Social skills activities for children and teens:
Evidence-based games and exercises
© 2015-2018 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
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?
Kids learn when we act as good role models. They benefit we create environments that reward self-control.
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.
information about boosting social competence, see these tips for
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.
From babies to teens: 17 social skills activities
1. Turn-taking games for babies
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?
powerful method is to have young children engage in playful acts of reciprocity
with the stranger. These might include
turns pressing the buttons on a toy,
- rolling a
ball back and forth, or
toys to each other.
Rodolfo Barragan and Carol Dweck (2015) tested this simple tactic on 1- and
2-year-olds, the children seemed to flip a switch.
began to respond to their new playmates as people to help and share with.
no such effect if children merely played alongside the stranger.
2. The name game for toddlers
Sandy and Kathleen Cochran argue that young children need to learn the
importance of getting someone’s attention before you speak.
kids a boost, they recommend this game for preschool groups:
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.
recipient then does the same thing--naming a recipient and rolling the ball--and
the process repeats itself throughout the game (Teachers' College, Columbia
3. Preschool games that reward attention and self-control
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.
games like "Simon Says" and "Red light, Green light" give
youngsters practice in following directions and regulating their own behavior.
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. Music-making and rhythm games for young children
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).
5. Group games of dramatic, pretend play
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
- pretending to be a family of non-human animals,
- dressing up as chefs and pretending to bake a cake together, or
- taking turns pretending to be statues (and having peers pose the statues in various ways).
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.
6. "Emotion charades" for young children
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.
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).
7. Drills that help kids read 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. For more information, see these social skills activities for teaching kids about faces.
8. Checker stack: A game for keeping up a two-way conversation
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
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).
9. Passing the ball: A game for honing group communication skills
Here is another activity recommended by Susan Williams White -- a game where players
form a circle, and take turns contributing to a conversation.
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.
successfully, kids must attend to whoever is speaking, and make eye contact
during the exchange of the ball.
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
10. Cooperative board games and decision-making tasks
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.
instance, cooperative games often require players to discuss and debate
tactics, and this sort of discussion may encourage children to produce
to sort animals: Matching species with the right habitats
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).
read more about this study -- and the benefits of cooperative games -- here.
11. Cooperative construction
form of play that promotes cooperation is team construction. When kids create
something together with blocks, they must communicate, negotiate, and
Do such social skills activities make a difference?
above (#6), preschoolers may develop more emotional self-restraint when they
participate in joint games of pretend play.
clinical psychologists have argued that cooperative construction is also
useful, particularly for kids on the autism spectrum.
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.
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).
12. Community gardening
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.
13. Story-based discussions about emotion
simple, and it is:
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?
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
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").
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).
14. Classic charades for older kids and teens
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.
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.
recent research suggests that watching charades switches our brains into
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).
then, that charades encourages kids to think about other perspectives, and
fine-tune their nonverbal communication skills.
15. Team athletics that feature training in good sportsmanship
suggests that team athletics can function as effective social skills activities -- if use the opportunity to we teach
kids how to be good sports.
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:
- 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)
respect to other players and to the referee
encouragement and offering help to less skillful players
conflicts without running to the teacher
game, give kids the chance to put these principles into action before you
intervene in conflicts.
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.
16. Social skills activities for older kids and teens: Playing devil's advocate, and learning how to engage in productive, disciplined debate
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."
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.
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.
17. Party games that encourage perspective-taking and reduce social biases
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.
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
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).
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.
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).
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
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.
References: Social skills activities
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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