Social skills activities for children and teenagers: Ideas inspired by research

© 2009 - 2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Social skills activities? Some people would argue that kids hone their social skills whenever they play together.

In fact, it’s likely that social play--particularly pretend social play--functions as a safe testing ground in which juveniles can learn appropriate social behaviors (Pellegrini et al 2007).

Pretend social play also involves “mind reading” skills--the capacity to decode each other’s intentions and anticipate each other’s actions (Spinka et al 2001; Pellegrini and Bjorkland 2004).

But kids need more than free time and pretense to master social skills. They also need guidance about which social behaviors to emulate.

Advertisement

Here are some activities that may help kids learn specific social skills, from staying in line to negotiating a compromise with peers.

The list is divided into two parts. The first part features games and activities appropriate for preschoolers and school-aged children. The second part describes social skills activities for teenagers.

Do these activities work?

In most cases, it’s hard to say: They haven't been subjected to randomized, controlled trials.

But the activities are inspired by research, and many are adapted from techniques used by therapists and conflict resolution specialists.

For more information about the development of people skills, see my evidence-based pages about social cognition in children.

1. Social skills activities for kids

Games for the very young

The name game

Researchers Sandra Sandy and Kathleen Cochran note that young children need to learn the importance of getting someone’s attention before you speak. They’ve invented this little game for teaching social skills: Have kids sit in a circle and give one kid a ball. Then ask him to name another child in the circle and roll the ball to that child. The recipient then takes his turn—naming a child and rolling the ball--and so on.

Follow the leader

Have kids line up behind a leader and follow him through an obstacle course. Kids must stay in line, and take turns as they pass through each section of the course.

For more advice on the socialization of young child, see this article on preschool social skills.

Games and challenges for older kids

Reading facial expressions

People who are good at interpreting facial expressions can better anticipate what others will do. They are also more “prosocial,” or helpful towards others. Can we help kids hone their face-reading skills? See these social skills activities for teaching kids about faces.

Make the statue laugh

Here’s a classic game that encourages kids to practice self-control. Kids freeze like statues, then one child--who is “it”--must try to get them to break character and laugh. The first one to laugh becomes “it” for the next round. For more such activities, see the research-tested games described in my article, "Teaching self-control: Evidence-based tips."

Cooperative construction

When kids team up to create something together with blocks, they must communicate, negotiate, and cooperate.

Do these social skills activities make a difference?

They might.

In one study of patients with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome, school kids attended a one hour session of group construction play once a week for 18 weeks.

Compared with kids given special training in the social use of language, the kids in the construction group showed greater improvement in their social interactions (Owens et al 2008). Other research indicates that the benefits of these experiences last for years (Legoff and Sherman 2006).

Community gardens

I haven’t found any experimental studies, but there are anecdotal reports that kids improve their social skills when they work together on a garden (Ozer et al 2007). Presumably, such gardening projects are like group construction projects, and promote the same sorts of social skills activities.

Cooperative ball games

How long can a two (or more) kids keep a ball “in play?” There are many variants of this game. You can kick the ball, toss the ball, or hit the ball back and forth (as in volleyball). But the basic idea is the same: Players move the ball back and forth without dropping it or interrupting the rally. Success depends on anticipating and accommodating each other’s actions.

Charades

In a game of charades, kids engage in a variety of social skills activities. A player draws a slip of paper from a container and silently reads the word written there. Then he tries to convey this word to his team mates through pantomime. What gestures are most likely to communicate the crucial information? The best players are good at perspective-taking--at imagining what it’s like being in the audience. They are also good at reading body language and other social cues. After each round, encourage kids to engage in analysis. What gestures worked? What didn’t? Why?

Building a consensus: Social skills activities that teach kids to negotiate

Here are some social skills activities borrowed from industrial/organizational psychology. The idea is to present a group with a set of choices about a fictitious birthday party. Kids must come to an agreement about what to eat for lunch, what activity to engage in, and what sort of birthday cake to have.

