Humans are social creatures. We thrive on being around and communicating with others–yes, even introverts need a tight set of people who understand their social needs and can give them the type of interaction they crave. This social development begins when we are young–typically when a child is three years old, and sometimes even before then–they have begun to engage in cooperative play; meaning that they will actively seek out the company of their peer group and interact with them. Of course, while a large part of social development and peer interaction is just intuitive for kids, social skills games and exercises can help to develop a greater understanding of the nuances of navigating the sometimes tricky world of social interaction.
Games are a wonderful way to introduce social concepts to children of varying developmental stages, because play is the primary way in which children receive and process information. All of that playing is actually quite a bit of work! We’ve compiled a list of social skills games that can be initiated at varying levels of development, whether you are a teacher or a parent who is looking to implement long-term social concepts in your child in a positive way.
Developmentally Appropriate Learning
There are a number of concepts that can be taught through the use of social skills games, including empathy, conversational communication, and active listening, but the key to making these concepts stick is to begin with an understanding of how a child develops and grows at each stage of their life. Keeping activities age- and developmentally appropriate will ensure that your child will have a solid foundation for learning social skills in the years to come. We’ve divided developmentally appropriate social skills games up for you, so you’ll know just where to begin!
Preschool (Ages 3-4)
The preschooler is an adorable and tumultuous creature. Kids of this age are just beginning to understand concepts like respect, sharing, listening, and curiosity. The thing to remember when initiating social skills games and social play among children of this age is that the ability to think abstractly is not yet on a preschooler’s radar. This doesn’t mean that you can’t model and teach abstract concepts like empathy, it only means that you must craft your lessons and activities in a way that introduces those concepts as concretely as possible. Here are a few ways to do just that.
Game: Space Invaders
Concept: Respecting another’s space
- Pictures of cartoon aliens
- Popsicle sticks
- Have your child color a cartoon alien (you do one, too!) and then assist them in cutting it out.
- Adhere the alien to the popsicle stick
- Explain to your child why respecting another’s personal space is important, and introduce concepts like “gentle hands” to get someone’s attention instead of shouting or hitting.
- Explain to them that the aliens you’ve made together are you and your child’s “space invaders”. Model for your child that when you put your “space invader” up, that means you need a moment to regroup, and have them do the same. Explain the concept of giving people their own “bubble” of space to play in.
Game: My Friend Is In The Middle
Concepts: Self-esteem, sharing, following directions
This game works best with a group of children, either in a playgroup or preschool setting.
Materials: None, or a shaker instrument like a maraca or tambourine.
- Have the children sit in a circle, and choose one child to be in the middle.
- Encourage the child to dance out the moves as you sing, using their name:
- Izzy’s in the middle, Izzy’s in the middle, Dance Izzy, Dance! Get up, down, turn around (here have the child pick a new friend to be in the middle of the circle). Now Jacob’s in the middle!
- Repeat until all of the children have had a turn.
This game will ultimately teach kids to listen and follow instructions (get up, down, etc.), and teach them to involve other children in play by sharing the spotlight. It’s also a great way to instill self-esteem in children by allowing them to be the center of attention for a moment.
Kindergarten and First Grade (Ages 5-7)
Game: One Question Interview
Concepts: Active listening, meeting new friends
- Cards with simple questions on them, like “Do you have a pet?” or “What is your favorite food?”
- Pass out the cards, and help the children read what their questions are.
- Have kids disperse, taking five minutes to get into pairs.
- Have the children ask each other the questions, and listen to one another’s answer.
- Go around to each child and ask what they’ve learned about their partner.
Game: I Think You Are Feeling…
Concepts: Reading Social Cues, Empathy
- A jar or jars
- Slips of paper with emotions written on them, like “scared”, “happy”, “angry”, or “shy”
- Have the children split into groups, and give each group a jar with slips in it.
- One by one, let each child take a turn reaching into the jar to withdraw an emotion word.
- Have the child pantomime (no talking!) what that feeling looks like.
- Have the other children try to guess what emotion the first child is modeling.
- Ask the children what they would do if they saw their friend modeling that emotion in real life.
The point of social skills games like this one isn’t to discern a “right” or “wrong” answer. Instead, it’s to help children understand what certain non-verbal cues look like when a person is feeling a certain way, and to get them to think about how they can empathize with people who feel that way.
Second and Third Grade (Ages 7-10)
At this age, social groups generally begin to appear–you will start to see your child or the children you teach split into peer groups based on friendships that have already been formed or shared interests among certain kids. You may also notice that children begin to feel stress; they want to be liked by and included in their peer group, which can be particularly challenging, especially if a child is shy or reserved. Learning how to manage this stress and how stress can effect a brain in development can be a positive way to address these changes. Social skills games at this age should focus on building a sense of empathy among peers.
Game: Superhero Stations
Concepts: Empathy, Integrity
- Situational cards. These cards should have potential social situations on them from the everyday encounter (You see Susan making fun of Thomas’ new shoes. Susan claims she is “just joking” but Thomas doesn’t look like he thinks it is very funny) to more “hairy” situations (Your best friend tells you that he found a wallet at the playground. The wallet has 20 dollar inside, and he asks you if you want to split the money).
- Split the children into groups of about four.
- Place a different situation card in different locations or stations around the room.
- Have each child take a turn being the “superhero”.
- The “superhero” will read the card to determine which situation the children should role play.
- The other children role play the situation on the card (Susan making fun of Thomas’ shoes, for instance.)
- At this point, the “superhero” says “freeze!” and the children should have a group discussion involving which steps the “superhero” should take next. Have them ask each other questions like “How would I feel if someone was making fun of me or one of my friends?” or “would I step in? Would I want someone else to step in?”
- After the group has come to a decision about how the “superhero” should act to “save the day”, and the “superhero” role plays the group solution.
- When the time is up, have each group rotate to the next station with a new child acting as the “super hero”.
- When every station has been completed, engage the entire group in a child-led discussion about what they experienced. Ask them to identify similar situations that they have encountered and determine what they did in those situations. When have they had opportunities to be “super heroes” in real life? Tell them to be on the lookout for opportunities to be “super heroes” everyday.
There are a multitude of other ways to develop social skills games to instill the social values that children must navigate as they move through life, these are just a small sampling to get you started. Remember that social development and understanding how to interact with people is a lifelong learning process. Children are remarkably resilient, and need to understand that they are loved. There are other activities–like martial arts–that you can engage your child in outside of the home and classroom to teach social concepts and give them the confidence they need to navigate the sometimes choppy social waters of life! Above all, be mindful that children can’t be what they can’t see, and that their first social role model will be the adults in their life, like you.