Social skills activities for children and teens:

Evidence-based ideas to help kids communicate, connect, empathize, and read minds

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

Social skills activities put to the test

We want our children to succeed in the social world--to learn how to cooperate, make friends, and negotiate conflicts. We want them to develop strong perspective-taking skills, and treat other people with fairness and compassion.

How can we help them do it? In a variety of ways. Kids learn from us when we act as good role models. They also benefit when we create environments that reward self-control. And studies hint at the power of play. Fun activities may be a particularly promising way to foster friendly behavior and social savvy.

For instance, middle school children (11-14 years old) experienced significant changes after playing Awkward Moment™, a researcher-designed party game that requires players to choose solutions to thorny social problems. Compared to students in a control group, kids randomly assigned to play this game showed improvements in their ability to imagine another person's perspective. They also showed more interest in confronting detrimental social stereotypes (Kaufman and Flanagan 2015).

Other studies indicate that friendly, "prosocial" video games -- like Mario Sunshine™ or Animal Crossing™ -- motivate players to be more kind, sympathetic, and helpful. And as I show below, researchers have studied a variety of activities for improving social competence.

So here they are: Research-inspired social skills activities, listed by age group. For related ideas, see these tips for fostering friendshipsteaching empathy, and encouraging kindness.

Social skills activities for toddlers

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

Guess that emotion

In a small, experimental program, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison tested the effects of their "Kindness Curriculum" on preschoolers. The program lasted 12 weeks, and improved social skills of the participants (Flook et al 2015). One of the social skills activities was a game of pretense. Teachers and children took turns acting out certain emotions, and guessed which feelings were being portrayed.

If you play this game, be sure to talk with children about body language and facial expressions they see. How do different emotions make the body feel?

Social skills activities for big 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.

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).

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).

Community gardens

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.


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.

Team sports

Research suggests that team athletics can beneficial effect -- if 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

Playing advocate

"Myside bias" is the tendency to evaluate evidence in favor of one's own point of view. Studies indicate that most people -- regardless of IQ -- fall prey to myside bias (Stanovich et al 2013). But that doesn't mean we're doomed to make an unlimited array of prejudiced, irrational decisions. 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 aspects of the traditional curriculum -- like exposure to diverse viewpoints, debate, and the tools of critical thinking -- are beneficial. And kids shouldn't have to wait until college to become aware of their biases. One classic educational approach is to assign students to take turns advocating both sides of a given debate.  Not only will kids practice perspective-taking, they are likely to hone critical thinking skills as well. For more information, see my article about teaching debate skills to kids.

Party games that encouraging 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, mentioned at the beginning of this article, is a card game called Awkward Moment™. It has been tested on kids as young as 11 years old, and found to improve players' perspective-taking skills. Players were also more likely to reject social biases, and imagine females pursuing careers in science (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

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 by the same author.

Image of kids running: Elizabeth Jackson/wikimedia commons

Image of baby with teenager: Richard Leeming/flickr

Image of multiple facial expressions: istock

Image of teacher and teenagers: istock

Content of Social Skills Activities last modified 9/2017

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