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Promoting Social-Emotional Development Through Supportive Environments and Activities

Environments and activities have great potential to support social and emotional development. In this lesson, you will learn to help staff members design spaces and activities that promote social interactions and emotional well-being. You will explore the role of culture in social-emotional development and learn ways to help staff members support all learners. You will learn strategies for observing and providing feedback to staff members about ways their environments and activities support social and emotional development.

  • Describe how environments and activities support social-emotional development.
  • Model environmental strategies for supporting social-emotional development in the program.
  • Observe and provide feedback to staff members on environments.



Think about how difficult it would be to carry on a phone conversation in the most high-traffic area of your house—perhaps your children are running back and forth, they ask you to find their soccer cleats, your dog wants to be let out. How would this make you feel? How would this change your behavior either toward your friend on the phone or toward your children? Perhaps you would find yourself flustered and apologizing to your friend. Perhaps you would get upset or decide to cut your conversation short. Perhaps you would yell or become angry. This is similar to how children can feel when spaces aren’t designed to promote social-emotional development. This lesson will provide strategies you can use to help staff members make the most of their social spaces and times.

How Do Environments Support Social-Emotional Development?

We know that many factors influence child development. While some, such as genetics, are out of our control, environmental factors are very much within our control. Developmental psychologist, Urie Bronfenbrenner, studied the impact of the social environment on human development. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory explains how the environment you grow up in affects your thinking, emotions, and interests. His theory considers five interrelated systems and their impact on children. These systems include:

  1. Microsystem: The microsystem is made up of groups that have direct contact with the child including family and school or child care.
  2. Mesosystem: The mesosystem is made up of the relationships between the groups from the first system. An example could be the parent-teacher relationship, and how it affects the child.
  3. Exosystem: The exosystem includes factors that affect the child’s life, but do not have a direct connection with the child. An example of this could be their parents’ workplace.
  4. Macrosystem: The macrosystem contains cultural elements such as family values and religion.
  5. Chronosystem: The chronosystem refers to the stage of life that the person or child is in and how it affects various situations. This includes the changes in a person or environment over time.

While this systems theory does not account for biological factors, it helps us to think about the ways in which the environment and relationships impact children’s development and behavior. It encourages the caregiver to consider the whole child when planning the environment and space in which they will learn and grow.

As you have learned throughout the Safety, Healthy, Learning Environments, and Cognitive courses, high-quality, developmentally appropriate environments have a great impact upon children’s learning and development. Environments play a critical role in promoting social-emotional development and preventing challenging behavior. Therefore, environments are an important feature of this course and of the Guidance course. The following section will focus on how you can help staff members design spaces that will provide opportunities for interaction within their environments.

Well-Designed Spaces

Classrooms, playgrounds, and program spaces become the stage for social interactions in your program. You can help staff members design these spaces to optimize social interactions. Teach staff members to consider the following features.

Spaces for social play:

Staff members should be intentional about planning spaces with the knowledge that children, from infancy through school age, benefit from spaces for social play. Help staff members consider the following:

  • Infants and Toddlers: Most infants and toddlers do not yet play together. Rather, they progress through stages of solitary and parallel play. As they reach the end of the toddler period, children may begin engaging in cooperative social play. Spaces should be designed with an understanding of this progression. For young infants and toddlers, staff members should provide spaces with duplicates of interesting materials. These spaces should be designed with adequate space for a small number of children to play and explore independently without being crowded or overwhelmed. Cooperative toys (like balls, dramatic play materials, or a rocking boat climber) or materials that require turn-taking (like a slide) should be arranged in a way that an adult can always provide direct support to the children.
  • Preschool: Between the ages of 3 and 5, children’s imaginative and social play blossoms. Preschool spaces should provide many opportunities for children to explore their new interests. Spaces like dramatic play or the home area provide ideal stages for social play. Ensure that staff members design these spaces to optimize social play; spaces should be large enough to accommodate groups of children comfortably, and it should be easy for children to come and go (for example, there are multiple ways in and out of the space if children start to feel crowded). Adults can support children with problem-solving if spaces become crowded (“It looks like there are only four chairs in the doctor’s office, and some patients are getting frustrated. How could we solve the problem?”). Choice boards can also help children plan their play and make connections with peers.

    The dramatic play area is not the only space where social play should be encouraged, though. The block area should be designed so that several children can work together to build large or complex structures

    Staff members can design any area of the room to promote social play. The art easel can be set up for two children to work together and musical instruments can be structured to help children form their own “band.” Staff members can set up a writing area and encourage children to write notes or letters to one another and loved ones. Even the book area can provide a quiet place for children to look at books together.

