© 2021 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
These social skills activities can help kids forge positive relationships — and better understand what other people are feeling and thinking.
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 opens in a new windowgood role models, and they benefit we opens in a new windowcreate 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 by age-group. I begin with games suitable for the youngest children, and end with social skills activities appropriate for older kids and teens.
From babies to teens: 17 social skills activities
1. Turn-taking games
Young children — including some babies — are capable of spontaneous acts of kindness, but they can be shy around new people. So how can we teach them that a new person is a friend?
One powerful method is to have a child engage in playful acts of reciprocity with the stranger. For example, the child take turns pressing the button on a toy, or rolling a ball back and forth. The child and stranger might hand each other interesting objects.
When psychologists Rodolfo Cortes Barragan and Carol Dweck (2014) 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. By contrast, there was no such effect if children merely played alongside the stranger — without engaging in acts of reciprocity.
2. The toddler “name game”
As early childhood specialist Kathleen Cochran has noted, many children need help with the fundamentals of getting someone else’s attention. They don’t yet understand that it’s important to speak the person’s name.
“It’s such a simple thing,” Cochran says, “yet it’s the beginning of being able to understand another person’s point of view.” So how do we teach this concept? Cochran and her colleagues recommend this simple social game (Teachers’ College, Columbia University 1999) :
- Seat children in a circle, and give one of them a ball.
- Ask this child to choose another person in the circle and speak his or her name. Then the child rolls the ball to named individual.
- Once the ball has been received, the next child follows the same procedure — naming an intended recipient and passing the ball along.
3. 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.
“Waking Up The Frogs”
First, 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).
4. Preschool games that reward attention and 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 my article about opens in a new windowteaching self-control. For additional advice about the socialization of young children, see this Parenting Science article about opens in a new windowpreschool social skills.
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 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
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).
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 Parenting Science opens in a new windowsocial skills activities for teaching kids about faces.
8. Checker stack: A game for keeping up a two-way conversation
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).
9. Passing the ball: A game for honing group communication skills
Here is another activity recommended by Dr. Susan Williams White — a game where players form a circle, and take turns contributing to a group conversation.
The game begins with a player who starts the chat, and then tosses a ball to someone else in the circle. Next, 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 can 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 (see the references section below)
10. Cooperative games
There are many kinds of cooperative games. Some are more sedentary, like the many cooperative board games being sold today. Others are active or physical, like the games “Islands” and “Timeball” invented by William Haskell, and tested on older elementary school students (Street et al 2004).
In one study, researchers found that playing these games over a period of 12 weeks led to small but noticeable improvements in “prosocial” behavior — being kind and helpful towards others (Street et al 2004).
To play “Islands” you need a bunch of young children and some hula hoops — about one hoop for every three kids in the class. Then you spread the hoops out on the ground, and let the kids mill around them. When you whistle, every child must step inside a hoop, and each hoop must contain at least three kids. Children will have to cooperate — and hold onto each other — to fit inside a hoop.
In this game, kids spread out in an open space, each standing with his or her feet together. One child is given a ball. Then this child passes the ball to someone else, and immediately sits down. The second child repeats the exercise, until all kids are seated.
The catch? The object of the game is to get everyone seated as quickly as possible, and the ball must never touch the ground, so kids need to toss the ball with care. Moreover, when deciding where to pass the ball next, they need to consider how difficult it will be for other kids on subsequent turns: If kids pass the ball in a pattern that leaves some children “stranded” at a distance — making it harder to toss the ball without dropping it — the whole team will lose. So kids will likely want to discuss tactics.
What are the effects of these and other games?
The most obvious benefit is that they encourage kids to act, well…nicer. In one study, researchers found that playing games like “Islands” and “Timeball,” over a period of 12 weeks led to small but noticeable improvements in children’s prosocial behavior. They tended to show more kindness, helpfulness, and empathy (Street et al 2004).
But other research suggests this could be the tip of the iceberg. For example, studies show that successful experiences with cooperation encourage children to continue the trend: If you cooperate with me today, I’m more likely to cooperate with you tomorrow (Blake et al 2015; Keil et al 2017). So it seems likely that cooperative games could serve as a kind of “ally-making” tool between players.
And it also appears that certain types of cooperative games could help children develop their ability to persuade and convince others with well-reasoned arguments.
“Match animals to the right habitat”
In an experimental study of 5- and 7-year-olds, kids had to work in pairs on a sorting task. They had to match different animal species with an appropriate habit, and explain their decisions.