Before you play, make cards--one set for each participant.

Each set should be identical, and it should include:

• Cards depicting several different choices of lunch food, including some quirky options (e.g., cards for “pizza,” “peanut butter and jelly,” “noodle soup,” “fish pancakes”).

• Cards depicting several choices of activity (e.g., “roller skating,” “visiting a science museum,” “going to the beach,” “mountain climbing”)

• Cards depicting several different kinds of birthday cake (e.g., “chocolate cake with vanilla frosting,” “yellow cake with chocolate frosting,” “white cake with vanilla frosting,” “carrot cake with cream cheese frosting).

To play, each kid looks over the cards and identifies his favorite and least favorite options. Then kids can try to see what they agree on. Can they negotiate an agreement? Help kids understand the nature of compromise: They might not be able to agree on their favorites. But maybe they can arrive at an acceptable plan by eliminating options that people really dislike.

Team sports and good sportsmanship

Team sports can make very effective social skills activities…if you explicitly teach kids how to be good sports. How? Before a game, remind kids on the goals of good sportsmanship. These include:

• Being a good winner (not bragging and taunting the losers; providing supportive feedback to the losers)

• Being a good loser (congratulating the winner; not blaming others for the loss)

• Showing respect to other players and to the referee

• Showing encouragement and offering help to other players who may be less skilled

• Resolving conflicts without running to the teacher

During a game, give kids the chance to put these principles into action before you intervene in conflicts. If they don’t sort things out themselves after two minutes, you can jump in. And when the game is over, give kids feedback on their good sportsmanship.

Does this approach work? It might. In an experimental study of urban American elementary school students, some kids got the treatment described above. Kids were briefed on good sportsmanship at the beginning of every gym class. And, after every game, teachers gave each team a score reflecting its overall good sportsmanship.

The results? Compared to kids attending regular gym classes, the kids who received explicit training in good sportsmanship showed greater leadership and conflict-resolution skills. And the lessons appeared to have spilled over into regular life, because the kids also showed similar improvements in the classroom (Sharpe et al 1995).

Practicing social scripts: Role-playing social skills activities

When you go to a restaurant, you have certain expectations about what will happen.

• You will approach the cashier, be seated, and given a menu.

• You will read the menu and, when your server arrives, you will make an order.

• After an interval, you will be given your food.

• After you’ve eaten, you will be given a bill.

• You will pay the bill and leave a tip

Cognitive psychologists call this sort of thing a social script. There are many different kinds of social scripts—including scripts for meeting people, shopping for groceries, sharing a meal, being a guest, being a host, receiving gifts (or compliments), interviewing for a job, attending a funeral, and offering sympathy. Social scripts give us a framework for understanding how to behave in various common situations. Becoming an adult, is, in a part, a question of learning your culture’s scripts.

Teaching social scripts is a standard approach for autistic people (Weiss and Harris 2001). Kids learn what to do—even what to say—in common social situations. Normally-developing children might not be autistic, but they can benefit from social skills activities and role-playing games that encourage them to practice social scripts.

Adults can help by exposing kids to polite social scripts--in real life, in pretend play, and in fictional works (like books and television).

Mastering social scripts might sound like work for preschoolers. But older kids can benefit, too. For example, see the mock job interview below.

2. Social skills activities for older kids and teenagers

Social skills activities for active listening

Active listeners show speakers that they are paying attention. They do this through body language (offering appropriate eye contact, orienting the body in the direction of the speaker, remaining quiet) and verbal feedback (restating, in their own words, what the speaker is trying to communicate).

One popular method of teaching active listening assigns people to one of three roles: A speaker, a listener, and an observer. The speaker is instructed to talk for a few minutes about something important to him. The listener attends quietly, providing cues to the speaker that she is paying attention. When the speaker is finished talking, the listener also repeats back, in her own words, the speaker’s points.

