Your Guide to Social Emotional Activities
For Toddlers

I’m probably asked for advice about the best social emotional activities for toddlers more often than I’m asked for guidance on any other aspect of toddler development.

I’m delighted about this because it’s essential to nurture your little one emotionally and help them develop good social skills if they are to grow into a well-balanced, mentally, and emotionally stable child and adult. Unfortunately, it’s an area of development that’s often overlooked in favor of physical and educational skills.

social emotional activities for toddlersSlime and dough are excellent for calming your toddler

I have lots to share with you on the best ways to support your toddler’s social emotional growth and some great tools and activities to recommend. So, let’s get started.

What Are Social Emotional Activities?

Defining Social Emotional Activities for Toddlers

Social emotional activities refer to interactive play experiences that focus on nurturing your toddler's emotional and social development. They encourage your little one to understand and express their emotions, develop empathy, and build positive relationships.

By engaging in these activities, they will learn essential life skills that form the foundation of their emotional intelligence, that is, their ability to manage both their own emotions and understand the emotions of people around them. 

The 5 Stages of Social Emotional Development
in Toddlers

The social emotional stages of development in children aged 1 to 3 years are characterized by significant growth and milestones. While every child develops at their own pace, here is a general overview of the social emotional stages they pass through during this period:

1. Social Engagement (12 to 18 months) – Toddlers become increasingly interested in social interactions. They may engage in parallel play alongside other children but may not actively interact or share toys.

2. Empathy and Sharing (18 to 24 months) – Toddlers begin to show empathy and demonstrate sharing behaviors. They may express concern for others and exhibit rudimentary cooperative play skills.

3. Emotional Regulation (24 to 36 months) – Toddlers start to develop better emotional regulation skills. They become more capable of managing and expressing their emotions with increasing vocabulary.

4. Pretend Play (2 to 3 years) – Imaginative and pretend play become more prominent during this stage. Toddlers engage in role-playing activities, imitating and mimicking behaviors they observe.

5. Developing Relationships (2 to 3 years) – Toddlers begin to form more complex relationships with peers. They learn to take turns, share toys, and engage in cooperative play. Friendships may start to emerge.

Remember, each child's development is unique, and these stages serve as a general guide. It is essential to provide a supportive and nurturing environment that encourages social emotional growth while allowing your child to progress at their own pace.

Mom reading a book to her childrenEmotion-themed books will help your toddler identify and express their feelings

The Best Types of Social Emotional Activities
For Toddlers

Here are some examples of toys and activities that can help children learn and grow at each stage of social emotional development.

I look in detail at many of the toys and activities mentioned below in other articles in the toddler section of Play Learn Toyz. Just click the links to find out more.

1. Social Engagement (12 to 18 months)

  • Playdates or toddler groups where children can observe and imitate each other's play behaviors.

2. Empathy and Sharing (18 to 24 months)

  • Simple board games and other turn-taking activities to encourage sharing and cooperative play.

3. Emotional Regulation (24 to 36 months)

  • Emotion-themed books to help toddlers identify and express their feelings.
  • Calm-down kits with sensory toys like stress balls or soft textures for self-soothing and emotional regulation.
  • Plush sound machine soothers

4. Pretend Play (2 to 3 years)

5. Developing Relationships (2 to 3 years)

  • Cooperative board games that require teamwork and collaboration.
  • Group activities such as building with blocks or playing in a pretend "store" to encourage social interactions and turn-taking.

These are just a few examples of social emotional activities for toddlers.

It's important to consider your child's interests and preferences when selecting toys and activities. The key is to provide opportunities for exploration, imagination, and social engagement, which support social emotional growth at each stage of development.

Expressing Emotions

It is also essential to provide your toddler with ways to express their emotions and a safe and supportive environment where they can express them freely. I’ve already mentioned pretend play, which is ideal for this as they explore different characters and scenarios, real life and fantasy.

Also, encourage your little one to express their emotions through art and music, by creating artwork using different mediums such as paint and clay, and musical sounds that reflect their different moods – happy, sad, angry, frustrated, etc.

The one topic mentioned above that I don’t cover in detail on other pages is emotional regulation, so here are some highly recommended toys and activities for this important area of emotional development.

The Best Social Emotional Activities For Toddlers
For Regulating Emotions

Emotion-Themed Books

My First Book of Emotions For Toddlers

This engaging book will introduce your toddler to six common emotions – joy, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust – by explaining what they are, how they feel in their body, and how they can manage them in positive ways.

The Feelings Book

One of the many excellent children’s books by Todd Parr. He brilliantly illustrates that our emotions are ever-changing and often don’t make sense to us but are just how we feel, and that’s okay, for example, “Sometimes I feel silly”, “Sometimes I feel like dancing”. A fun book with a great message to help your toddler recognize and accept their feelings day by day.

I Feel Angry

If you need help coping with anger outbursts and toddler tantrums, this book will be worth its weight in gold. The story covers everyday scenarios that will help your little one understand their feelings of anger and learn simple calming techniques, thus developing important self-regulation skills.

Little Monkey Calms Down

This is another excellent book for teaching your toddler coping techniques to help them calm down when they’ve been angry or upset. If they are having a bad day, they’ll easily relate to Little Monkey in the story who is going through his own bad day but uses his favorite self-soothing practices such as cuddling his blankie, singing a calm song, or taking deep breaths to turn things around.

