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IEL Tip Sheet: Play and Self-Regulation in Preschool

Are your children aware of their feelings, needs, and impulses? Can they calm themselves, control their behavior, and focus on tasks? Preschoolers who can do these things find it easier to take turns, make friends, and adapt to school routines. This ability is called “self-regulation.” Teachers often wonder how to help children self-regulate. The answer may be, “Let them play!” (See Illinois Early Learning and Development Benchmarks 30.A.ECa Recognize and label basic emotions., 30.A.ECb Use appropriate communication skills when expressing needs, wants, and feelings., 30.A.ECc Express feelings that are appropriate to the situation., 30.A.ECd Begin to understand and follow rules., 30.A.ECe Use materials with purpose, safety, and respect., and 30.C.ECd Demonstrate engagement and sustained attention in activities..)

Provide open-ended play time.

  • Let children have long periods of time daily to plan and take part in play activities. When you ask children ahead of time to choose what they want to play, you help them focus attention and follow through on plans. “Dmitri, your plan was to play a board game. What game do you want?”
  • Offer open-ended materials so children can plan creatively: blocks, sand, water, colorful scarves, streamers, etc. They may turn blocks into a city, a hill, or a bed. The scarves may become clouds, a waterfall, or blankets.
  • Help children put disappointments into words so they can calm themselves and focus on putting things back together. “Your block tower fell and you feel frustrated. You could build another one. Or do you want to put away the blocks and play with something else?”

Encourage make-believe play.

  • Provide props so children can take different roles: parent, baby, rescue worker, pet, dancer, magician. A child who pretends with others learns to follow the “rules” of the role he plays. “I’m the waiter. I give you a menu, and you tell me what you want to eat.”
  • Observe to find out if children internally patrol their own behavior as they play their make-believe roles. “I can’t play with Celia now. I’m being the waiter for Kaya and Will.”
  • Give children a chance to set limits when a playmate doesn’t follow the rules. They will often remind each other to control impulses during make-believe play: “Don’t growl at me, Waiter. Waiters don’t scare people.”

Help children negotiate with each other during pretend play.

  • When children disagree, encourage them to talk to each other about what they want.
  • If plans have to be changed, remind the children that they have options. “You want the magic wand. But it’s still Emma’s turn. You can sit and wait. Or you could play that this cape is magic and wear it till Emma’s done.”
September 2013

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The opinions, resources, and referrals provided on the IEL Web site are intended for informational purposes only and are not intended to take the place of medical or legal advice, or of other appropriate services. We encourage you to seek direct local assistance from a qualified professional if necessary before taking action.

The content of the IEL Web site does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Illinois Early Learning Project, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, or the Illinois State Board of Education; nor does the mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the Illinois Early Learning Project, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, or the Illinois State Board of Education.

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