Social skills activities can help kids forge positive relationships, and better understand what other people are feeling and thinking. The key is finding games and exercises that match your child’s developmental capacities and needs.
How do we help children develop social competence — the ability to read emotions, cooperate, make friends, and negotiate conflicts? Kids learn by observation when we act as good role models, and they benefit we create environments that reward self-control. But there’s nothing quite like practicing interpersonal skills first-hand. To develop and grow, kids need direct experience with turn-taking, self-regulation, teamwork, and perspective-taking.
Here are more than 20 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.
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.
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) :
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 a game that researchers call “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).
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 teaching self-control. For additional advice about the socialization of young children, see this Parenting Science article about preschool social skills.
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
In a randomized experiment of preschoolers from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, Thalia Goldstein and Matthew Lerner found evidence that these these playful scenarios 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.
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 different 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).
Learning to count might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you’re interested in boosting a young child’s social competence. But hear me out. From an early age, children value fairness in their social partners. In particular, they notice when somebody distributes a desirable resource (like treats) in a biased, unequal way. They prefer to interact with people who divide things up equally.
But what if a child doesn’t know how to do this? Being able to count is a big help for ensuring the equal distribution of resources, and research confirms that poor counting skills is one reason why preschoolers fail to share. Moreover, it appears that many kids are aware of the link between counting and fairness. When researchers at Yale tested more than 180 children, aged 4-6, they found that kids generally believed that individuals who count to distribute resources are more fair than people who use other methods (Jacobs et al 2022).
Happily, this is something we can help kids with — just by having children practice counting, and then asking them to apply this technique to the division of goodies. For instance, when Nadia Chernyak and her colleagues tried this out on more than two hundred 3-to-5-year-olds, the researchers found that a single, 5-minute session was enough to enhance a child’s “fair sharing” behavior (Chernyak et al 2022). For more evidence-based tips on boosting early math skills, see my article, “Preschool Number Activities.”
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 social skills activities for teaching kids about faces.
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).
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 monitor body language. They must pay attention to whomever 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).
Here’s another group game that researchers have tested on older elementary school students. A group of four children is provided with paper and art supplies, and each child begins working on his or her own drawing. Then, after a specified amount of time, a moderator instructs kids to stop working. Pass your drawing to the person on your right.
Now kids resume working — this time on the new drawing they have received — until they are instructed to pass this along, too. The game continues until all of the drawings have made their way back to the artists who first started them, at which point kids put the finishing touches on the group’s creations, and discuss the results.
As Maite Garaigordobil and her colleagues argue, this game encourages cooperation and creativity, and they have evidence in support of the idea. When kids played games like this on a weekly basis, they showed gains relative to children assigned to control groups. Kids in the treatment condition displayed more positive social behaviors, and developed higher levels of graphic creativity (Garaigordobil et al 2022).
Can kids learn to be nicer to each other by participating in physically active, cooperative games? That’s what researchers found when they tested two games invented by William Haskell, “Islands” and “Timeball.” In a study of elementary school students, 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).
And 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. Here’s how to play “Islands” and “Timeball.”
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.
Can certain kinds of cooperative play help kids hone their skills for rational persuasion and negotiation? Maybe. 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 Parenting Science article.
Another form of play that promotes cooperation is team construction. When kids create something together with blocks, 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.
What do effective gratitude exercises look like, and how do they help kids? Here’s an example. In a study of elementary school students, Jeffrey Froh and his colleagues had teachers guide children through multiple lessons about feeling thankful and expressing gratitude. This included classroom discussions about what it means for someone to benefit another individual intentionally, and at a personal cost to themselves. Kids were also asked to write about personal experiences with this kind of support. “Write down a time that somebody went out of their way to help you.”
Did the program make a difference? It did. After five lessons, spaced one week apart, kids experienced lasting improvements in their ability to identify situations that call for gratitude. Moreover, they showed an immediate increase in their willingness to communicate their gratitude towards others (Froh et al 2014).
It’s a single study, but it jibes with research on parenting tactics: Young school children tend to express gratitude more frequently if their parents involve them in gratitude-related activities (Rothenburg et al 2017). And this bodes well for boosting social competence. Expressing appropriate gratitude is important for maintaining positive social relationships (Algoe et al 2013; Bartlett et al 2012), even among the very young. Five-year-olds prefer to affiliate individuals who express gratitude (Vaish and Savell 2022).
Moreover, studies suggest that we become more prosocial – more helpful or generous — when we experience feelings of gratitude (Ma et al 2017). So when kids learn how to tap into their feelings of gratitude (and express their thanks) it’s a win-win. It will increase their motivation to engage in acts of cooperation and kindness, while simultaneously making them more likeable.
