Social Emotional Learning Through Play is More Than Fun and Games

Sonnets Academy focuses on helping its students feel heard. Two experts share how social emotional learning helps children learn to control their emotions and better communicate.

When it comes to playtime, it would be great if everyone who wanted to be Spiderman at the same time could be, but we all know there’s only one webbed hero. For a toddler or preschooler, though, that’s a super hard thing to accept. There might even be screaming or tears. At Sonnets Academy, it’s in those moments that the focus on social emotional learning through play really comes to life.

Rather than let emotions get out of control and derail the fun, play slows and the teachers ask the children to share their feelings and brainstorm strategies they feel would best allow everyone to be Spiderman. Then together the children choose the strategy they decide honors everyone’s feelings. “They all get to feel heard, they all get the opportunity to be Spiderman, they all get to practice communicating, working through those emotions and socializing with their peers through play,” says Brianne Walsh, director of Sonnets Academy Lincoln Park, a private infant through age 6 preschool program with three locations in Chicago.

And, it becomes a learning moment that will live long after Spiderman and friends are put away in their proper bin for the day.

The takeaways are what every parent wishes for their child. So we checked in with Walsh and Laura Davis, executive director of Sonnets Academy, to find out how Sonnets uses those play-based learning lessons in its classrooms to improve communication and emotional regulation. They even shared some tips for parents to use at home.

The power of social emotional learning through play

Collaborative and discovery-based learning is the heart and soul at Sonnets.

From the earliest ages, teachers actively narrate children’s feelings and show them how to communicate with sign language and help them regulate their emotions. As children get older, teachers actively teach them strategies to regulate emotions on their own, Walsh says.

Ultimately, children learn that it is OK to feel emotional throughout the day and that their emotions are valid, both Walsh and Davis say. “Being able to feel heard is a huge relief for anyone so that I now trust that you have my best interest at heart,” Walsh says.

Not only do Sonnets teachers validate their emotions, they are on the floor playing through child-led cooperative play and creating play schemas that give children challenges and many opportunities to understand that others’ feelings might be different than theirs but matter, too. Through every opportunity, children learn their feelings are valid and will be honored.

The result is children who are in tune with their own emotions and empathize with others, while being able to communicate confidently with both peers and adults, working well as part of a group or on their own.

“I think that the importance of starting in early childhood is so they can feel confident in those strategies that they learn and apply them through all of their schooling,” Davis says, adding the skills they learn in their early years at Sonnets also take them well into adulthood.

What play-based learning success looks like

Walsh and Davis say they believe deeply in play-based learning because they know it works. They’ve seen it as children leave Sonnets to attend public or private school confident enough to communicate what they’re feeling with both peers and adults, are able to confidently have different likes and dislikes than their peers, and are able to make mistakes and learn from them.

Here are a few strategies that Davis and Walsh suggest parents can try at home.

Get down on the floor and play. Be involved in your child’s play at home and act as if you are a peer playing with them. Don’t let them just take a toy away from you or let them knock over all of the blocks you built. Be a model communicator, Walsh says.

Remember, a child’s behavior is their way of communicating. If they are acting out, keep your own emotions in check, take a step back and figure out what your child is feeling, Davis says.

“Getting angry will only heighten emotions. You missed an opportunity to help your child communicate what they are feeling,” she says. “It takes time and energy to have those conversations, but in the long run, you are creating a much more communicative child. They will trust that they can communicate and feel honored.”

With the youngest learners, be as concrete as possible, narrating with first-then language ‒  first we brush our teeth, then we read books. As they get older, use first-then-next. “Anytime you put something in the abstract, it goes over their head and they get confused if they don’t feel safe and confident,” Walsh says.

Set expectations your child can achieve and follow through on, Davis says. When you set expectations, also make sure the natural consequences fit. Taking away the TV or iPad for not cleaning their room doesn’t equate, for example.

Let kids learn to be independent. Allow them to take off and put on their own shoes or clothes, Walsh says. Even if it means adding 20 minutes to getting your toddler out the door, giving them time to learn and be more independent makes them feel more in control of their life and more accepting of times when they are not in control, she says.

Embrace the mess, love the mess, they say. Children will love helping clean up and will feel great about being successful in cleaning up the mess after playtime.

“It is a very step-by-step process that starts very young; you start with the foundation and you build upon it,” says Walsh. “The biggest thing is you want them to feel confident in themselves.”

Learn more about Sonnets’ play-based learning at It offers locations at Lincoln Park, River North and West Loop.

Chicago Parent Editorial Team
Chicago Parent Editorial Team
Since 1984, the Chicago Parent editorial team is trained to be the go-to source for Chicagoland families, offering a rich blend of expert advice, compelling stories, and the top local activities for kids. Renowned for their award-winning content, the team of editors and writers are dedicated to enriching family life by connecting parents with the finest resources and experiences our community has to offer.


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