Fruitful early child development includes sensory learning and social-emotional learning (SEL). These types of learning are becoming more popular in daycare settings. This article will take a closer look at what these types of learning involve, why daycare centers are a logical place to teach these skills, and some of the toys used to assist with the process.

Sensory Learning & Social-Emotional Learning

Sensory learning begins in utero: studies show that fetuses hear and respond to their mother’s voice and heartbeat. And, of course, sensory learning—visual, auditory, and tactile—continues after birth as the growing child learns to process what they see, hear cognitively, and feel around them.

For example, when a toddler puts something into their mouth, this is sensory learning as the child uses its senses to understand that object.

On the other hand, SEL is how young children learn to use, express, and understand human emotions and engage in constructing relationships. Part of SEL for a child is learning how to get along with others, deal with frustrations, notice how others around them are dealing with emotions, and know how to react to those situations.

At What Age Do Children Learn Social and Emotional Skills?

Sensory learning starts before birth and continues throughout our lives. Social-emotional skills start at birth but ramp up during the preschool years. Children begin forming relationships with others outside their family circle and become more autonomous.

Both types of learning continue developing throughout childhood, adolescence, and beyond.

What Makes Sensory Learning and Social-Emotional Learning Important?

It is natural for children to explore their senses and emotions. The environment the child is in can help that child develop these skills by offering the right components to encourage the safe development of senses and emotions.

Essentially, children can experience sensory and social/emotional learning in a space where imaginative play with others and sensory objects for sharing are available. Experts say that the more space and activities you provide for imaginative and sensory play, the more the child will be able to tune into their own emotions and the emotions of others.

They will learn to develop empathy and reciprocity, enabling them to interact with others better. In addition, practicing these skills at home and in the highly social worlds of preschool and daycare enables them to develop the building blocks of interrelating with others. A child learns to practice kindness, respect, and understanding through reciprocal emotional interactions. These are skills they will carry with them for the rest of their lives, so it is important to be encouraged to develop them early.

A heartwarming, colorful illustration depicting a diverse group of children, both neurotypical and neurodiverse, learning and playing together in a harmonious classroom setting. The image should showcase a range of activities that symbolize inclusivity, such as sharing toys, helping each other with tasks, and engaging in group discussions. The classroom should be vibrant and welcoming, with educational posters about inclusivity and diversity on the walls. Children of various ethnicities, abilities, and backgrounds should be represented, engaging in positive interactions that reflect acceptance and understanding. The overall atmosphere of the image should be joyful and uplifting, embodying the essence of inclusivity and the importance of teaching these values to children.

What Social-Emotional Skills Help a Child to Do

We’ve discussed skills development that a child can receive through sensory and social-emotional learning. But what exactly does that look like in actual practice? Here is a short list of things that a child with these skills is learning to do:

  • make friends, maintain friendships
  • improve self-confidence
  • confront and solve conflicts
  • control anxiety, stress
  • learn social norms and apply them
  • make healthy decisions
  • withstand social pressure
  • understand others’ feelings

Children with healthy social-emotional skills succeed in school, work, and life. You could say that people who achieve good things possess solid social-emotional skills.

What Types of Toys Assist With Sensory and Social-Emotional Learning?

Toys that encourage creative play are the most effective in SEL for children in daycare. Below are just a few types of toys that assist with this.


Dolls are excellent toys that help children explore emotions and relationships. In addition, they enable children to explore complex feelings that they may project onto the doll to create a safe way to express those feelings.


Who doesn’t like to play dress-up? A collection of different pieces of clothing helps children construct a world of their own. This promotes make-believe activities and emotions from situations they create and address with their peers.

Outdoor Playsets

These are not your typical jungle gym sets. These daycare playsets include various components that let children create a world from their imagination. They can pretend about anything and improve their communication skills, taking turns and sharing.

Building Toys

This can be anything from blocks to logs to sticks and more. These are great toys for building motor and cognitive skills and social and emotional development. Creativity, math, and imagination all get exercised with any building toy.

Craft Supplies

Children can explore creative ways to express themselves individually with everything from markers and crayons to paper, string, and glue. Plus, this kind of activity may unlock artistic talent hidden previously and only discovered through craft play.


Problem-solving, logic, social, motor, emotional, spatial, and cooperative skills are all developed when children are left with a puzzle to put together. They also help children to understand shapes, patterns, and colors better.

Final Thoughts

More daycare centers provide the tools for children to develop their social-emotional skills and combine them with sensory learning. Children naturally gravitate towards activities that will enhance these skills. The best daycare and preschool sites have a wide range of activities and objects that can help children process feelings, explore roles and relationships, and develop the social and emotional skills that provide the proper foundation for growth.

Sandra Chiu works as Director at LadyBug & Friends Daycare and Preschool.

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