Social skills activities that help kids forge positive relationships
How can we help children develop social competence -- the ability to read emotions, cooperate, make friends, and negotiate conflicts?
But there is nothing quite like practice. To develop and grow, kids need first-hand experience with turn-taking, self-regulation, teamwork, and perspective-taking.
Here are 17 research-inspired social skills activities for kids, organized loosely according to age-group. I begin with games suitable for the youngest children, and end with social skills activities appropriate for older kids and teens.
For more information about boosting social competence, see these tips for
In addition, check out my article about fostering preschool social skills, and this article about the possibility that friendly, "prosocial" video games -- like Animal Crossing™ -- motivate players to be more kind, sympathetic, and helpful.
Babies 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?
One powerful method is to have young children engage in playful acts of reciprocity with the stranger. These might include
When Rodolfo Barragan and Carol Dweck (2015) tested this simple tactic on 1- and 2-year-olds, the children seemed to flip a switch.
The babies began to respond to their new playmates as people to help and share with.
There was no such effect if children merely played alongside the stranger.
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).
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 about teaching self-control. For additional advice about the socialization of young children, see this Parenting Science article about preschool social skills.
Young children are often inclined to help other people. How can we encourage this impulse? Research suggests that joint singing and music-making are effective social skills activities for fostering cooperative, supportive behavior.
For example, consider this game of "waking up the frogs."
You take a bunch of preschoolers who don't know each other, and direct their attention to a "pond" -- a blue blanket spread on the floor with several "lily pads" on it. Toy frogs sit on the lily pads.
Then you tell the children the frogs are sleeping. It's morning, and the frogs need our help to wake up! So you give the children simple music instruments (like maracas), and ask them to sing a little wake-up song while they walk around the pond in time with the music.
When researchers played this game with 4-year-olds, they subsequently tested the children's spontaneous willingness to help other kids. Compared with children who had "awakened the frogs" with a non-musical version of the activity, the music-makers were more likely to help out a struggling peer (Kirschner and Tomasello 2010).
To get along with others, kids need to be able to calm themselves down when something upsetting happens. They need to learn to keep their cool.
And surprisingly, one promising way for kids to hone these skills is to engage in dramatic make-believe with others.
To try this approach, lead young children in games of joint make-believe, like
In a randomized experiment of preschoolers from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, Thalia Goldstein and Matthew Lerner found evidence that these social skills activities helped children develop better emotional self-regulation (Goldstein and Lerner 2018).
After 8 weeks of teacher-led play, kids assigned to play group games of dramatic, pretend play improved more than did children assigned to alternative social skills activities, like playing together with blocks.
In this game, one player acts out a certain emotion, and the other players must guess which feeling is being portrayed. In effect, it's simple version of charades for the very young.
Is it helpful? At the very least, it's a way to motivate young children to think about and discuss emotions. And the game has been included (along with several other social skills activities) in a preschool program developed by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In a small experimental study, the program, called the "Kindness Curriculum," was linked with successful outcomes: Compared with kids in a control group, graduates of the "Kindness Curriculum" experienced greater improvements in teacher-rated social competence (Flook et al 2015).
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. For more information, see these Parenting Science social skills activities for teaching kids about faces.
Some kids, including those with autism spectrum disorders, have difficulty maintaining a conversation with peers.
Dr. Susan Williams White has developed a number of social skills activities to help them, including Checker Stack, a game that requires kids to take turns and stay on topic.
To play this two-player game, you need only a set of stackable tokens -- like checkers or poker chips -- and an adult or peer group to help judge the relevance of each player's contributions.
The game begins when Player One sets down a token and says something to initiate a conversation. Next, Player Two responds with an appropriate utterance, and places another checker on top of the first one.
The players keep taking turns to advance the conversation. How long can they sustain it? How tall can their stack become?
When a player says something irrelevant or off-topic, the conversational flow is broken and the game is over (White 2011).
Here is another activity recommended by Susan Williams White -- a game where players form a circle, and take turns contributing to a conversation.
The game begins with a player who starts the conversation, and then tosses a ball to someone else in the circle.
The recipient responds with an appropriate, relevant contribution of his or her own, and tosses the ball to another child. And so on.
To play successfully, kids must attend to whoever is speaking, and make eye contact during the exchange of the ball.
