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22 best kids toys for sensory and social-emotional learning

Foundational learning has never been this much fun.
Images of three different aged kids playing with sensory learning toys
TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

When it comes to fruitful early child development, sensory learning and social-emotional learning (SEL) are huge buzzwords for parents. But what do these terms really mean?

Shop TODAY spoke with Tovah P. Klein, Ph.D., Director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, Associate Professor of Psychology and Author of "How Toddlers Thrive" and Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda, Professor of Applied Psychology at New York University, to find out more about these essential skills. They also shared what parents can do to foster a positive environment and framework to help children understand their emotions and engage their senses more effectively.

What's the difference between sensory learning and social-emotional learning?

While sensory learning and SEL are somewhat related, Tamis-LeMonda and Klein explained that these methodologies are actually quite different.

Sensory learning typically occurs in babies and toddlers when their main way of understanding their surroundings is through the five senses (touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight). "Humans take in information through their senses," says Klein. "Most adults think of their child learning [through] letter and numbers and reading and writing, but children actually develop in a very holistic way through all of their senses."

"When they're in the exploratory stage, they're just manipulating objects, shaking them, banging them — they don't yet use them in pretend play," says Tamis-LeMonda. When the child grows a bit older and can start engaging in pretend play (for example, tending to their teddy bear's hurt knee), SEL becomes relevant and important.

SEL is how kids learn to convey and understand human emotions. "This is the human quality of a human being," says Klein. "Getting along with others [and] handling frustration when [they] can't figure out how to do a puzzle — that's the social-emotional piece." This also includes noticing when someone is facing a certain emotion, taking care of them and knowing how to react in a helpful way during these situations.

How old do children typically learn social and emotional skills?

Sensory-based play typically happens in children under 5 years old, with a big emphasis on this type of learning from ages zero to 3 years old.

Social-emotional skills start as soon as a human is born, but they really come into play during the preschool years when children begin to develop relationships with their peers. Tamis-LeMonda and Klein also said these social and emotional skills continue to develop throughout their childhood and adolescence.

Why are sensory learning and social-emotional learning important?

Fostering an environment for your child where they can truly explore their senses and emotions is important because kids are going to naturally do these things anyway, explained Klein and Tamis-LaMonda.

"You don't have to teach a child how to play; you just have to give them safe enough space to do it," says Klein. Additionally, it's something that doesn't need specific toys or activities, you can take household items and still inspire sensory, imaginative and emotional play for your child. Examples of these types of activities include things like caring for a stuffed animal or playing a game where you have to collaborate with others.

The more space and activities you provide for imaginative and sensory play will allow a child to be in tune with their own emotions along with the emotions of others. They'll learn to understand when someone is happy or upset and how to best react in these situations. This directly relates to the way they interact with other kids, adults and themselves. Learning these things early on sets the foundational skills needed to treat others and themselves with kindness and respect.

With the holidays right around the corner, gift the toddler or child in your life something that will help foster their sensory and social-emotional learning. Based on shoppers' reviews and our experts' advice, Shop TODAY found 22 toys that are sensory or social-emotional learning-friendly and also make great gifts.

Best sensory toys and social-emotional learning toys for kids

Baby Einstein Curiosity Clutch Sensory Toy

Designed for toddlers up to 36 months, this Baby Einstein toy allows your infant to discover various things through touch and sight. They'll be twisting, grabbing, pressing and interacting with this handheld toy all day long.

Lakeshore Feelings & Emotions Dough Mats

Toddlers will love getting to use their hands for this activity, but parents will love it even more knowing their toddler is getting exposed to understanding different emotions. Note: This set comes with 24 different reusable place mats, but you have to purchase the dough separately.

Fat Brain Klickity Toy

This Fat Brain toy might look funky, but that's on purpose! It's designed to feature various sounds, shapes, movements and textures, kicking your infant's sensory learning skills into gear.

Spike the Fine Motor Hedgehog Sensory Tree House

This is a toy that truly has it all. Its textures and colors are great for exploring and the act of putting the sweet woodland critters in the tree can inspire imaginative play. The hedgehogs also encourage counting and color memorization.

Constructive Playthings Expression Babies Plush Dolls

These plush dolls combine sensory and social-emotional learning by having two layers of touch — a soft doll and a removable sleep slack — and by expressing various emotions. The best part? They are machine-washable!

