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Forget about STEM for a sec—there’s a new trend in the word of children’s toys and it totally makes sense for the times we’re in. Introducing: SEL toys, aka social emotional learning toys. So, what exactly are these special playthings and how do they help a child’s development? (In other words, what on earth could make you consider adding more toys to your kid’s already overflowing collection?) We spoke to both a toy expert and a child psychologist to find out more—and suffice it to say, we’re already drafting a wishlist.

What are SEL toys?

According to Ali Mierzejewski, Editor-in-Chief of Toy Insider, SEL toys are ones that promote the development of important social and emotional skills like “setting goals, naming your feelings, asking for help and showing empathy.” When children learn and practice these skills through play, it “builds mental and emotional awareness, healthy habits and good communication skills,” she explains.

Of course, almost any toy can be considered an SEL toy when more than one child is playing with (read: fighting over) it at the same time. These interactions provide opportunities for kids to learn about sharing, turn-taking and accepting the ideas of their peers—not to mention the opportunity for children to identify and cope with difficult feelings, should any of the aforementioned expectations prove too frustrating in the moment.

However, since most kids are currently suffering the isolating effects of school closures and social distancing, it should come as no surprise that the popularity of SEL-specific toys is soaring. Dr. Bethany Cook, clinical psychologist and author of For What It’s Worth: How to Thrive and Survive Parenting from Ages 0-2, confirms the importance of these toys, particularly in light of the current context. “Societal demands on parents are at the highest they’ve ever been as a collective whole. Given that, it’s important children and parents are given toys (i.e., tools) to promote learning in areas such as boundary setting, accepting limits and understanding feelings. Toys designed with SEL in mind are perfect not only for teaching, but for filling gaps when needed.”

Bottom line: SEL toys are a boon not only to age-appropriate social development, but also to overall wellness during these unusual times (because wellness isn’t just about physical health, but emotional health as well).

What should parents look for in SEL toys?

So, you think there might be space in your playroom for a few SEL additions after all, but you’re not sure where to start. “Some SEL development skills that parents can look for when reading the benefits of toys are emotion identification, mental meditation and calming techniques, inspirational and empathetic characters, and anxiety-soothing and coping mechanisms,” Mierzejewski tells us. Good news: The packaging of any particular product will make its benefits plain, so it shouldn’t be too hard to identify the ones that check some SEL boxes.

Other than making sure the toy you purchase actually serves an SEL purpose, the toy expert also recommends that you pick a plaything that aligns with the child’s specific interests and temperament (you know, to avoid a scenario in which said child won’t even give it the time of day). Fortunately, there’s a plethora of SEL playthings on the market, covering a wide range of developmental stages and play patterns. Of course, if you find yourself overwhelmed by the number of options, you can always just pick something from the following list of expert-recommended toys.

8 SEL Toys Kids Will Love

Amazon

1. Big Feelings Pineapple

By switching out the 26 changeable pieces on this double-sided pineapple, kids can explore and experiment with the full spectrum of emotions. “It helps kids name and recognize feelings, which is important for emotional wellness,” says Mierzejewski.

Ages 3+

$12 at Amazon

Target

2. Chuckle and Roar Pop It

Fidget toys provide a sensory experience via tactile engagement and soothing ASMR sounds. This one in particular boasts bubble wrap appeal (instant hit) and can be used for solo fidgeting or with a friend as a two-player game for older kids.

Ages 3+

Buy it ($8)

Amazon

3. Mindful Maze Set

These double-sided breathing boards provide an interactive, hands-on experience to help kids calm down and focus their awareness. Each board features a different guided breathing activity that kids can engage in through finger tracing. The end result is a mindfulness exercise that facilitates mental clarity and emotional processing.

Ages 3+

$20 at Amazon

Amazon

4. Lego Build Me ‘Emotions’ Set

Little Lego lovers can keep their hands occupied while exploring emotions and corresponding facial expressions and body language with this building kit. The set includes eight double-sided templates to get your child started, but experimentation is encouraged.

Ages 3+

$83 at Amazon

Amazon

5. See My Feelings Mirror

This hand-held mirror toy is the crash course in empathy that (let’s face it) every young child desperately needs. The activity is simple—kids choose an image of another child expressing emotion from the multi-layered mirror and try to match their own expression to the one shown in the image—and the benefits for emotional recognition skills are big.

Ages 3+

$40 at Amazon

Walmart

6. ‘For Keeps’ Collection Dolls

Per Mierzejewski, these fashion dolls encourage positivity through heart-felt messages. The affirmation stickers and sweet notes included with each of the six different characters are also designed to promote empowerment and inclusivity, so kids can learn these concepts as they engage in imaginative play.

Ages 4+

Buy it ($14)

Amazon

7. Emotional Rollercoaster Board Game

Give your kid’s social and emotional skills a boost next game night with this board game designed to help children of all ages learn tried-and-true calming techniques that they can utilize next time they’re feeling aggro. This one is great to have in the rotation because it encourages kids to understand where negative emotions come from, while promoting the coping mechanisms needed to express them in a healthy way.

Ages 6+

$25 at Amazon

Amazon

8. Calm Mindful Nature Scene 300-Piece Puzzle

Puzzles are an excellent way to encourage mindfulness and hone concentration skills—and these ones go above and beyond. Here, tranquil landscapes are paired with meditation audio for a puzzle that Mierzejewski describes as a “full sensory experience.” Bonus: Each puzzle comes with a 30-day subscription to the Calm app.

Ages 8+

$15 at Amazon

RELATED: The 12 Best STEM Activities for Kids

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