White advises that you participate in the game yourself, and, if you notice that one of the kids isn't getting the opportunity to contribute, you can request that you receive the ball next. Then you can complete your turn by tossing the ball to the child who was left out (White 2011).You will find this game, Checker Stack, and other social skills activities in White's book, Social Skills Training for Children with Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism
Experiments show it's true of adults and children alike: Successful experiences with cooperation incline us to cooperate with the same people again (Blake et al 2015; Keil et al 2017).
So it seems likely that cooperative board games -- where players work together on the same team -- could help kids forge friendly relationships. And research suggests other benefits too.
For instance, cooperative games often require players to discuss and debate tactics, and this sort of discussion may encourage children to produce better-reasoned arguments.
Teaming up to sort animals: Matching species with the right habitats
In one study, children worked in pairs on a task that required them to match different animal species with an appropriate habitat. Compared with kids who played a competitive version of the game, the cooperating children offered more justification for their ideas. They also produced more arguments that considered both sides of the question (Domberg et al 2018).
You can read more about this study -- and the benefits of cooperative games -- in this Parenting Science article.
Another form of play that promotes cooperation is team construction. When kids create something together with blocks, they must communicate, negotiate, and coordinate.
Do such social skills activities make a difference?
As noted above (#6), preschoolers may develop more emotional self-restraint when they participate in joint games of pretend play.
But clinical psychologists have argued that cooperative construction is also useful, particularly for kids on the autism spectrum.
In one study of patients with high-functioning autism and Asperger's syndrome, school children attended a one hour session of group construction play (or "Lego therapy") 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).
I haven't found any randomized, controlled experiments on the subject. But it makes sense that cooperative gardening could help kids hone social skills, and there is some research in support of the idea.
Observational studies report that kids improve their social competence when they engage in cooperative gardening (Ozer et al 2007; Block et al 2012; Gibbs et al 2013).
To turn gardening tasks into effective social skills activities, encourage kids to team up on tasks.
It sounds simple, and it is:
Read a story with emotional content, and have kids talk about it afterwards.
Why did the main character get angry? What kinds of things make you get angry? What do you do to cool off?
When kids participate in group conversations about emotion, they reflect on their own experiences, and learn about individual differences in the way people react to the world. And that understanding helps kids develop their "mind-reading" abilities.
In one study, 7-year-old school children met twice a week to discuss an emotion featured in a brief story. Sometimes their teachers encouraged them to talk about recognizing the signs of a given emotion. In other sessions, the kids discussed what causes emotions, or shared ideas about how to handle negative emotions ("When I feel sad, I play with the Wii," or "I feel better when my mother hugs me").
After two months, participants outperformed peers in a control group, showing significant improvements in their understanding of emotion. They also scored higher on tests of empathy and "theory of mind" -- the ability to reason about other people's thoughts and beliefs (Ornaghi et al 2014).
In the traditional game of charades, a player draws a slip of paper from a container and silently reads what is written there -- a phrase describing a situation (like "walking the dog") or naming a famous book, film, song, or television show.
Then, through pantomime, the player tries to convey this phrase to his or her unknowing team-mates.
What gestures are most likely to communicate the crucial information? The best players are good at perspective-taking, or imagining what viewers need to see in order to guess the answer. They are also good at interpreting the body language of others.
And players have to stay focused on conforming to the rules -- refraining from talk while they pantomime.
Moreover, recent research suggests that watching charades switches our brains into "mind-reading" mode:
During fMRI scans, players observing gestures experienced enhanced activity in the temporo-parietal junction, a part of the brain associated with reflecting on the mental states of other people (Schippers et al 2009).
It seems, then, that charades encourages kids to think about other perspectives, and fine-tune their nonverbal communication skills.
Research suggests that team athletics can function as effective social skills activities -- if use the opportunity to we teach kids how to be good sports.
In one study, elementary school students who received explicit instruction in good sportsmanship showed greater leadership and conflict-resolution skills than did their control group peers (Sharpe et al 1995).
How do we provide such instruction? Before a game, remind kids on the goals of good sportsmanship:
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.
Social skills activities for boosting teamwork, self-control, and emotional savvy are important. But what about the need to be judicious and fair-minded? The ability understand another person's perceptions and point of view? The ability to work together with others to establish the true facts?
These become increasingly important as kids get older, and they require more than empathy and good manners. They also require more than native "smarts."
Studies indicate that most people -- regardless of IQ -- fall prey to "myside bias" -- the tendency to evaluate neutral evidence in favor of one's personal interests (Stanovich et al 2013).