    Dramatic Play Areacarol nursery
  • School-age: Some of the same learning environment principles described for preschool also apply to school-age programs, however, school-age programs also have their own design opportunities and challenges. Many spaces in school-age programs are inherently social (sport spaces, board or card games, pool table, cooking area, etc.). Other spaces are more isolated, and as a trainer, coach, or supervisor, you can help staff members consider whether it is appropriate to enrich the social opportunities in those spaces. For example, have staff members considered whether the homework space can incorporate some cooperative elements? Can a quiet space be set up for two children to work together on homework or to provide peer tutoring? Video games and computers can also be solitary. Help staff members identify video games that promote group play or cooperative play. Brainstorm computer guidelines that promote social uses of technology. For example, two children using the computer together to research a topic. The boys in this photo are looking up the rules for a pool game to help settle a conflict in the program.

    center systems School-Agers look up the rules for a pool game to help settle a conflict in the program.
Clear traffic patterns that protect spaces for play:

You can also teach staff members that it is important to consider not only the spaces themselves but also how children move between spaces. It is impossible to engage in rich social play when children are constantly distracted by other children or adults.

Make sure social spaces, like dramatic play and block areas, are protected from traffic. All areas should have clear boundaries, clear entrances and exits, and should be located away from high-traffic areas which children and staff members may need to pass through for materials or other activities. Sometimes spaces serve multiple purposes; for example, the block area also contains materials for group time, music and movement, puzzles, or board games. Help staff members brainstorm storage solutions that protect spaces for their intended purposes during intended times. They might use an attractive fabric to cover materials that aren’t necessary during a certain time of the day. Staff members might also set up the shelves so that high-traffic materials are stored on the edge of the social area, so children do not disturb play to get what they need.


The environment can provide cues that help children interact with one another. Signs or posters can help children decide whether a play area is “full.” It can also be helpful to post visual reminders of the program’s rules or expectations in play areas. You can help staff use these materials to teach area-specific guidelines for play and behavior. For example, if your program expects children to “be respectful” or “be good friends,” staff can post pictures of what those behaviors look like in certain areas of the room or program space. They can post a picture of children helping one another on playground equipment or working together to clean up.

Opportunities to interact in a variety of ways

Providing a variety of experiences can help children develop social and emotional competence. When children have opportunities to work with others, they learn the necessary skills for effective group work, such as taking turns, problem solving, compromising, and sharing. Adults can provide opportunities for even the youngest of children to interact together by turning on music and dancing, reading a story and encouraging children to come sit with the adult, or setting out interesting materials that infants can explore at the same time. These types of experiences provide infants with an opportunity to choose how, when, and how long to interact with others and with materials. For older toddlers through school-age children, you can help staff members design small group, large group, and independent experiences. Here are a few examples:

  • A teacher in your 2-year-old classroom incorporates three different ways for children to play with balls. In large-group activity before lunch, all of the children sit together on the carpet for a story. When the story is over, she begins a cooperative song. She rolls the ball to a child and sings “I roll the ball to Charlie, he rolls it back to me” and this is his cue to go wash his hands for lunch. She continues with each child singing along. As children learn their friends’ names, she encourages them to roll the ball to another peer as part of the song. For a small-group activity, she sets up a cooperative art activity in which two children work together to roll a golf ball around a box with paint inside. For an independent activity, she sets out five balls in front of a soccer net on the playground. Children can individually practice kicking and running as they choose.
  • Children are learning about insects in the preschool classroom and they have become interested in worms and compost. Large group activity: The children brainstorm what they want to learn about worms. The teacher writes down each child’s idea on chart paper and asks children questions to spark conversation. Small group activity: Groups of four to five children work together to create a compost bin in an empty aquarium. Children take turns adding materials to the bin. Individual activity: Children estimate how many worms they think should go in the compost bins and write a number on a voting slip. The teacher graphs responses.
  • In the school-age program, the team has designed a series of different ways children can work on a rocket project. Large-group activity: The whole group of interested children brainstorms the rocket’s design on chart paper. They vote on the features they think the rocket needs and each child takes a turn to persuade the others of each feature’s importance. Small group activity: Groups of three to four children work on each part of the rocket. They develop plans and construct the elements. Independent activity: Space is provided for individuals to work on constructing pieces of the rocket.

