The 8 Best SEL Toys, According to an Expert

TeeTurtle's Reversible Octopus Plushie teaches important skills through playtime

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Social and emotional learning (SEL) is best taught at an early age, and a great way to teach young kids these important skills is through toys and play. The best SEL toys for any child will provide opportunities to practice at least one of the five SEL core competencies (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making), will be age-appropriate, and, of course, fun and entertaining.

Reviewed & Approved

The Teeturtle's Original Reversible Octopus Plushie has a smiley face, but when it’s turned inside out, it presents a sad/grouchy face to help children identify emotions. For a budget-friendly option, we recommend the Learning Resources Big Feelings Pineapple.

According to Donna Whittaker, VP of Curriculum and Education at Big Blue Marble Academy, “social emotions skills are more important than ever” and are essential to success in all areas of life. SEL can be an impactful learning tool for kids of all ages, so consider what skills you're hoping teach your child while ensuring they're age appropriate and entertaining. We carefully considered design, value, ease of use, age recommendations, and toy safety when reviewing products.

Here are the best social-emotional learning toys on the market.

Best Overall: TeeTurtle The Original Reversible Octopus Plushie

TeeTurtle The Original Reversible Octopus Plushie

Courtesy of Amazon

The TeeTurtle Original Reversible Octopus Plushie ranks high on our list because this toy is simple, effective, and can be played with by kids and adults. Available in a rainbow of colors, and safe for kids as young as 3 years old, this plush octopus has a smiley face, but when it’s turned inside out, it presents a sad/grouchy face.

The idea is that kids can use the octopus to help identify their emotions and to let others know, as well. For example, if they’re feeling sad, they can turn the toy to the sad face and then set it on their desk so friends, teachers, parents, or whoever can see how they’re feeling and proceed accordingly (so it’s not only good SEL for the person who as the toy, but also for anyone who encounters it, too).

Best Budget: Learning Resources Big Feelings Pineapple

Learning Resources Big Feelings Pineapple

Amazon

Similar to Mr. Potato Head, the Big Feelings Pineapple allows kids to change the toy's facial expression, but with the purpose of identifying different emotions. The double-sided pineapple allows you to make two faces at once and it comes with 26 pieces including smiles, frowns, laughing eyes, various eyebrows, and more. All of the pieces can be stored inside the pineapple when they’re not in use, and the toy is safe for kids 3 years old and up.

Best for Self-Awareness: Constructive Playthings Expressions Babies Plush Dolls

Constructive Playthings Expressions Babies Plush Dolls

Source: Constructive Playthings

According to Whittaker, age-appropriate dolls are some of the best SEL toys you can find. She says, “Dolls provide children with an opportunity to play out caring interactions” as well as to “act out their own experiences.” While any doll could work, this set of six plush dolls is especially great because each one has a different emotion.

Kids will not only act out scenarios but they’ll also have the opportunity to pick which doll and emotion combination is best for the scenario. For younger kids who aren’t old enough for imaginative play yet, these dolls are great for teaching them the different emotions and allowing them to practice what they see. Each doll is made from super soft fabric, is machine washable, and is safe for kids of all ages. Additionally, the set comes with a little basket for carrying and storing the babies.

Best for Self-Management: Hasbro Gaming Perfection

Hasbro Gaming Perfection

Source: Hasbro

Skills that fall under self-management include stress management, goal setting, self-motivation, and impulse control, and Whittaker explains that the best SEL toys that teach self-management will show kids that “they have the power to make things happen” and will help them learn “how to cope when things don’t go as planned.”

Perfection is a great game for practicing these skills because it’s a timed challenge that literally blows up all of the hard work in the end. It puts the child in control of how fast they can get the puzzle pieces into their right slot and helps them practice managing their emotional response if the time runs out before they are finished. The game can be played by one or more players and is safe for kids as young as 4 years old.

What the Experts Say

“Something that parents and caregivers can do to help children develop the life skill of impulse control/self-regulation is to play ‘stop and go’ games. The goal is to help children to feel and understand ‘stop’ and stop even though it may be hard for them to do. When children practice impulse control and the meaning of stop it helps them to be able to control impulsive behaviors like when someone says ‘stop,'" - Donna Whittaker, VP of Curriculum and Education at Big Blue Marble Academy, a certified CLASS trainer, ITERS/ECERS certified, and a Conscious Discipline, High Scope curriculum, and High Reach trainer.

