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The Importance of Learning Self-Regulation Through Play

What is Self-Regulation?

Self-regulation is the ability to manage emotions, attention, energy and behaviour in a way that it appropriate to the demands of the situation. Children are not born with these skills, but rather must develop them over time. Self-regulation skills that children develop include things such as being able to resist a highly emotional reaction when something is upsetting them, being able to calm themselves down, adjusting to a situation when an unexpected outcome occurs and handling frustration without having an outburst or a meltdown. They are all skills that develop as a child matures, and enables them to get along better with their peers, and also work towards goals despite the unpredictability of the world around them, or their own feelings.[i]

However, some children have more difficulties developing these skills than other children. This can be due to neurological differences such as Autism, ADHD or anxiety, and at other times it  can simply be that parents or caregivers are too quick to solve the child’s problems for them or calm them down when they are upset, so they don’t get the  opportunities to  learn self-regulation skills.

A child’s ability to self-regulate also changes considerably during the first five years depending on their cognitive and motor skill development. For example, a toddler doesn’t possess the same capacity for self-regulation as a preschool child.

Self-Regulation Skills According to Developmental Age


Babies rely on adults who are sensitive to their cues and responsive to their needs. They need to consistently be soothed in times of distress by their caregiver. However, even infants are capable of some basic self-regulation skills such as sucking fingers, a thumb, or a dummy to reduce distress, or shifting their attention or averting their gaze when they are overwhelmed.


Once children reach toddlerhood, caregivers can begin to purposefully teach and model self-regulation skills such as waiting, or using simple words to express their needs and feelings. At this age, toddlers may begin to develop skills such as focussing attention for short periods of time, adjusting their behaviour to suit goals, briefly delaying gratification, label some feelings, and turn to adjust for help with strong feelings – all of which require them to self-regulate their behaviour.


During the preschool years, children experience a rapid growth in the areas of the brain associated with self-regulation. Not only are they developmentally more prepared to learn and use self-regulatory skills, the increased opportunities for play with peers, and their growing language skills make this the perfect time for children to learn and practice these emerging skills on a daily basis. Important foundational self-regulation skills that preschool children may develop at this time include the ability to recognise feelings in themselves and others, identify solutions to simple problems, use strategies like taking deep breaths and self-talk to calm down, focus attention and persisting with tasks for increased lengths of time even when they find them difficult, and practicing empathy and seeing things from someone else’s perspective.[i]

Preschoolers need considerable repetition, prompting and practice in using these new skills. Parents and caregivers should not only model these skills themselves, as children learn by watching how to behave, they should also give them ample opportunities to learn and practice these skills through play.

The Importance of Play in Building Your Child’s Brain Architecture

Did you know that 80% of a child’s brain is developed by the age of three and 90% by the age of five? The neurons being developed during these early years serve as the foundations for future growth and development. How a child responds to environmental influences is often determined by the early responses and connections of brain development. In other words, experiences a child has with others affects how their brain is built, with only positive experiences strengthening brain architecture.[ii]

Throughout a child’s early years, the role play has in their development is significant. Play enables children to act out emotional experiences, and express both positive and negative feelings and integrate emotion with cognition.[iii] Some researchers[iv] suggest that pretend dramatic play and make believe are forerunners of important capacity for forms of self-regulation and executive functions. The pretend play assists in the child’s ability to reduce aggression, delay gratification, practice civility and understand and exhibit empathy, all skills that will stand them in good stead for school and later life.

Through pretend play with peers, children learn to be more flexible with their thinking and plans. When a child does not get what they want, or the game is steered in a direction contrary to their ideas, they are required to self-regulate. In this way, play teaches children to compromise. They learn to follow rules and directions offered by others, and can take these skills into new play situations.

Dramatic pretend play can also be a great way for children to expand their vocabulary. In fact, the language and vocabulary used by children during pretend play is often at a higher quality than what is typically used in normal conversations with peers and adults.[v] So encourage them to express their curiosity and imagination as often as you can.

Self-Regulation Activities and Games You Can Practice with Your Child

  • Peek-a-boo: this helps your baby learn regulate in the moment of ‘looking for you’ followed by a sense of calm and relief when they see you again
  • Pretend play: themes with dolls, dinosaurs, or in costume. This may include doctors and nurses, fire fighters, police, teachers, or mummy and daddy’s. The aim is to promoting moments in play where disappointment, frustration, worry may occur with solutions being acted out.  
  • Hide and seek: requires the child to wait patiently to be found
  • Simon Says: can be a great way to act out different emotions and practice impulse control and needing to follow someone else’s lead. 
  • Breath work: blowing pom poms across the room using straws, focusing on extending the exhale to deepen the inhale helps to regulate and calm the nervous system.
  • Yoga spinner: this works on a range of sensory systems that can be regulation (proprioception, tactile, vestibular) with the option for pair yoga moves. Opportunity for turn taking and the benefits of breathing are incorporated in this game

Motivate Kids are an Occupational Therapy Practice located across 3 locations in South Australia. Therapy supports children to develop their sensory integration, emotional regulation, attention, and executive functioning as well as motor and social skills. Children may have a diagnosis such as Autism, ADHD, Developmental Delay, Trauma or may just not be hitting their milestones. Motivate Kids recognise the transference of therapy ideas across all children to support them to live their best lives.

[i] Rosanbalm, K.D., Murray, D.W (2017) Promoting Self-Regulation in Early Childhood: A Practice Brief, p 4. OPRE Brief# 2017-79. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, US. Department of Health and Human Services.

[ii] Gerdes (2019), ‘Lutheran School Early Childhood Educator Understanding of Self-Regulation, Executive Functions, and Social-Emotional Learning and Implications for Practice,’ Concordia University, Chicago, 2019.

[iii] Jent, J. F., Niec, L. N., & Baker, S. E. (2011). Play and interpersonal processes. In S. W. Russ & L. N. Niec (Eds.), Play in clinical practice: Evidence-based approaches (23-47). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

[iv] Berk, L. E., Mann, T. D., & Ogan, A. T. (2006). Make-believe play: Wellspring for development of self-regulation. In D. Singer, R. M. Golinkoff & K. Hirsh-Pasek (Eds.), Play = Learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth (74-100). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[v] Kaufman, S. B. (2012, March, 6). The need for pretend play in child development: Imaginative play is a vital component to normal child development [Blog Post]. Retrieved from 117

[i] How Can We Help Kids With Self-Regulation? Child Mind Institute,

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