Staff can also use daily routines to promote social interactions. For example:

  • Toddlers or preschool children hold hands to walk outside
  • Toddlers or preschool children go the bathroom to wash hands with buddies
  • Children of all ages sit near friends at snack time and make meals and snacks social times
  • Children interact at arrival and departure (it’s OK to talk when putting items in lockers or cubbies, etc.)

What Activities and Materials Promote Social-Emotional Development?

Program spaces and design are important, but so are the materials provided within the environment. Some materials are more likely to promote and encourage social interactions than others. Materials that promote social interactions for children of all ages include:

  • Balls and sporting equipment
  • Wagons, tricycles and bicycles, rollerblades
  • Blocks or construction and building equipment
  • Loose parts for creative play like milk crates, boards, or buckets
  • Dress-up clothes
  • Large pieces of paper on the wall or floor and painting or writing materials (school-age children especially enjoy the opportunity to make a “graffiti wall”)
  • Culturally appropriate home-like materials (e.g., kitchen set, dishes, dolls, phone)
  • Toy vehicles (e.g., trains and tracks, cars and ramps, dump trucks)
  • For school-age children: marble works with ramps
  • Gardening or nature-based materials (shovels, planters, seeds, watering cans)

Other materials tend to promote individual engagement but can be used to encourage connections and cooperation between one or two children:

  • Puzzles
  • Art materials (e.g., paper, crayons, paints)
  • Play dough or modeling clay
  • Books
  • For school-age children: model airplanes or cars

For more information on the activities and materials that promote social-emotional development during specific ages, refer to the Social direct care tracks.

Social Problem Solving

Learning to solve problems is important for social and cognitive development. From toddlerhood through school-age, you can work with staff members to help children learn strategies to recognize and solve common social problems. There are opportunities for learning every day! Staff can recognize problem-solving opportunities in simple moments like when the lunch cart is late, the line leader is absent, or there are puddles on the playground. They can also observe and notice social problems between children or youth, for example when two children want the same toy or youth disagree on the rules for a game. Help staff identify consistent and predictable ways to work through problems together with children. Also work with staff members to notice and address power imbalances between children and youth during conflicts. Act quickly to address bullying. There are a variety of tools available to help children learn how to solve common social problems. You can explore problem solving materials from trusted sources such as the National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI): 

Cooperative Play

Many games are designed to be competitive rather than cooperative. Competitive games are ones with winners and losers or ones in which an individual child is singled out to catch others, sit out, etc. Examples include duck, duck, goose, musical chairs, and most sports. For school-age children, competitive sports and games can be appropriate when children are taught good sportsmanship. For children of all ages, though, it is important to provide opportunities for cooperative play. This builds social competence and helps children develop important skills like sharing, turn taking, and problem solving.

With a little thought, many games can be adjusted to be more cooperative:

A game as simple as musical chairs can be made cooperative rather than competitive when you adjust the rules a bit. Instead of removing a person and a chair when the music stops, you can just remove a chair. The number of people remaining in the game stays the same. Children then are faced with the challenge of working together to make sure everyone can still fit on the remaining chairs. They can be resourceful and creative. Some may share chairs, rearrange them, or sit on each other’s laps.

Adults who encourage cooperative play must be willing to let children work together to come up with a solution, not giving them the answer too quickly. This will build children’s confidence in their abilities to solve problems independently.

Promoting Social Emotional Development: T&Cs Role

Listen as this T&Cs describes the resources she uses

Using Personalized Stories to Teach Play or Social Behaviors

Personalized stories can help children feel prepared for new social experiences. These stories are short and include pictures of the child or youth and their home or program. They can be written to help children and youth navigate experiences that they find difficult: entering a new program, asking others to play, waiting in line, sharing toys, etc. These stories can be written with input from the child and the child’s family. As a trainer or coach, you may work together with a staff member to write and design the story. It can be printed or navigated on a handheld device. Work with staff to identify specific times of the day to go over the story with the child or youth. For example, a staff member may read a story about sharing toys right before free choice time in preschool, or a youth may be reminded to review their story about calming strategies when they arrive at the after-school program. You can find samples of personalized stories (called “scripted stories”) and templates that you can modify here:

Peer Support Strategies

You can help staff members learn to promote social interactions among peers. Peers are natural play partners, and they can help each other learn valuable social skills. Staff members can teach peers how to help organize play (e.g., say “Let’s play house. I’ll be the mom, you be the sister”), how to share, how to offer help, or how to provide affection (Neitzel, 2008).