Best for Social Awareness: Peaceable Kingdom Friends and Neighbors—The Helping Game

Peaceable Kingdom Friends and Neighbors: The Helping Game

Courtesy of Amazon

Empathy, perspective, and respect for others are all key skills that fall under social awareness, and this cooperative game is perfect for building and practicing them. It can be played by one to four players at a time, and is best for kids 3 years old and up.

In the game, players pull “helping tokens” from a bag and see if what they pulled can help anyone on the playing board, like a girl who’s sad because she’s stuck in the rain, or a boy who fell while playing soccer, or a child who’s angry because they’re missing a puzzle piece. Kids can practice identifying emotions, empathizing with the characters, and problem-solving to figure out what can help the characters feel better.

Best for Relationship Skills: Gamewright Outfoxed! Game

Gameright Outfoxed!

Courtesy of Amazon

Another fun collaborative game, Outfoxed! is a who-dun-it style challenge where players practice their communication, teamwork, and social engagement. You’ll need two to four players who are at least 5 years old to play the game and you’ll all work together to gather clues and suspects for who stole Mrs. Plumpert’s prized pot pie.

The game takes between 20 and 30 minutes to play and challenges players to figure out the mystery before time runs out.

Best for Responsible Decision-Making: Slumberkins Silver Narwhal Kin

Slumberkins Silver Narwhal Kin

Source: Slumberkins

With this purchase, kids get both a toy and a book that will help them learn important skills that fall under the responsible decision-making SEL competency like asking for help, problem-solving, problem identification, and evaluating situations. In the book, the Narwhal teaches kids several lessons like the importance of asking for help. The book also helps them to identify emotions and shows them how problem-solving and developing a sense of self can help them change the world.

The cozy plush toy is safe for kids as young as 3 years old and is safe for the washing machine. In addition to the lovey and book, kids also receive an affirmation card about problem-solving and asking for help when needed as well as access to downloads for even more practice and fun.

What Experts Say

“Books can help children to become emotionally literate—as caregivers read books or talk about the pictures in books, they should ask children what they think the characters are feeling. For example: ‘Look at his face. What do you think he/she is feeling?’ ‘Why do you think he/she is feeling that way?’ Even if the child is too young to respond, ask the question, pause and then provide the answer," - Donna Whittaker, VP of Curriculum and Education at Big Blue Marble Academy, a certified CLASS trainer, ITERS/ECERS certified, and a Conscious Discipline, High Scope curriculum, and High Reach trainer.

Best For Big Kids: Manners & Co. Tabletalk Kids Learn Conversation Cards

Manners & Co. Tabletalk Kids Learn Conversation Cards

Source: Manners & Co. Tabletalk

In addition to identifying emotions, it’s also important to help kids talk about what they’re feeling and experiencing in daily life, and this deck of cards is a great way to get the conversation started. Each card contains an open-ended question that falls into one of seven categories including philanthropy, community, family, school, friendship, world, and self, such as “Can one person change the world? Why or why not?” and “What is the most important thing your family has taught you?”.

Parents can ask their kids these questions at the dinner table, in the car on long trips, or any time they could use a good conversation starter. The deck comes with 130 different cards with questions that will get both kids and adults talking.

Final Verdict

All of these toys are great picks for SEL, but we ranked the TeeTurtle (view at Amazon) first for its simple but effective design, entertainment value, and because it can be used by anyone from young kids to grown adults.  

What to Look for When Buying SEL Toys

Core Competency

SEL is broken up into five core competencies, so when you’re looking for a game or toy to help teach your child social and emotional skills, you’ll want to have a good understanding of the framework to help you find suitable toys. Donna Whittaker, VP of Curriculum and Education at Big Blue Marble Academy, says, “any toy can be used as a ‘social emotional’ experience with proper adult facilitation,” but if you’re looking to help your child strengthen skills in one area of competency, it’s helpful to know how they all differ. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, here’s some of what each competency specifically focuses on. 

