Games can be the perfect tool to introduce and teach social emotional learning skills to kids and young adults. These are the skills that help kids become more self-aware, develop positive relationships, show empathy towards others, manage emotions, use self-control, resolve conflicts, and make positive decisions. So often, educators are so busy teaching our curriculum and content that we sometimes leave these skills behind. It’s so important to make real time for them and incorporate them into many of the activities you already do! For kids who struggle with some of these skills, learning them can be real work. With that said, it’s important to make learning these skills meaningful, interactive, hands-on, and fun. That’s why teaching social emotional skills in the form of a game just makes so much sense!
Here are several games (some I’ve purchase and some I’ve developed myself) that target these critical social emotional learning skills:
Why It’s Important: Social problem-solving is our ability to understand a social situation and use reasoning to deal with it in the most socially appropriate way. We really use these skills every single day. At school, kids might have to problem-solve what to do when someone isn’t nice to them or when they see someone else breaking a rule and aren’t sure what to do. At home, they might use them when an adult tells them to clean their room but they don’t feel like it at the moment.
How It Works: This game focuses on considering a social problem, thinking about what it matters, considering choices and consequences, and ultimately making a decision that is best in the moment. Kids will roll a dice and work through a game board, picking up a situation card for each spot they land on. My favorite part is that kids will also act out scenarios which can help them to generalize the social skills over time.
2. Team Pictionary
Why It’s Important: Teamwork is a critical skill for all ages. This is a skill kids and young adults use throughout the school day, but also outside of school, whether it is during a sports game or playing a game with friends at home. While learning to work together as a team, kids also learn other valuable skills including assertive communication, how to listen, turn-taking, doing a fair share of the work, and how to respectfully disagree with each other. These are not only school skills, but life skills.
How It Works: Split up into two teams. Let each team pick an artist who will draw for their team. Let the artists pick a card with a phrase they will have to illustrate on paper or on the board. Let both artists draw at the same time, while their team tries to guess the correct phrase they are drawing. The catch is that the artist can only draw images and not words, so team members must work together to come up with what the artist is drawing. The team that guesses the phrase first wins! The game can continue again and again, as different artists from the group should be chosen.
Why It’s Important: Simply put, kids need to be able to communicate well with others. That includes having small talk with a classmate in the hallway, understanding nonverbal cues, holding a full conversation with peers at lunch, and using our social filter before we speak. Our communication skills have a huge impact on how we get along with others and develop relationships over time.
How It Works: This game is ideal for all kids, but especially those with social language challenges. Depending on which space kids fall on, they will have to decipher social cues from a real life photo, discuss what they would do or say in a situation, identify how they should think before they speak, or say a specific phrase in a variety of different tones. Since there are over 150 unique cards, kids can just play again and again while practicing these skills.
Why It’s Important: Considering and understanding the feelings of others is a foundational skill that supports social success. In order to know the “right” or socially appropriate response to situations, we must first really understand how others feel. Developing empathy isn’t easy for all kids, especially those with social challenges and autism. It’s important to highlight situations by stopping to think how someone else might feel or think. While thinking about how you might feel in a situation is a good start, t’s critical to target how someone else might feel. That’s because true empathy is really about understanding someone else’s thoughts and feelings, which can often be different from our own.
How It Works: Students will work in partners and small groups to get through an empathy game board. For a person’s turn, they will roll the dice and spin the spinner. Their spot on the game board and the spinner will tell them how to answer each card. For example, they might have to answer: Why does it matter? How might they feel? What might they be thinking? What might you do? Students might also have to act out what they would do in that situation. There are over 150 unique situations that help kids discuss and build empathy over real-life scenarios.
5. Social Charades
Why It’s Important: A huge component to social awareness is learning to identify and understand the social cues of others. These social cues, including our body language and facial expressions, often inform others how we’re feeling, what we’re thinking, and what our intentions are.
How It Works: Create a list of different actions or have the kids come up with them themselves. Any action will do! Some examples might be waiting at the bus stop, sharpening your pencil, listening to music, running in a race, taking notes in class, and so on. The idea is that kids will randomly choose one action and act it out for the others to guess. By acting out these scenarios, students will need to consider what social cues would be aligned with that activity. Best of all, this is a quick activity you can do with just a few minutes of class time left that kids will love.
Why It’s Important: Being able to manage our emotions is a critical skill. We all experience tough emotions, setbacks, or challenges along the way. It’s just a natural part of life. How we handle those difficulties can make a big impact on our success. That’s why it’s so important to explicitly teach coping strategies and skills to manage our feelings on the spot. Sometimes, kids cannot self-soothe without being explicitly taught these strategies. Kids and young adults need to learn they can take a quick walk, write in a journal, take deep breaths, and use positive self-talk to calm themselves and feel better in moments of difficulty. Additionally, it’s important that kids practice these strategies when they are already calm so that they can really use them when they are emotionally overwhelmed.
How It Works: Using a one-page board, students will take turns rolling and spinning. Depending on what they roll and spin, they will fall on a space with a coping strategy that they will have to practice. Once they practice that strategy, they can cover up the spot with a chip. Note that students can have their own boards or share if you have different colored chips. The first person to get one whole row across wins! Ultimately, the idea is that kids are practicing a wide variety of coping strategies, giving them access to more skills when they truly need them.
7. Feelings Uno
Why It’s Important: Self-awareness is a critical skill that helps individuals understand their own emotions. In this activity, students can improve their emotional vocabularies by discussing a variety of different feeling words and what they mean. It also helps to normalize talking about different emotions and being comfortable sharing how we are feeling in the moment. Getting kids talking about emotions is key.
How It Works: This game just adds a simple twist to your normal Uno game, which all kids absolutely LOVE! Using the Uno colors, discuss what each of the colors might mean. Blue can stand for feeling sad, tired, bored, or sick. Green stands for feeling happy, calm, focused, and in control. Yellow means feelings frustrated, worried, or nervous. Finally, red should stand for angry. Every time a student plays a color of a card, teach them to use an emotion word that matches the color, share a time they felt that way, or discuss when someone might feel that way.
Why It’s Important: Executive functioning skills are the processes in our brain that help us accomplish tasks. Sometimes we might think of these skills as only related to academics, but that’s actually not true. Our executive functioning skills help us use our self-control to stop and think before saying something inappropriate, our flexibility to consider different solutions for social problems, and our time management to make sure we meet a friend on time. When executive functioning skills are stronger, kids and young adults have greater chance for success in school and beyond.
How It Works: This game can actually be played two different ways: partners and small groups, or as a full class. The idea is that students work through a game board, answering a variety of executive functioning questions as they head towards the finish line. The game cards have students completing executive functioning challenges, acting out situations, naming executive functioning skills used in a situation, and proving their knowledge about the skills themselves. For the full class version, kids can work in teams, collaborating on the answers and getting “points” to win the challenge.
If you love the games I’ve put together, you can save by getting them as a whole set! This Social Emotional Learning Games Bundle gives practice with empathy, perspective-taking, executive functioning skills, communication, and more.
Use these games during break times, small groups, as an end of the week reward, or just a fun brain break. Kids will have fun but you’ll know you’re working on serious SEL skills that make a difference!