Peer-mediated strategies can also be less formal. All children can be taught simple strategies for promoting play and social interactions during buddy play time. Children can be taught three strategies (Neitzel, 2008):

  • Stay with your buddy
  • Play with your buddy
  • Talk to your buddy

The poster from the National Center for Pyramid Innovations can help children remember the steps during play. You can also use photos of the children themselves to make this strategy work for children through elementary school age.

Visual Checklist Feedback for Peer Buddies
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Although many of the strategies in this lesson seem like the responsibility of direct-care staff members, you can do a lot to model these strategies. Here are a few simple ideas:

  • Regularly reflect on how well your program spaces promote social-emotional development for children, families, and staff. Are there spaces for families to gather and talk? Are there opportunities for staff members to socialize? Are staff members doing all they can to promote children’s social-emotional development? Model this reflective stance and be inquisitive about how your program can do a better job.
  • Create materials that staff members need. In the hustle and bustle of a typical day, staff members might not have the time or resources to create materials described in this lesson. Take some time to create or print general materials (problem-solving posters, book lists, etc.). You can also offer to write scripted stories for children who need more support with specific social stories. For examples and templates, visit
  • Be friendly! Talk to children. Talk to staff. Talk to families. This might be easy if you are a natural “people person.” If you are more reserved, try taking small steps to reach out to new people. Ask questions and try to learn about others. Say hello and greet people by name.


In this section, we provide a variety of strategies to utilize in child development and school-age programs. It can be difficult for staff members to be intentional about promoting social-emotional development, so it will be important for you to observe and provide ideas that move staff members to more sophisticated levels of support for children. The table below provides ideas and strategies that you might see in high-quality programs:

Ideas & Strategies (Figure 1)


What Staff Might Do:

Helping children recognize emotions in themselves

Have pictures of children showing a variety of emotions. Teach children to identify how they are feeling by pointing to or labeling the way they are feeling at arrival and departure.  Have parents or caregivers join in and model emotion labeling as well.

Helping children recognize emotions in others

When children arrive, they might be happy to see friends, sad to see their mom leave, tired because it is early in the morning, or hungry because they did not eat breakfast yet. When children leave, they might be feeling excited to get home or sad to leave friends. Model the use of emotion words to talk about other children. For example, “Jenny, Molly looks sad. Let’s ask her what is wrong.” Or “Ayita, Penny is smiling! Do you think she is excited to see her mom?”

Helping promote friendships

Set up buddy activities at tables during arrival. Greet each child by name at arrival and departure.

School-age: Provide time for children to socialize with friends at arrival. Encourage children to find one another to say goodbye when leaving. Provide structured partner activities or games for a small number of children to play upon arrival or while waiting to depart.

Helping children solve problems

Post problem-solving materials and stay close to help mediate conflicts.

Create “problematic” situations that children can help solve (a cubby is full, there is a backpack on the floor, a nametag is missing)

What Staff Might Do:

Helping children recognize emotions in themselves

Sing songs and play games about emotions (“If You’re Happy and You Know It”). Change well-known songs or games to include emotion words (play Simon Says using emotion words and expressions). Read books about emotions. Select books that talk about the more complex emotions and use the complex emotion words throughout the day. Use puppets to act out stories about complex emotions.  

Helping children recognize emotions in others

Incorporate talking about emotions into the daily group time routine. Plan an activity where the children take turns talking about how they feel and have the group ask them why they are sad.  Use a large piece of chart paper with all the children’s names. Have each child put an emotion next to his or her name. Count and talk about all the different emotions children in the room are feeling. Put pictures of emotions around the circle time area and ask children to “find” an emotion.

Helping promote friendships

Pair children up for songs and games during group time. Read books about friendship. Dismiss children in pairs.

Helping children solve problems

Talk about problems that have occurred during the day. Discuss how children solved the problem well. Offer time for children to brainstorm more solutions together. Make a plan for the next time the problem occurs.

What Staff Might Do:

Helping children recognize emotions in themselves

Provide reflective time when children pause to check-in with their emotions.

Helping children recognize emotions in others

Discuss the emotions of characters in books the children are reading in school or in popular movies or TV shows.

Helping promote friendships

Design anti-bullying activities or campaigns. Children make public service announcements or posters.

Helping children solve problems

Teach a formal problem-solving process. Have children role-play scenarios and how they would solve the problem.

What Staff Might Do:

Helping children recognize emotions in themselves

Children might be excited because they are eating their favorite snack, hungry, thirsty, or disappointed because they do not like the snack. Incorporate talking about feeling into the snack time conversation. Use pictures of children or cards with emotion words, and have children identify their emotions. Prompt children to identify how they are feeling at the beginning and end of snack.

