top of page

Staying Connected

Supporting Social Emotional Development While Isolated

Children are experiencing unprecedented levels of isolation. How can we support their social emotional development while we are quarantined and social distancing? Here we delve into what research can tell us about the social emotional benefits of online gaming, play, and literature.

Pretend play

One of the best ways to support children's developing social skills is through pretend play.

Pretend or fantasy play is linked to social and cognitive development. But why is pretend play so important for development? In pretend play children can try on roles, negotiate conflicts, work through concerns and develop skills necessary for later academic work. Importantly, pretend play is also cognitively demanding.

There is research to support this theory of the inner cognitive workings of pretend play. For example, in one study researchers found that children who engaged in pretend play tended to have stronger cognitive skills like working memory, attention, and “inhibitory control”. Inhibitory control is a child’s ability to pause before reacting to a situation (Carlson, White, & Davis-Unger, 2014). In social situations, being able to hold back an initial reaction is a vital skill for starting and maintaining friendships.

Bilingual children need to be cognitively flexible as they switch back and forth between languages. Similarly, pretend play requires children to shift back and forth from fantasy to reality. To do this effectively, children rely on their cognitive skills.

To understand the cognitive demands of pretend play, some researchers have compared pretend play to bilingualism.

We often talk about the importance of play for children’s development. But what about the importance of parental play for the well-being of both parents and children? Anthropologists and psychologists have found that play in adulthood contributes to creative thinking, empathy and stress reduction. Being playful around and with one’s children’s not only helps reduce one’s own stress and anxiety but also that of one’s children as they pick up cues from their caregivers. While playing children may also feel more comfortable talking to adults about their emotions, which is vitally important during times such as these (Behncke, 2011; Brown, 2008).


In Ancient Greece, a library was considered a 

"healing place of the soul”.

The therapeutic use of literature has been termed “bibliotherapy” and has been used with success to support both children and adults. It encompasses any means of engaging with literature including both reading books as well as storytelling.

Storytelling comes in many forms from writing out a reaction to another story, keeping a journal, and writing, drawing, or telling a story out loud. 

Part of the power of bibliotherapy is the potential to open up channels through which children can express their beliefs, validate their feelings, and cope with difficult emotions. During this time of crisis, storytelling or reading books with a caregiver that address strong emotions can serve as a means to help children process their anxiety, frustration, and sadness. 

For ideas for books that help children work through anxiety, visit our collection of recommendations from librarians.