Taf Toys Koala Infant Tummy-time Soft Crinkle Activity Book

With a 4.8-star average on Amazon, you can purchase this activity book confidently knowing that thousands of people love it. Engage their sensory learning with pages of adorable illustrations and textures.

"How are You Feeling?" and "Wheel of Choice" Posters

Allow them to convey their feelings in simpler terms with these hangable posters. Each one offers a range of emotions and activities that will inspire conversations with your little one about how they'd react in certain situations. Plus, the posters are laminated so they won't destroy them right away.

VTech Soft and Smart Sensory Cube

Engage their touch, sight and hearing with this six-sided sensory cube from VTech. Each side has something different to explore, keeping both babies and toddlers entertained for hours.

HAPE Eggspression

Made with non-toxic materials, these egg-cellent toys dawn various expressions and can be used to communicate your child's feelings in real time. It even comes with an idea book filled with a story that expands on each egg's emotion.

Learning Resources Big Feelings Pineapple

Let them present their emotions on this super cool pineapple, which comes with 26 corresponding face pieces. The pineapple even has two sides, so they can display multiple emotions at once. Your child will be learning about their emotions without even knowing it.

hand2mind Sensory Fidget Tubes

If your 3- to 6-year-old is still sensory-explorative, consider gifting them these fidget tubes. It can also help a child control their anxiety and relax.

Kaplan Social Emotional Enrichment Toolbox

This SEL toolbox from Kaplan is jam-packed with learning activities and games. It comes with an "All About Me" journal, family-themed figurines, "Strong Puppy" by Tessa Strickland, a fun maze, crayons and an activity guide. It even comes with a storage container to keep everything in one place.

Carson Dellosa Education Emotion-oes Board Game

What game is a cross between dominoes and social-emotional learning? You guessed it, Emotion-oes! This board game allows kids to match the emotions on the cards and to discuss what they think is going on.

Manhattan Toy Making Faces 34-Piece Emotion Toy

Let their creativity run wild as they create sad, happy, angry and silly faces and more! This set comes with 34 different pieces including three magnetic boards to build different, emotion-filled faces. It claims to help build social skills and confidence.

B. toys Toy Vet Kit for Kids Critter Clinic

Both Klein and Tamis-LeMonda mentioned toys where the child gets to take care of an object are a great choice to develop essential emotional learning skills like empathy. This toy kit lets your child play veterinarian with a tiny stethoscope, mirror, syringe, thermometer and more. They'll learn how to take care of their animals — and eventually others.

hand2mind See My Feelings Mirror

Put them face-to-face with their emotions — literally. An emotion card slides into the top part of the mirror and your child is tasked with mimicking — and eventually understanding — the different emotions presented in front of them. The mirror itself is shatterproof and safe for kids.

Stone Soup Board Game

Great for teaching collaboration and cooperation, this memory matching game lets two to six kids work together to cook imaginary soup together. They'll learn the importance of working harmoniously in no time.

smART Pixelator

Keep them in tune with their emotions and imagination as they age with these engaging toys. This "pixelator," which turns beads into 2D or 3D art, lets your child create and keep fun designs. It comes with 50 step-by-step designs, but kids also have the freedom to craft their own masterpiece.

Chalk and Chuckles Caring Cats Kindness Around Town

Claiming to encourage your child's empathy, cooperation and compassion, this board game is as beneficial as it is adorable. Players will move their cat along the board, collecting "Caring Cat" tokens and responding to scenario cards along the way.

Grab & Write Social-Emotional Prompts

Great for kids between ages 8 to 10, this writing activity makes the perfect learning gift for the child or teacher in your life. The cards cover topics like friendships, teamwork and self-control.

Grounded for Life

Made by the same company as What Do You Meme?, this family game allows everyone to compete and submit the funniest answer. Plus, according to the stellar ratings it currently holds at Walmart and Barnes & Noble, families everywhere seem to love getting to spend quality time together by playing this crowd-pleaser.

TableTopics Teen

Made for ages 13 and older, this conversation-starting game is perfect for the kid who wants to continue expanding their social-emotional learning past childhood. It's fun to play with friends or even parents. The cards include a mix of light-hearted and thought-provoking topics.

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