Helping children recognize emotions in others

Have children turn to the person next to them and ask them how they feel. Use pictures, a script, or cards with labels and have children talk about their emotions with the children at their table.

Put several emotions on a board or in a book. Put matching faces on the snack chairs, a poster in the bathroom or outside, or specific centers. Have children transition by asking them what they are feeling, select the emotion from the board, and then match at the next activity.

Helping promote friendships

Encourage conversations. Provide simple placemats or cards with conversation starters that children can read and talk about during snack. Have children pass snacks or meals to one another and say “please” and “thank you” in the languages represented in the program.

Helping children solve problems

Create problems for children to solve: too few chairs at the snack area, no more apple slices, spray bottle won’t spray, etc. Talk with children about social ways to solve the problems.

What Staff Might Do:

Helping children recognize emotions in themselves

While children are waiting in line for the bathroom, walking outside, or cleaning up toys, sing songs or play games about emotions. During the transition to outside time, have children identify their emotions before going outside and again as they come back in from outside. Talk about how emotions might change before and after activities.

Helping children recognize emotions in others

Ask children to ask each other how they are feeling after the transition. Model the use of emotion words to talk about other children. For example, “Molly looks disappointed that its cleanup time. Jessie, please help her clean up the blocks! Then it’s time to go outside!”

Helping promote friendships

Assign peer buddies or friends during transitions. Have children walk outside, clean up, wash hands, etc. with their friends.

What Staff Might Do:

Helping children recognize emotions in themselves

Include activities related to books, songs or games about emotions. Adapt popular games to include emotion words and expressions. Have children play matching, sorting, or memory games about emotions.  Plan activities where the children use mirrors to look at their faces and then draw pictures about their emotions.

Helping children recognize emotions in others

Plan activities where the children draw faces of their friends, family, children in stories or books, etc., displaying certain emotions. Hang the faces around the room and talk about the emotions throughout the day.

Have children draw or paint pictures of “feelings” and talk about them. Label the emotions and hang them around the room.

Helping promote friendships

Encourage children to play together. Provide materials that require interactions (double Dutch jump ropes in school-age programs, rocking boat climbers for toddlers, etc.) Provide social toys and materials like bubbles, sporting equipment, costumes or props for dramatic play, etc.

Helping children solve problems

Be sure children know problem-solving strategies apply outdoors. Model the strategies when there is a conflict over outdoor or play materials (e.g., two children want the same bike).


Use what you have learned in this lesson to identify ways to support staff members as they promote social-emotional development.  Read the Social Scenarios handout and write how you would respond. When you are finished, compare your answers to the suggested responses.


Children’s literature is an important way to help build social connections.  The Books that Promote Social Emotional Development from Infancy through Age 12 handout provides a list of children’s literature that promotes social-emotional development across age groups. Think about how you could help staff members use those books in their plans.

Use the Social Environment Checklist to observe the social environments in classrooms and programs. The characteristics are written broadly, so you can look for general principles in place across child development and school-age programs for infants through age 12. Use your observation and notes to prepare feedback and suggestions for staff members.


Which of the following questions should you help staff members reflect on when they are designing environments and activities for children?
A staff member asks you for ideas about materials that encourage social interactions. Which of the following materials is the least likely to encourage interaction without additional support?
A parent asks you how your program will help her son with autism develop friendships. How do you respond?
References & Resources

Afterschool Alliance (2018). An Ideal Opportunity: The role of afterschool in social-emotional learning

Aguilar, E. (2018). Onward: Cultivating emotional resilience in educators. Jossey-Bass.

American Institutes of Research (2015). Supporting social and emotional development through quality afterschool programs.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

Cultivate Learning (n.d.). Circle time magazine big kids edition: Episode 2 social emotional Learning

Hambers, C. R. & Horn, E. M. (2010). Strategies for family facilitation of play dates. Young Exceptional Children, 13,  2 – 14.

Hemmeter, M.L., Ostrosky, M., & Fox, L. (2021). Unpacking the pyramid model: A practical guide for preschool teachers. Brookes Publishing.

National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (n.d.). Implementing stay, play, and talk in early childhood classrooms.

National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (n.d.). Making a scripted story.

Neitzel, C., Alexander, J. M., & Johnson, K. E. (2008). Children's early interest-based activities in the home and subsequent information contributions and pursuits in kindergarten. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(4), 782–797.

Sandall, S. R., & Schwartz, I. S., Joseph, G., & Gauvreau, A. (2019).  Building blocks for teaching preschoolers with special needs (2nd ed.). Baltimore, MD: Brookes.