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

© 2009 - 2015 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Do kids need us to provide them with social skills activities? Maybe not. Children cope with social situations every time they play together, and games of make-believe may be particularly instructive. Pretending with another person encourages kids to practice "mind reading," the ability to decode each other's intentions and anticipate each other's actions (Spinka et al 2001; Pellegrini and Bjorkland 2004).

Moreover, children engaged in make-believe often reenact social behavior they see adults perform. Pretending together may help kids try out new roles and rehearse important social scripts, like the proper etiquette for greeting strangers.

But it's naive to think that kids can learn everything they need to know through spontaneous play with other children their own age. Kids need to learn culturally-specific social rituals and codes of conduct. They need to know when and how to perform crucial acts -- like sharing, offering help, and showing sympathetic concern. And such lessons don't come easily without older role models or guidance.

Around the world, societies that otherwise offer children very little formal instruction make an exception for matters of social skills and etiquette (Lancy 2008; 2012). Even !Kung hunter-gatherers, people known for the freedom they give their children, make a special effort to socialize their kids. Babies and toddlers are given attractive beads to look at, and then instructed to pass them along to specific family members (Bakeman et al 1990). Daily acts of sharing and reciprocity are essential for survival in this society; adults play an active role in transmitting these values.

So here are some activities that may help kids learn social skills. The first part of the list 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 many cases, that'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

Taking turns

Babies and toddlers are capable of spontaneous acts of kindness, but they can be shy around new people. How can we teach them that a new person is a friend? Rodolfo Barragan and Carol Dweck (2015) tested this simple tactic: Have the child engage in playful acts of reciprocity, like

  • taking turns pressing the buttons on a toy,
  • rolling a ball back and forth, or
  • handing toys to each other

When an unfamiliar adult played in this way with 1- and 2-year-olds, the children seemed to flip a switch. They began to respond to their new playmate as a person to help and share with. There was no such effect when kids merely played alongside the stranger.

The name game

Sandra Sandy and Kathleen Cochran argue that young children need to learn the importance of getting someone’s attention before you speak. To give kids a boost, they recommend this game for preschool groups: Have children sit in a circle, and give a ball to one of them. Then ask this child to name someone in the circle and roll the ball to him or her. The recipient then does the same thing—naming a recipient and rolling the ball--and the process repeats itself throughout the game (Teachers' College, Columbia University 1999).

Games of self control

To get along well with others, children need to develop focus, attention skills, and the ability to restrain their impulses. The preschool years are an important time to learn such self-control, and we can help them do it. Traditional games like "Simon Says" and "Red light, Green light" give youngsters practice in following directions and regulating their own behavior. For more information, see the research-tested games described in my article, "Teaching self-control: Evidence-based tips."

For more advice on the socialization of young children, 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. Experiments suggest that kids can improve their face reading skills with practice. See these social skills activities for teaching kids about faces.

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.


The traditional game of charades, a player draws a slip of paper from a container and silently reads the word written there. Then she tries to convey this word to her 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. We might expect, then, that these social skills activities can help kids become better non-verbal communicators. And since studies show that children learn better when they explain their tactics to others, we might make charades particularly educational by asking children to analyze game outcomes. What gestures worked? What didn’t? Why?

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.

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 athletics can make very effective social skills activities…if you 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; showing respect for the losing team)
  • 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 less skillful players
  • 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 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.

Learning to overcome "myside bias"

"Myside bias" is rampant among adults and children alike. It's the natural tendency to evaluate evidence in favor of one's own point of view (Stanovich et al 2013). But we can learn to counteract this bias with effort. Assign teens to study a political or moral issue and have kids analyze at least two opposing points of view. Next, through written essays or oral arguments, have kids take turns advocating each of these viewpoints.  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. Not only will kids practice perspective-taking, they are likely to hone critical thinking skills as well.

For more information relevant to this topic, see this article about the benefits of teaching teens to debate.

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

Bakeman R, Adamson LB, Konner MJ, and Barr RG. 1990. !Kung infancy: The social context of object exploration. Child Development 61: 794-809.

Cortes Barragan R and Dweck CS. 2014. Rethinking natural altruism: simple reciprocal interactions trigger children's benevolence. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.111(48):17071-4.

Flook L., Goldberg S.B., Pinger L., and Davidson R.J. (2015). Promoting prosocial behavior and self-regulatory skills in preschool children through a mindfulness-based Kindness Curriculum. Dev Psychol. 51(1):44-51.

Lancy D. 2012. Ethnographic perspectives on cultural transmission/acquisition.  Paper prepared for School of Advanced Research, Santa Fe, Multiple Perspectives on the Evolution of Childhood. November 4-8, 2012.

Lancy D. 2008. The anthropology of childhood: Cherubs, chattel and changelings. Cambridge University Press.

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: 141-16.

Stanovich KE, West RF, Toplak ME. 2013. Myside Bias, Rational Thinking, and Intelligence. Current Directions in Psychological Science 2(4): 259-264.

Teacher's College, Columbia University. 1999. Conflict resolution for preschoolers. TC Media Center website. Accessed on 9/28/2015 at

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

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Content last modified 9/2015