The Color Monster

For days when your toddler’s emotions are all over the place, they’ll feel comforted to meet Color Monster who wakes up one morning feeling angry, happy, calm, sad, and scared all at the same time. His friend helps him to understand his confusion of emotions through color, which enables him to identify and sort them out and achieve a feeling of peace.

Grumpy Monkey

A great book for helping your toddler identify their feelings, especially ones they may not like or understand. As they follow the story of Grumpy Monkey, who is in a bad mood for no apparent reason, they will understand that it’s fine not to feel happy all the time and perfectly natural. Some days are just grumpy days.

Emotional Expression Toys

Big Feelings Pineapple

Help your toddler explore and express their emotions with this cute pineapple toy. It comes with 26 face pieces for them to create expressions for every emotion they may feel, from happiness and sadness to anger and disappointment. They can have fun creating faces that express different emotions, join in a game of guessing emotions from faces other people create, or build an expression to show how they are feeling when they can’t express it in words.

Expression Babies Plush Dolls

These 6 culturally diverse babies each have a different expression to help your toddler identify and name common feelings. They have huggable super-soft bodies and removable sleep sacks making them perfect for a sensory play experience at times when your toddler needs help to calm. They come with a soft tote bag into which your toddler can tuck them up for nap time, thus also fostering their nurturing skills.

Emotional Regulation Toys

There are hundreds of different types of toys that provide calming social emotional activities for toddlers. Here are a few of my top recommendations to give you an idea of what’s available.

Pop Fidget Sensory Balls

Squidgy, squeezable sensory balls are wonderful calming tools. I particularly like this set of 9 balls because of the pop-it bubbles feature, and the wide range of colors that will enable your toddler to pick a favorite or one closest to their mood. Pop-it toys are proven to reduce stress and are great to have to hand for moments when your toddler needs support to self-regulate a negative mood. You might find yourself using them as well!

Fidget Marble Maze Mat

This fidget marble maze toy is another great way to de-stress and refocus. It consists of two layers of soft, fleecy fabric, which in themselves are calming to the touch, with a marble within a stitched maze design between them. The marble is easy to manipulate around the maze and the activity is quite mesmerizing. Anger and upsets are soon forgotten.

Soothe 'N Snuggle Otter Sound Machine

Most sound machines are marketed as products to soothe babies but the need for soothing and comforting doesn’t stop once your little one becomes a toddler, so make good use of them for as long as you need to. This adorable plush musical otter sound machine is one of the best and will calm your toddler with music, lights, and a gentle “breathing” motion. It is customizable with up to 30 minutes of music and sounds, and machine washable with electronics removed.

Calming Kit

Kingyao 24 Fidget Toys Pack

I highly recommend getting a calming kit like this Kingyao 24 pack sensory fidget toys set so that you’ll always have a good selection of calming toys available for your toddler to choose from to self-regulate a negative mood. This pack includes 2 squeeze grape balls, 6 stretchy strings, 1 basketball fidget toy, 1 American football foam ball, 3 marble and mesh toys, 1 flippy bike chain fidget toy, 1 squeeze soybean bag, 2 packs of Easter egg slime, 1 wacky tracks, and 4 KAWAII Mochi squishy toys. Do check through the items before letting your toddler dive in to ensure everything is age appropriate for them, removing any toys that are better saved for when they’re older.

Tips For Parents

How To Support Your Toddler’s Social Emotional Development

A. Parent-Child Bonding and Playtime

Parent-child interaction plays a vital role in a toddler's social emotional development. Creating special moments through play and shared experiences will strengthen the bond between you and your little one. Actively participating in your toddler's playtime fosters a sense of security, trust, and love.

B. Emotional Awareness and Expression

Encourage your youngster to identify and express their emotions using the types of social emotional activities for toddlers that we’ve explored in this article. Use books, toys, storytelling, and pretend play to help them recognize different feelings and to talk about them. Engaging in activities that develop emotional vocabulary and empathy empowers them to understand and manage their emotions effectively.

C. Social Skills and Cooperation

Provide opportunities for your toddler to engage in social interactions with peers. Arrange playdates or group activities that encourage sharing, turn-taking, and cooperation to help them develop rounded social skills and conflict resolution abilities.

D. Building Confidence and Self-Esteem

Boost your toddler's self-confidence through play. Celebrate their achievements, no matter how small, and encourage independence. Role-playing scenarios allow them to express themselves, make decisions, and develop a strong sense of self.

Final Words

Engaging your little one in social emotional activities is an excellent way to support their overall development. By selecting a variety of the different social emotional activities for toddlers I’ve outlined above, you will create enriching experiences that stimulate cognitive growth, foster emotional intelligence, and promote social skills.

And give yourself permission to use any of the calming, de-stressing tools and techniques yourself whenever you need them!

SAVE to PIN to your Pinterest board!

And join me on Pinterest

Toddler social emotional activities


About Jacky Spear

Jacky Spear passionately promotes learning toys for child development. With 30+ years of teaching experience, she understands the power of play in engaging and nurturing children, including those with special needs. Drawing from personal experience in both the school and home environment, Jacky helps parents to select the best learning toys to unlock their children's potential and create a lifelong love for learning. Learn more about Jacky >>

Related Pages