Social & Emotional Development
Developing Self-Regulation
WiseTip: SE-REG-M2436-P01B

Allow your toddler to play as they like but give clear expectations for safe behaviours. Use simple rules that toddlers can understand. Share these rules with other caregivers so that all of you can be consistent.


Play has been shown to be effective in helping children develop self-regulation.

To sustain play, children must act deliberately, inhibiting behaviour that is not part of the specific role. This inhibiting action helps support the development of intentional behaviour.

Pretend play is a mature form of play which requires planning and
symbolic thinking

Symbolic Play - Play that occurs when a child transforms the physical environment into a symbol. In the symbolic play, children use a variety of objects in symbolic play.1 They learn to transform objects, substituting them for other objects and acting toward them as if they were those other objects.2 For example, a broomstick is a horse, and a paper plate is a steering wheel.

1. Santrock, J. W. (2011). Child Development (14th ed.). New York, NY, USA: McGraw-Hill Education.

2. Smith, P. K. (2007). Pretend play and children’s cognitive and literacy development: Sources of evidence and some lessons from the past. In K. A. Roskos & J. F. Christie (Eds.), Play and literacy in early childhood. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

and has been shown to help develop self-talk, which is beneficial for helping to regulate the child’s own emotions and behaviours.

Allowing toddlers to play freely but within behaviour boundaries helps them regulate better. Parental use of positive controlling strategies, such as directiveness with low to moderate power assertion, guidance and instruction, was positively related to self-regulation. Conversely, negative controlling strategies, such as power assertive, limit-setting activities and coercive behaviours, were negatively associated with self-regulation.