Wondering about social and emotional development milestones and what social emotional development should look like in young kids? Social emotional learning occurs from birth and continues on for many years to impact learning and interacting with others. Let’s break down HOW social emotional development happens at each age and stage.

We’ve covered social emotional toys and even books to support emotional development because these skills are something that every child learns through play and interacting with others.

Social and emotional development milestones

Social and emotional Developmental Milestones

Social skills have become one of the most discussed milestone checklists as children re-enter the world after being out of social situations due to being at home for most of their early years.

As children start to socialize, adults are noticing that, without opportunities to play with other children, social development can become impacted. By the time a child enters Kindergarten, they are expected to be able to participate and learn new skills while other children are in the classroom.

This is only achieved through practice being around other kids.  This blog will discuss how different developmental milestones impact social development, and where to go for more supports if social skills are a concern. 

When children enter preschool, they are immediately bombarded with play opportunities with peers. This is a wonderful time for children to learn how to share space, share toys, build friendships, learn from children and new adults.

As children develop their cognitive, communication and play skills, their social skills become more advanced. Here is a list of the social skills preschoolers are able to do (by age).

Early Preschool: 3 years

  • Express emotions
  • Copy adults and friends  
  • Show affection for friends without prompting  
  • Turn taking in games, with prompts
  • Show concern for a crying friend (empathy) 
  • Understand concepts of “mine” and “his” or “hers” 
  • Separate easily from mom and dad  
  • May get upset with major changes in routine  

Mid-Preschool: 4 years-

  • Enjoy trying new activities
  • Playing with different toys or types of toys   
  • Play imagination and interactive games with others “mom” and “dad”  
  • Are more and more creative with make-believe play  
  • Would rather play with other children than alone 
  • Cooperate with other children  
  • Often cannot tell what is real and what is make-believe  
  • Talk about what they like and what they are interested in 

Later Preschool: 5 years-

  • Want to please friends  
  • Want to be like friends  
  • Are more likely to agree with rules  
  • Like to sing, dance, and act, also aware of gender  
  • Can tell what is real and what is make-believe  
  • Show more independence (for example, may visit a next-door neighbor by themselves with adult supervision) 
  • Are sometimes demanding and sometimes very cooperative

When in the classroom, it is important that we give children ample opportunities to practice social skills through large group, small group and free play activities. Giving children the ability to engage in play allows them to create their own rules, investigate social norms and understand how to work within a team with other children. One of the best ways to encourage social interaction is through pretend play. 

Activities to support social and emotional Development Milestones

Here are my 5 favorite ways to encourage social growth within the pretend play area:

  1. Change up the play space with prop boxes.

The pretend play area doesn’t just have to be a play kitchen. Pretend play is a way for children to interpret the world that they see everyday.

This includes places they go, things they watch on television and different roles they see in the community. Prop boxes for pretend play are buckets filled with items related to a theme.

If you notice children are interested in a specific topic (such as the hair salon, the grocery store, a train station), you can grab a prop box and allow children to expand on their knowledge of the topic together!

  1. Encourage role play.

As children start to play together within the pretend play area, adults can facilitate different roles. One year, the children were very interested in drive through restaurants.

They pulled over the puppet theater that had a chalk board front on it. With some support, they decided who was going to be the cook, who was going to take orders, who was the person deciding the menu, who would be the cashier and who would be “Driving” through the drive through!

After some negotiations, everyone had their roles. They loved this so much they created menus and opened up the rest of the classroom tables for dine-in for the rest of the children. As the preschoolers worked together, they were learning communication, problem solving and turn taking skills through play. 

  1. Bring pretend play outdoors. 

There is no hard and fast rule saying that all pretend play has to be inside. Bring those prop boxes outdoors and set up an area for children to use them in a large space. This type of play can be so exciting when outside in nature.

Children can use leaves, sticks and other items as props in their play. When there is ample room to run and play, sometimes more children become involved in the play experience. This is also a great time to support children with sensory needs. Check out this sensory processing disorder checklist for more information.

In play, being indoors around too many kids might be overwhelming to them. Inviting them to engage in outdoor play in open space with plenty of areas to take sensory breaks with proprioception activities,  supports children of all sensory processing needs, giving them opportunities to partake in important social practice. 

  1. Give children the ability to create their own space. 

One of most powerful aspects of pretend play is to let children lead. When we step back and allow children to create, engage and develop on their own, they are able to practice social development freely.

Without adult intervention (unless needed), children are able to work on problem solving skills and create a play narrative that adults may not think of. Giving children time to decide play roles may bring up some uncertainty with taking turns, but it allows them to work through their disagreements together.

When adults aren’t always in the middle of play, magic happens. 

  1. Don’t limit the amount of children allowed to play in one area.

Often times I see preschools limit the amount of children allowed to play in one area of the classroom due to the size of the space.

This may mitigate overcrowding but it also prevents children from learning how to socialize freely in different sizes of groups. If multiple children desire to engage in the pretend play area, instead of limiting the amount of children, push some other classroom areas to the side and expand the pretend play area.

6. Be aware of when children need support interacting with each other. 

It’s important to remember that preschoolers (even adults) are still learning how to interact with groups of children. Sometimes adults need to step in to support cooperation during social play. Frustration can present as a sensory meltdown or a tantrum.

When a child becomes frustrated and needs to calm down, self-regulation strategies can support the emotional regulation needs. Using a problem solving tool like the (Amazon affiliate link) Soothing Sammy Program to help them. After children calm down with “Sammy Time” use the prompts in the story to encourage problem solving communication between the children.

Sometimes all children need is a break to gather their thoughts and help to communicate their feelings. You can find some more problem solving activities.

Emotional Milestones and other areas of development

A child’s development is greatly impacted by 8 key areas of growth.

This includes::

  1. social development
  2. emotional development
  3. gross motor development
  4. fine motor development
  5. language development
  6. cognitive
  7. sensory
  8. self-help skills.

When delayed in just one of these areas, other areas of development may also be impacted, including emotional milestone achievement, because of the deep connection between emotional regulation and cognitive processing.

When a child is delayed in language, they are unable to use words to communicate their needs to their peers.

If they are having a hard time understanding directions, they won’t be able to participate in some social activities or games.

If a child is impacted by sensory differences or  delayed in their cognitive milestones, they may find it frustrating or difficult to engage in imaginative games with their peers.

If they are unable to keep up with gross motor or fine motor activities, they may feel left behind.

If you are concerned about a child’s development in any area, and they are under three years olds, reach out to your local Early Intervention Program for a free developmental assessment.

If your child is between the ages of 3 and 5, your local school district can complete a developmental assessment free of charge. This social skills checklist is a wonderful tool to help know where to start. 

Social and emotional development milestones are an important skill that preschoolers learn through experiences. With ample opportunities to practice and the right supports, children will learn how to engage with their peers and how to problem solve. As children are exposed to different play situations with different people, and in different settings, the social skills they learn will benefit them throughout their entire lives. 

Jeana Kinne is a veteran preschool teacher and director. She has over 20 years of experience in the Early Childhood Education field. Her Bachelors Degree is in Child Development and her Masters Degree is in Early Childhood Education. She has spent over 10 years as a coach, working with Parents and Preschool Teachers, and another 10 years working with infants and toddlers with special needs. She is also the author of the “Sammy the Golden Dog” series, teaching children important skills through play.

social emotional development milestones