turns during games or activities or responding to a friend’s request to play. Remember when considering using these strategies, you should choose peers who are socially competent, compliant with adult requests, well-liked by other children and peers, and those who have good language and play skills and like to take on the “teacher” role with peers. You can teach these children to lead their peers who are practicing and learning social skills by: responding to a peer’s request to play, helping a peer play with a game or activity, suggesting an idea for pretend play, prompting a peer to share a toy, prompting a peer to select a game or activity, or prompting a peer to take turns with an activity or toy.

    Some children with autism or developmental disabilities will be able to engage in games and other social interactions that have verbal prompts and directions. Other children will need visual supports, such as a visual schedule, to make activities, routines or instructions understandable and meaningful. For children who need supports understanding social situations, events or circumstances, you may consider using social stories or scripts. These are short stories that describe social activities or behaviors to support children in learning and using appropriate social skills. They can be written by family members or teachers and are specific to an individual child’s particular needs. Social stories and scripts may be used to support children with situations such as sharing, waiting in line, playing at the park, participating during activity time, using the bathroom and getting on the bus. The picture below is the beginning of a social story about preparing and participating in indoor recess.

    Indoor Recess Visual Story

    As you have read throughout the Virtual Lab School courses, it is critical that you get to know the children in your program to be able to support their successful participation in your program experiences. Make sure all children and families feel welcome and involved. The Kids Included Together (KIT) program can be a valuable resource for ideas. You can also consider Building Blocks and Kara’s Kit. These resources from the Council for Exceptional Children Division for Early Childhood provide practical, real world ways to help children succeed in their environments.


    Social-Emotional Development: Experiences and Activities

    Watch this video to learn how to promote social-emotional development through experiences in a school-age environment.


    As a school-age staff member, you will be responsible for supporting the social-emotional development of children. Because social skills are such a core value for human beings, their development occurs naturally when children are given opportunites for interaction, imagination, and play. Your role will be to:

    • Support children as they develop their social skills by creating an environment bases on respect and kindness.
    • Model healthy ways of expressing emotions, interacting with others, and coping with stress.
    • Plan activities that encourage children to work together in cooperative learning environments. Group children in a way that gives children of varied backgrounds and capabilities a chance to work together and learn from each other.
    • Allow for the development of social skills to occur naturally in the learning environment by giving children time to play and interact in an unstructured way. Give children time to relax, imagine and have conversations with their peers.



    Children naturally practice social-emotional skills while interacting and playing with others. Spend some time observing their play. Download and print the Explore: Playtime Observations form. Share your finished work with your  trainer, coach, or supervisor. 



    Use the information you have been learning so far in this course to plan appropriate cooperative learning experiences for school-age children. Read the attached scenario and then plan an appropriate cooperative learning experience.  Share your finished work with your trainer, coach, or supervisor.




    True or False? Play becomes less important as children enter the school-age years.


    A parent asks why you have implemented cooperative learning in your school-age program. How do you respond?


    Finish this statement: Peer-mediated intervention...

    References & Resources

    Berk, L. E. (2013). Child development (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

    Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. Resources: Preschool Training Modules. Retrieved from

    Council on Accreditation Standards for Child and Youth Development Programs. Retrieved from

    Edwards, C. C., & Da Fonte, A. (2012). The 5-Point Plan: Fostering successful partnerships with families of students with disabilities. Teaching Exceptional Children, 44, 6-13.

    Gray, C. A., & Garand, J. D. (1993). Social Stories: Improving responses of students with autism with accurate social information. Focus on Autistic Behavior, 8(1), 1-10.

    Guralnick, M. J., Neville, B., Hammond, M. A., & Connor, R. T. (2007). The friendships of young children with developmental delays: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 28, 64-79.

    Head Start Center for Inclusion. Social Stories. Retrieved from

    Kits Included Together (KIT, 2012). Supporting Children & Youth with Social-Emotional Needs. Kids Included Together & National Training Center on Inclusion. Retrieved from:

    Milbourne, S. & Campbell, P. (2007). CARA’s Kit: Creating Adaptations for Routines and Activities. Retrieved from

    National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. (2012). Early Childhood Generalist Standards for Teachers of Ages 3-8 (3rd ed.). Arlington, VA: National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

    National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning. Materials for Social Emotional Support: (1) Giving Children Responsibilities, (2) Following Children’s Lead, (3) Fostering Connections, (4) Being Aware of Children’s Needs, (5) Creating a Caring Community. Related content online at

    Sandall, S.R., & I.S. Schwartz. 2008. Building Blocks for Teaching Preschoolers with Special Needs. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Brookes.

    Watson Institute. Teacher Resources: Behavior Stories. Retrieved from: