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
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
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.
information about boosting social competence, see these tips for fostering
friendships, teaching empathy, and encouraging kindness.
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
When Rodolfo Barragan and Carol Dweck (2015)
tested this simple tactic on 1- and 2-year-olds, the children seemed to flip a
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
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:
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.
then does the same thin--naming a recipient and rolling the ball--and the
process repeats itself throughout the game (Teachers' College, Columbia
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.
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. "Guess the emotion" games
emotions of others is a crucial skill. Can we provide children with more
opportunities to practice it?
is to play a game of pretense:
acts out a certain emotion, and the other players must guess which feeling is
it's specialized version of charades for the very young.
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).
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).
may be helpful for kids struggling to decipher facial expressions:
flashcards to train children to identify and distinguish basic emotions.
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
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
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.
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
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
Institute your own good sportsmanship program by following these
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
- Resolving conflicts without running to the
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
it seems likely that kids will benefit if we expose them to diverse viewpoints, debate, and the tools of critical thinking.
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
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.
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
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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.
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.
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Legoff DB and Sherman M. 2006. Long-term outcome of social skills
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Ozer EJ. 2007. The effects of school gardens on students and
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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