Emotions at play

When they occur and how to support children’s emotional development
Reading time: 4 minutes



Emotions are an integral part of the individual: our wellbeing very much depends on our ability to recognise, understand and manage emotions, and it is important to be able to apply that same process also to the people we establish relationships with. 

When do emotions first occur?

Emotional and affective development is a topic of great interest, especially in recent years, not only to professionals who deal with children but also to parents and caregivers who are increasingly interested in understanding how to help children express and regulate their emotions. The topic has been investigated by many researchers, and the scientific literature provides a wealth of diverse evidence about when and how an emotion occurs. 

The research findings certainly suggest, among other things, that emotions are inborn, so during the first year of life every child can experience a range of emotions, defined as basic emotions, including joy, anger, fear, sadness, surprise and disgust.  But emotions are far more complex than we are used to thinking since they are made up of different components, namely physical, cognitive, relational and behavioural factors. Learning how to fully master our emotions is a long and difficult task that lasts throughout life, and it is therefore vital to take care of our children’s emotions and help them to become aware of them and to manage them.

Emotions help us to communicate to others our state of wellbeing or distress, but they also enable us to communicate to ourselves how we are feeling, giving us key information on how to behave, what to choose, what to plan, what to do again and what never to do again, thereby giving direction to our current and future actions.  Regulating our emotions doesn’t mean not feeling unpleasant emotions but knowing how to modulate their extent, intensity and meaning so as to turn them into useful tools for achieving our goals as well as individual and social wellbeing.

To what extent can relationships, play activities and education influence emotional development?

Even very young babies pick up the emotional state of the people around them, and this process can be seen, for example, in emotional contagion. Children “catch” the other person’s emotion, so that if a peer standing next to them is crying, they themselves can burst into tears, and if the parent caring for them is feeling anxious, they too can feel a sense of anxiety. These are just a few examples illustrating that it is possible for emotional sharing processes to be driven not exclusively by language but also by emotions. We can therefore say that establishing a relationship with and therefore being close to a child in itself involves communicating an emotion. 

How do we educate, that is, how do we support our children in their emotional development? Can we talk about emotional play?

If we mean “play” in the true sense of the word, then we can say Yes, we can!

Experts in this field consider play an important factor in development because it allows the child to experiment with and subsequently consolidate new skills, including cognitive, social-emotional and relational skills. Play is a recreational experience that allows children to express their individual, spontaneous and intentional activity which is essential to the dynamics of development. Play activities provide an excellent training ground for developing emotional and social skills precisely because play is intrinsically free and spontaneous. We only have to think of how frequently emotional situations arise when children play, including waiting for their turn, sharing toys, cooperating, and so on.

Through play children explore and get to know their surrounding physical and social environment. Therefore, when it comes to emotions too, the adult should understand that nothing can be conveyed using an instruction-driven approach, as in, “this is how it’s done”, “this is what you must do”, and so on. Instead, we need to give free rein to the affective function, letting children experience the pleasure of playing and experimenting spontaneously with emotions in order to foster their initiative and independence, until they will gradually be able to choose how to behave and how to manage their emotions in a functional manner. Before being able to do this, children carefully observe the responses of the people around them to their behaviour.

How much knowledge does a parent need?

Helping the development of a child’s emotional skills doesn’t necessarily require parents to be super-informed and scientifically knowledgeable, but it means first and foremost to know how to observe, perceive and listen to the child’s emotions and to help the child understand and express them in a functional and flexible way. 

The playful approach means avoiding any instruction-based activities and adopting the most natural approach, which mainly focuses on the affective aspects, letting children experience the pleasure of spontaneous play to reinforce their initiative and independence thereby fostering and developing intentionality.

Methods that focus on giving instructions on what to do and how to do things are often boring and uninspiring for children, while adopting an active approach in which children themselves are actively engaged is certainly beneficial for improving their aptitudes for action and their behaviour. It is in fact very important to motivate children by combining the enjoyable, playful aspect with the aspect of attention, concentration and effort.

And now we’re ready to play, to be happy with ourselves and with others!

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