  • Self-Awareness: Integrating social and personal identities, emotion identification, linking feelings, values, and thoughts, examining prejudices and biases, having a growth mindset
  • Self-Management: Managing emotions, identifying and using stress management techniques, showing the courage to take initiative, setting personal and collective goals, exhibiting self-discipline and self-motivation 
  • Social Awareness: Seeing others’ perspectives, demonstrating empathy and compassion, showing concern for the feelings of others, recognizing strengths in others, identifying diverse social norms, including unjust ones
  • Relationship Skills: Effective communication, cultural competency, developing positive relationships, conflict resolution, showing leadership in groups, standing up for the rights of others, seeking or offering help/support when needed, resisting negative social pressure
  • Responsible Decision-Making: Demonstrating curiosity and open-mindedness, evaluating personal, interpersonal, community, and institutional impacts, recognizing the usefulness of critical thinking skills, learning how to make a reasoned judgment after analyzing information, data, and facts, anticipating and evaluating the consequences of one’s actions

Age Appropriateness

As with any toy, age appropriateness is important for both safety and general use. First, in order to strengthen kids’ social and emotional skills through play, a toy or game needs to be designed for their stage of development. For example, if you get a toy for a 4-year-old that is meant for kids as young as 6, then the 4-year-old might not take away as much from playing with it as you might hope.

As for safety, age appropriateness is especially important for younger kids, as everything from their general understanding to their strength to their motor skills can change drastically in the span of a few months, so what is safe for a 3-year-old may be too risky for a 2-year-old. 

Entertainment

The only way to teach kids SEL through play is with toys, games, and activities that they actually find fun, so when you’re looking for SEL toys, remember to make sure they’re actually fun. It doesn’t have to be overly fancy, either, because Whittaker explains toys like dolls, blocks, and even mirrors are great toys for fun and learning. Mirrors, for example, “help young children discover a sense of self when an adult points out to them that it is their reflection in the mirror,” she says, “This provides the adult an opportunity to talk and label the child’s emotions as they play, [saying something like], ‘Look at that smile on your face! You must be feeling happy.’”

As children grow older, collaborative games are great for SEL, because they offer a fun challenge but still give caregivers the opportunity to walk their child through important social and emotional lessons as the game carries on. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What Is SEL?

    The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning defines social and emotional learning (SEL) as, “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

    Basically, anything that teaches a child or an adult how to identify emotions in themselves or others, how to regulate their own feelings, work within a community, and/or develop and maintain relationships could fall under the umbrella of SEL. 

  • Why Is SEL Important?

    “When children develop the social-emotional skills to manage their emotions, notice the emotions of others, and have an ‘I can do it’ attitude they are much more likely to succeed in school and in life,” says Whittaker. Without these skills, she explains, they will likely have heightened emotional stress and may even struggle to succeed in school (and later in life). “[Kids without social and emotional skills] tend to struggle with important interpersonal skills such as: working in groups, working independently, focusing their attention, managing their emotions, being able to self-regulate, and knowing that their actions affect others,” she adds.

    Research shows that social-emotional learning helps children grow into confident, self-aware, and emotionally intelligent adults. According to a study, 27 percent of students that engaged in social-emotional learning improved their academic performance while an additional 24 percent of students improved their social behavior. In a follow-up study, students that participated in SEL continued to show improved behavioral regulation.

  • How Important is SEL in Early Childhood Education?

    As with all skills, the earlier a child develops them, the easier it will be for them to continue to build upon them as they continue to grow. “Social-emotional learning is important in early childhood development because it affects children’s ability to be successful in other areas of development,” Whittaker says, “If children are not able to understand and regulate their emotions and make meaningful connections with others they will struggle to function in their social world and school.” Additionally, she notes that SEL is specifically important in the preschool years because by the time kids reach kindergarten, teachers have a limited amount of time, most of which has to be focused on traditional academic teaching, leaving less (if any) time for SEL. 

Why Trust Verywell Family

This article was written by Ashley Ziegler, a full-time parenting writer and a mom to a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old. Over the years, she has researched and tested hundreds of children’s products both for her writing career and as a parent for personal use. As a mom to a neurodivergent child, Ashley has spent hours working with specialists and researching different ways to help her daughter learn how to identify and self-regulate her big emotions. When creating this list of recommendations, she considered her personal experience with SEL toys/games, the expert opinion of an early childhood education expert, as well as products’ quality, longevity, age-appropriateness, and safety.

This article was reviewed by Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart, a Review Board Member for Verywell who is also is a Pediatric Psychologist and Board Certified in Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology. Dr. Lockhart has 16 years of experience working with thousands of children, families, and professionals and understands the value of Social and Emotional Awareness and Learning.

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Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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