The observer’s job is to evaluate the speaker and listener. Did the speaker stay on topic? How did the listener indicate that she was paying attention?

After the observer shares his observations with the others, the players switch roles and try again.


Political posters

Assign teens to study a political or moral issue and have kids analyze at least two opposing points of view. To fully understand these points of view, kids may interview real people. They might also read editorials on the subject. Next, have kids take turns advocating each of these viewpoints. For each position, create a poster illustrating the key points. Make sure that kids understand their purpose: They aren’t supposed to explain what they think about the issue. Rather, they are supposed to provide a fair and balanced account of what other people believe.


Mock job interviews

The goals of these social skills activities are (1) to get teens thinking about the employer’s perspective and (2) to have teens apply their insights to making a good impression at a mock interview.

To begin, help teens choose from a short list of jobs. They will be applying for the job they choose, but they will also take turns serving as employers. So when you offer your list, include only those jobs that kids can understand from the employer’s perspective. Good examples are domestic service jobs, like:

• Housekeeper

• Tutor

• Personal fitness trainer

What do I mean by “understand from the employer’s perspective?” Although your teens may have never had a housekeeper, tutor, or personal fitness trainer, they can imagine what might be important to an employer. Is the housekeeper (who will see your intimate surroundings and have access to your belongings) trustworthy and discreet? Is the tutor patient and good with explanations? Does the personal fitness trainer know how to keep people motivated? Are these people reliable?

Perspective-taking: Thinking like an employer

Once teens have chosen their preferred jobs, ask them to think like employers. If they were hiring for this position, what kind of person they you want? Have teens work together on an advertisement for the position. And help them come up with a short list of questions to ask in the interview.

The job interview

Ask for volunteers to serve as job applicants. Let them fill out application forms and collect their thoughts. Then call them before your interview panel, which should consist of several peer “employers” who will take turns asking questions of the applicant. The rest of the group will watch (and analyze) the interview. The applicants are free to make up an identity (including an appropriate job history). But they should be consistent about their story and make an earnest effort to get hired.

Group discussion: What works?

After the interviews, thank the volunteers and start a group discussion. Ask applicants to share their feelings. What made them nervous? Which questions were the hardest to answer? Then ask everyone to consider what worked well and what didn’t. Based on these experiences, create a list of interview “dos” and “don’ts.”


The blindfolded walk

To play this game, create an obstacle course. Then assign players to one of two roles. Blinded players will wear blindfolds. Leaders will take blinded players by the hand and attempt to lead them through the course. Talking is encouraged, and, when they are finished, players should reverse their roles.


Other ways to foster social skills

In addition to these social skills activities, check out my research-based tips for teaching kids about empathy and this article about fostering preschool social skills.


References: Social skills activities

Legoff DB and Sherman M. 2006. Long-term outcome of social skills intervention based on interactive LEGO play. Autism. 10(4):317-29.

Ozer EJ. 2007. The effects of school gardens on students and schools: conceptualization and considerations for maximizing healthy development. Health Educ Behav. 34(6):846-63.

Pellegrini AD, Dupuis D, and Smith PK. 2007. Play in evolution and development. Developmental Review 27: 261-276.

Pellegrini AD and Smith PK. 2005. The nature of play: Great apes and humans. New York: Guilford.

Sharpe T, Brown M and Crider K. 1995. The effects of a sportsmanship curriculum intervention on generalized positive social behavior of urban elementary students. Journal of applied behavior analysis 28(4): 401-416.

Spinka, M., Newberry, RC, and Bekoff, M. 2001. Mammalian play: Training for the unexpected. Quarterly Review of Biology 76: 141-168

Weiss MJ and Harris SL. 2001. Teaching social skills to people with autism. Behav Modif. 25(5):785-802.

Was this article helpful? If so, try browsing through other sections of parentingscience.com.

Content last modified 2/13