Social skills activities for children and teens: 
Evidence-based games and exercises to help kids communicate, connect, empathize, and read minds

© 2015-2017 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Social skills activities that help kids learn

How can we help children develop social competence  -- the ability to cooperate, make friends, and negotiate conflicts?

How can we teach kids to treat other people with understanding, fairness, and compassion?

Kids learn from us when we act as good role models. They also benefit when we create environments that reward self-control.

But one of the most important ways that children learn is through play, and research suggests that playful social skills activities can help kids improve their social competence.

Here are some research-inspired social skills activities for kids. I begin with group of activities suitable for the youngest children, and follow up with activities for older kids and teens.

For more information about boosting social competence, see these tips for fostering friendshipsteaching empathy, and encouraging kindness.

In addition, check out my article about fostering preschool social skills, and this article about the possibility that friendly, "prosocial" video games -- like Mario Sunshine™ and Animal Crossing™ -- motivate players to be more kind, sympathetic, and helpful.

Social skills activities for young children

1. Turn-taking games for babies and toddlers

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?

One powerful method is to have young children engage in playful acts of reciprocity with the stranger. These might include

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

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.

2. The name game for toddlers and preschoolers

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 thin--naming a recipient and rolling the ball--and the process repeats itself throughout the game (Teachers' College, Columbia University 1999).

3. Preschool 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 this article about teaching self-control. For additional advice about the socialization of young children, see this article about preschool social skills.

4. "Guess the emotion" games 

Reading the emotions of others is a crucial skill. Can we provide children with more opportunities to practice it?

One approach is to play a game of pretense:

One player acts out a certain emotion, and the other players must guess which feeling is being portrayed.

In effect, it's specialized version of charades for the very young.

Is it effective? That's hard to say for sure, but there is some evidence in favor.

In a small, experimental study, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison randomly assigned some preschoolers to participate in a 12-week "Kindness Curriculum" that included this game (along with many other activities).

The overall curriculum was effective. Compared with kids in a control group, graduates of the "Kindness Curriculum" experienced greater improvements in teacher-rated social competence (FLook et al 2015).

Another approach may be helpful for kids struggling to decipher facial expressions:

Use flashcards to train children to identify and distinguish basic emotions.  

Experiments suggest that such training can be effective. For more information, see these social skills activities for teaching kids about faces.

Social skills activities for elementary school kids

1. Story-based discussions about emotion

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 enrolled in non-conversational emotion classes. They showed 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).

2. 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 children 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).

3. Community gardening

I haven't found any randomized, controlled experiments on the subject, but some observational studies report that kids improve their social skills when they work together in school or community gardens (Ozer et al 2007; Block et al 2012; Gibbs et al 2013). Presumably, such gardening projects are like group construction projects, promoting better cooperation and communication.

4. Charades

In 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 unknowing team-mates through pantomime.

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.

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.

5. Team athletics that feature training in good sportsmanship

Research suggests that team athletics can have a beneficial effect on social competence --  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).

Institute your own good sportsmanship program by following these principles.

Before a game, remind kids on the goals of good sportsmanship:

  • Being a good winner (not bragging; showing respect for the losing team)
  • Being a good loser (congratulating the winner; not blaming others for a 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.

Social skills activities for adolescents

1. Playing advocate for both sides

Studies indicate that most people -- regardless of IQ -- fall prey to "myside bias" -- the tendency to evaluate neutral evidence in favor of one's own point of view (Stanovich et al 2013). But that doesn't mean we can help ourselves. People tend to 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 teaching debate skills to kids.

2. Party games that encourage perspective-taking and reduce social biases

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 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 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 Awkward Moment and Buffalo The Name Dropping Game are available from Amazon.

More reading

For more information about the development of social skills, see these evidence-based articles.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 young children cooperating by Dreamhamar project - Ecosistema Urbano / Christoffer Horsfjord Nilsen / 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 9/2017







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