Social-Emotional Development in Preschoolers


Strap on your lava boots and keep your eye out for rainbow unicorns. You’ve entered the imaginative world of the preschooler years. All this pretend play helps preschoolers make rapid gains in social-emotional development. They also hone those skills by interacting more with peers, gaining increased control over their emotions, following routines, and developing a positive self-image. 

Social-Emotional Milestones of Preschoolers

While parents might see their preschoolers leaping around the living room with friends to avoid the “carpet lava,” early childhood educators look on the playful scene and see budding social-emotional skills at work through play. These skills help lay the groundwork for being successful in a more formal school setting coming up soon.

Keep an eye out for these social-emotional milestones during the preschool years. Of course, every child develops at his or her own pace. Speak with your child’s doctor if you have questions about your preschooler’s development.

Social-Emotional Milestones for 3-year-olds

  • During this year, preschoolers copy adults and friends. It’s like bringing your own “mini-me” around with you everywhere as preschoolers mimic the actions and words of the people they see the most. You’ve been warned.
  • Get ready for some heart-melting moments as preschoolers begin to show intentional kindness and love towards friends—without a parent or teacher prompting them first!  
  • At this age, preschoolers express a wide range of emotions: Happiness, sadness, frustration, disappointment, silliness, jealousy, disgust, anticipation, fear and more. (Tip: Preschoolers seem to really nail the hangry emotion, so keep snacks handy.) 
  • Three-year-olds appreciate routines throughout their day. From their perspective, routines help them make sense of their world as they learn that one activity follows another. Changes to a routine can cause some preschoolers at this age to become upset. (Remember that wide range of emotions we just mentioned?!)
  • Around this age, children begin to easily separate from trusted caregivers. The same child who clung to you at the park as a toddler suddenly can’t wait to get out of the car to go play with friends. 

Social-Emotional Milestones for 4-year-olds

  • Young children at this age prefer to play with other children rather than alone. They understand the basics of sharing and turn-taking but will still need gentle reminders from parents and early childhood educators.
  • Is it real or is it pretend? Four-year-old preschoolers often blur the lines between reality and make-believe.
  • At this age, preschoolers can express their likes and dislikes and love to spend time talking about their own interests. Parents often find themselves gaining a lot of knowledge themselves about all sorts of topics, such as dinosaurs and princesses, superheroes and rocks, and even planets and ballet poses. 
  • Get ready for some elaborate storytelling as preschoolers become more creative in their make-believe play during this year. Your living room can turn into a pirate ship or a castle in the time it takes for you to walk into the kitchen. Characters from favorite books and children’s movies and shows also make frequent guest appearances.
  • Four-year-olds put into practice their growing problem-solving skills by negotiating solutions to conflicts. This can lead to some interesting conversations.

Social-Emotional Milestones for 5-year-olds

  • At around age 5, preschoolers can distinguish the difference between reality and make-believe. So, while your living room might still turn into a castle, your preschooler knows the look-out tower is also your favorite chair. 
  • Friendships become increasingly important and influential at this age. Preschoolers want to please their friends and be like them, from sharing the same interests to playing with the same toys to even dressing similarly. Don’t worry, parents. You still hold the top spot for both your preschoolers’ affection and influence.
  • Preschoolers at this age love to seek new experiences and begin to show more independence. For example, your preschooler might want to try delivering some cookies to the neighbor while you watch from the sidewalk or your preschooler might be ready to take a turn on the big twisty slide at the playground that seemed too scary just last year.
  • During this year, preschoolers are more likely to agree with rules. Understanding and following rules helps children be successful in many different settings, including in a classroom.
  • On any given day, preschoolers can be both demanding and cooperative as they gain a greater understanding of balancing interpersonal relationships with their own needs and wants.

5 Ways to Support a Preschooler’s Social-Emotional Learning

Every moment spent with a preschooler is a teachable moment. However, learning most often looks like playtime. After all, play is how a young child learns best. Here are tips on supporting your preschooler’s social-emotional development as you go about your everyday living (and playing!) together.

  1. Play make-believe. All of that pretend play serves a purpose besides being fun to do. For example, preschoolers learn to work out emotions and better understand relationships and situations by acting them out and playing different roles or trying different outcomes in the process. 
  2. Read books together. Preschoolers experience and express a wide range of emotions. Reading books together helps them learn to recognize their own emotions and understand how to best express them appropriately. It’s never too early to give children the words to label their feelings. Click, here to see some of our favorite books for children that support social-emotional learning. Pick up books that support your child’s favorite interests, too. That shows preschoolers that their opinions and interests matter and helps them gain confidence in sharing their ideas with others. 
  3. Turn on and turn up the music. Dancing shoes will come in handy, too. Preschoolers love to listen to and make music and dance, dance, dance. Participating in musical activities with your preschooler also teaches them important social-emotional skills such as cooperation, sharing, self-expression, and creativity. Make a playlist of your favorite songs and play them throughout the day. We can help you get started. Click, here and here to view our favorites on Youtube.
  4. Explore interests together. Preschoolers are beginning to learn what they like and don’t like, what they find interesting and what they don’t. Support your preschooler’s interests by exploring them together. For example, if your child finds snakes particularing, um, charming, go to a local zoo or an event at your local library to get up close and personal with them. That interest (and your support of it!) can come in handy during later years when you need help removing a non-venomous snake from the garage. True story!
  5. Give your preschooler choices. Support your preschooler’s growing independence and confidence by allowing your child to decide what to wear or what to eat for snack time or which movie to watch. Lead your child to pick between two or three options that work for you, too. Do you want carrots, a cheese stick, or blueberries for your snack? Do you want to wear this shirt or that shirt? Should we invite Cole or Amaia over for a playdate?

Do you have a favorite social-emotional activity to do with your learners?

Let us know in the comments. We had a hard time narrowing it down to just five!

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