Half the kids were randomly assigned to a cooperative version of this game, where both players worked together as a team. The remaining children played the game competitively. And what happened? The kids who played the cooperative game offered more justification for their ideas. They were also more likely to produce arguments that considered both sides of the question (Domberg et al 2018).
You can read more about the study — and the benefits of cooperative games — in this opens in a new windowParenting Science article.
11. Cooperative construction
Another form of play that promotes cooperation is team construction. When kids create something together with opens in a new windowblocks, they must communicate, negotiate, and coordinate. Do such social skills activities make a difference?
It makes sense intuitively, and there is scientific evidence that a specialized program of cooperative construction therapy — called “LEGO®-based therapy” — can help kids who need extra support to develop their social communication skills (Owens et al 2008).
In a recent review of published studies, researchers concluded that “LEGO®-based therapy” is a “promising treatment” for enhancing social interactions with kids on the ASD spectrum (Narzisi et al 2020). If you had a child with special needs, it’s worth asking your pediatrician about this form of therapy.
12. Community gardening
I haven’t found any rigorous experiments on the subject, but it makes sense that cooperative gardening could help kids hone social skills, and observational research supports the idea.
Kids tend to improve their social competence when they engage in community-based or school-based gardening (Ozer et al 2007; Block et al 2012; Gibbs et al 2013; Pollin and Retzlaff-Fürst 2021).
What sorts of things can children do in the garden? Take a cue from a recent study of cooperative gardening in 6th graders. The kids were assigned to groups, and each group was given the responsibility for tending a specific garden bed. In addition, kids were asked to identify different plants, document plant growth, conduct soil tests, and make observations of snails (Pollin and Retzlaff-Fürst 2021).
13. Story-based discussions about emotion
Here’s a social skills activity you can try just about anywhere: 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 may help 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 video games,” 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).
14. Classic charades for older kids and teens
We’ve already mentioned “Emotion Charades” for young children. The traditional or classic version of the game is also an excellent activity for honing social skills among older kids.
Consider why. In the traditional game, a player draws a slip of paper from a container and silently reads what is written there — a phrase that describes a situation (like “walking the dog”) or that names 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? To perform an effective pantomime, you need to be good at perspective-taking, or imagining what viewers need to see in order to guess the answer. You also have to stay focused on the rules, and refrain from talking.
And if you are one of the players who must guess the answer? Once again, mind-reading is important. In fact, there is evidence that watching charades switches our brains into “mind-reading mode.”
During a study using 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.
15. Team athletics that feature training in good sportsmanship
Research suggests that team athletics can function as effective social skills activities — if adults model the right behavior, and actively teach kids 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).
In another study, researchers found that adolescents displayed better social skills if their athletic coaches took a democratic approach to leadership, and offered lots of social support and positive feedback. When kids perceived the coach to be autocratic, they were less likely to report growth in social competence (de Albuquerque et al 2021).
And — in a variety of studies — researchers have found that players are more likely to stay motivated and positive if their coaches avoid authoritarian tactics, like intimidation, threats, and the manipulative use of rewards (e.g., Sevil-Serrano et al 2021).
So what’s a good way to ensure that kids learn the right lessons from team sports?
It sounds like adults need to allow kids to participate in decisions about a team’s goals. They also need to maintain a pleasant, emotionally supportive relationship with athletes, and motivate kids with positive comments about their successes. And it makes sense to actively instruct kids on the principles of good sportsmanship, including
- 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, we should give kids the chance to put these principles into action before we swoop in. And when the game is over, we should 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
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 opens in a new windowcritical 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 opens in a new windowtraining kids to engage in formal, disciplined debate.
17. Party games that encourage perspective-taking and reduce social biases
Researchers Geoff Kauffman and Anna Flanagan perceive a problem with many “consciousness-raising” 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 opens in a new windowResonym Awkward Moment Card Game and opens in a new windowBuffalo The Name Dropping Game are available from Amazon. If you purchase them through these links, a small portion of the proceeds will benefit this website.
For more information about boosting social competence, see my evidence-based tips for opens in a new windowfostering friendships, opens in a new windowteaching empathy, and opens in a new windowencouraging kindness. In addition, check out my article about promoting opens in a new windowpreschool social skills, as well as my article about the potential benefits of playing prosocial video games.
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 opens in a new windowVansterpartiet bildbank / flickr
Image of babies rolling ball by Yoshihide Nomura /flickr
Image of preschoolers with musical instruments by Liderina / shutterstock
Content of “Social Skills Activities” last modified 9/2021