But that doesn't mean we can't fight this tendency. People become less prone to myside bias as a function of the years they spend in higher education, even after controlling for age and cognitive ability (Toplak and Stanovich 2003).
So it seems likely that kids will benefit if we expose them to diverse viewpoints, debate, and the tools of critical thinking.
One classic approach is to assign students to take turns advocating both sides of a given debate. Not only will kids practice perspective-taking, they will hone critical thinking skills. For more information, see my article about training kids to engage in formal, disciplined debate.
Researchers Geoff Kauffman and Anna Flanagan perceive a problem with many "consciousness-raising" programs and social skills activities: They're too preachy, and that tends to turn people off.
So Kauffman and Flanagan recommend a more subtle approach, one that embeds the social message in a fun, lighthearted game. To date, Flanagan has created two such games.The first is a card game called the Resonym Awkward Moment Card Game, a party game that requires players to choose solutions to thorny social problems.
It has been tested on kids as young as 11 years old, and found to improve players' perspective-taking skills. Compared to students in a control group, kids who played this game showed subsequent improvements in their ability to imagine another person's perspective (Kaufman and Flanagan 2015).
They were also more likely to reject social biases, and imagine females pursuing careers in science. In addition, they showed more interest in confronting detrimental social stereotypes (Kaufman and Flanagan 2015).The second game, called the Buffalo The Name Dropping Game, is intended for ages 14 and up.
Buffalo asks players to think of real or fictional examples of people who fit a random combination of descriptors (like tattooed grandparent, misunderstood vampire, or Asian descent comedian).
After playing this game, high school students showed increased motivation to recognize and check their social biases, agreeing more strongly with statements like "I attempt to act in non-prejudiced ways toward people from other social groups because it is personally important to me" (Kaufman and Flanagan 2015).Both the Resonym Awkward Moment Card Game and Buffalo The Name Dropping Game are available from Amazon.
For more information about the development of social skills, see these evidence-based articles.
Bakeman R, Adamson LB, Konner MJ, and Barr RG. 1990. !Kung infancy: The social context of object exploration. Child Development 61: 794-809.
Blake PR, Rand DG, Tingley D, Warneken F. 2015. The shadow of the future promotes cooperation in a repeated prisoner's dilemma for children. Sci Rep. 5:14559.
Block K, Gibbs L, Staiger PK, Gold L, Johnson B, Macfarlane S, Long C, Townsend M. 2012. Growing community: the impact of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program on the social and learning environment in primary schools. Health Educ Behav. 39(4):419-32.
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.
Domberg A, Köymen B, Tomasello M. 2018. Children's reasoning with peers in cooperative and competitive contexts. Br J Dev Psychol. 36(1):64-77.
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.
Gibbs L, Staiger PK, Townsend M, Macfarlane S, Gold L, Block K, Johnson B, Kulas J, Waters E. 2013. Methodology for the evaluation of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden program. Health Promot J Austr. 24(1):32-43.
Goldstein TR and Lerner MD. 2018. Dramatic pretend play games uniquely improve emotional control in young children. Dev Sci. 21(4):e12603.
Kaufman G and Flanagan M. 2015. A psychologically “embedded” approach to designing games for prosocial causes. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 9(3), article 1.
Keil J, Michel A, Sticca F, Leipold K, Klein AM, Sierau S, von Klitzing K, White LO. 2017. The Pizzagame: A virtual public goods game to assess cooperative behavior in children and adolescents. Behav Res Methods. 49(4):1432-1443.
Kirschner S and Tomasello M. 2010. Joint music making promotes prosocial behavior in 4-year-old children. Evolution and Human Behavior 31(5): 354-364.
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 http://www.tc.columbia.edu/news.htm?articleID=4023.
Weiss MJ and Harris SL. 2001. Teaching social skills to people with autism. Behav Modif. 25(5):785-802.
White SW. 2011. Social Skills Training for Children with Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism. New York: The Guilford Press.
Portions of this article are adapted from an earlier work about social skills activities by the same author.
Image credits for "Social skills activities":
Title image of kids faces in a circle by Vansterpartiet bildbank / flickr
Image of baby with teenager: Richard Leeming/flickr
Image of school kids talking at table: Hong Seung-hui of the US Army / flickr
Image of adolescent friends by Hepingting / flickr
Content of "Social Skills Activities" last modified 7/2018