I haven’t found any rigorously-controlled 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). Moreover, it seems likely that gardening could make kids feel closer to nature, and research indicates that kids who feel more connected to nature are more prosocial, and less likely to clash with other people. Read more about it in this Parenting Science article.
What sorts of tasks 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).
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).
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).
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
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.
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 imagining the perspectives of your viewers — figuring out what they 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, perspective-taking 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 a game of charades encourages kids to think about other perspectives, and fine-tune their nonverbal communication skills.
We can think about communication as the faithful transmission of information. You tell me that you dislike bananas. I recieve your message, and come away with an accurate understanding of your meaning. Mission accomplished. We have successfully communicated.
Except there’s more to it than the arrival of your message in my brain. Chances are, you crave some kind of feedback from me — reassurance that I am paying attention and truly “get” what you’re saying.
That’s where “active listening” comes in. According to Harry Weger and his colleagues (2014), active listening is what happens when we signal our keen attention and interest, and we do this in three ways:
(1) by displaying many nonverbal cues of engagement (e.g., making appropriate eye contact, orienting the body in the direction of the speaker, remaining visibly attentive);
(2) by regularly paraphrasing what the speaker is saying (e.g., “Yes, I can understand how annoying it must have been to discover a mashed-up banana in your sandwich”); and
(3) by occasionally asking questions that encourage the speaker to elaborate.
When people express themselves to active listeners, they feel they are better understood (Weger et al 2014). In addition, they find active listeners to be more socially attractive than are listeners who offer only minimal feedback (such as nodding one’s head, and saying things like “I see” or “That makes sense”).
One popular approach involves groups of three, with each participant assigned to play to one of three roles: A speaker, a listener, and an observer.
The speaker is instructed to talk for a few minutes about something important to him or her. The listener attends, employing the techniques of active listening. And the observer’s job is to evaluate the speaker and listener. Did the speaker stay on topic? How did the listener indicate engagement and understanding? After the observer shares his observations with the others, the players switch roles and try again.
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). Clearly, that’s bad news for critical thinking. But it’s also bad news for getting along with others. If we want to solve conflicts — find mutually acceptable solutions — we need to be able to put our own biases and assumptions aside, and see how things look from a different point of view.
The hopeful news? Kids may become less prone to myside bias 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 — explicitly addressing the objections associated with each side. 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.
Here’s another way to foster perspective-taking (and the social insights that come with it): Present kids with a hypothetical character they are inclined to disagree with, and ask kids to write a background story about this character’s motives and experiences. The ground rules? Kids should assume the character is “at least as smart” as themselves.
Researchers recently tried this with young adult college students (Shaffer et al 2019). They presented the students with a hypothetical scenario about someone who was engaging in an unhealthy behavior – a pregnant woman who was smoking. Then they asked the students to write two vignettes about the character – one that depicted her traveling to her job, the other dramatizing the character “trying to do something difficult with another person.”
One potentially important element of this narrative-writing exercise: The students were instructed to assume that their character was “at least as smart as they are.” The researchers wanted to encourage students to really think about the women’s inner life, and allow for the possibility that she is dealing with difficult problems. They wanted students to avoid the easy explanation that her behavior was caused by simple ignorance.
The researchers measured students’ attitudes about this hypothetical woman both before and after the narrative-writing exercise, and they observed substantial differences. After the exercise, students were better able to imagine what life circumstances and problems might have contributed to her smoking habit. They reported that they had tried to put themselves in her shoes, and they were more sympathetic about her challenges.
The study focused on a “hot button” health issue, but the general approach can be adapted to the kinds of everyday conflicts that most teenagers experience. For example, kids could be presented with a scenario of conflict in a shared living space: One character is engaging in an activity (like exercise, or playing music) that is causing distractions for some else (who may be trying to study, read, or sleep). Let kids identify which character they feel the greatest sympathy for, and then ask them to write a perspective-taking piece about the problems of the other character.
Researchers Geoff Kauffman and Anna Flanagan perceive a problem with many social “consciousness-raising” 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 of 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 the Resonym Awkward Moment Card Game and Buffalo The Name Dropping Game are available from Amazon. (Disclosure: If you purchase them through these links, a small portion of the proceeds will benefit this website. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.)
For more information about boosting social competence, see my evidence-based tips for fostering friendships, teaching empathy, and encouraging kindness. In addition, check out my article about promoting preschool social skills, as well as my article about the potential benefits of playing prosocial video games.
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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”:
image of children’s faces in a circle by Wavebreakmedia / istock
image of preschoolers with musical instruments by Liderina / shutterstock
image of children standing together inside a hula hoop by Ana Munaretto / shutterstock
Content of “Social Skills Activities” last modified 10/2023. Portions of the text are derived from earlier versions of the same article, written by the same author.
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