How Games Can Build Your Child’s Social-Emotional Skills

Dungeons & Dragons, the 70s-era role-playing game, might bring to mind orcs and elves and multi-sided dice. But today, D&D and games like it are helping kids and teens learn important life skills.

Liz Wollman lives in New York City. Her son, Phil, is 15 and was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when he was 4 years old. While he displays remarkable areas of intelligence, like being able to memorize the entire London Tube system, Wollman says Phil struggles in other aspects of life, like understanding social cues. He receives support at school and sees a therapist, but it was difficult for Wollman to find programs for neurodivergent teens that are simply fun.

Then she discovered the Brooklyn Game Lab.

Located in the city’s Park Slope neighborhood, the Game Lab runs a Dungeons & Dragons social skills program every Saturday, for kids from as young as 5 up to 16. Like a regular game of D&D, players here still take on the role of fantastical characters as they navigate a complex narrative quest. But adult facilitators tailor the games to address specific social-emotional skills kids need to practice.

“We have conversations with them and their parents at the beginning of the semester about what are the things we’re working on, what are their goals,” says Skyla Lilly, a second grade teacher who is also an instructor and “Dungeon Master” at the Game Lab.

Some players are working on regulating their emotions. Others on their communication skills. For 15-year-old Phil, D&D has helped him learn how to work together with other people.

[READ: What to Do When Your Kid Refuses to Go to School.]

Social-emotional learning, or SEL, has been increasingly recognized by educators as a crucial part of student success. Though it’s been a recent target of right-wing protest, SEL has been taught in schools for decades and is so common that all 50 states have SEL standards in preschool, and more than half in K-12, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.

The goal of SEL is to teach kids and teens non-academic skills like empathy, emotional regulation and collaboration. Years of research backs up the fact that high-quality SEL programs lead to positive outcomes.

Now, with many students showing less advanced social skills and emotional maturity levels due to the pandemic, parents might be looking for ways to get their kids up to speed, and in-person role-playing games like D&D are proving a great space to do so.

How Role-Playing Promotes Collaboration and Teamwork

Jill Pullara manages the Game Lab’s social skills program and says a lot of the kids who attend are working on an issue she calls “main character syndrome.”

“They need to be the center of attention,” Pullara says, but through D&D, they learn “to yield the floor to other people and other people’s ideas.”

Wollman has seen that change in her son.

“(A)t the Game Lab, you’re creating a collective world, and the collective world is contingent that everyone is in on it and working together,” Wollman says. “You can’t just railroad the room. If you’re going to play and take it seriously, you have to keep in mind everyone’s social needs.”

The fact that role-playing games are cooperative by their very nature are what makes them so useful for teaching SEL skills, since the game isn’t about beating another player.

“You can’t play the game without teamwork,” says Katie Lear, a licensed clinical mental health counselor specializing in childhood anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. “There’s such a strong collaborative component.”

[READ: How to Choose After-School Activities.]

Building Skills for Real Life

Lear launched her own virtual D&D therapy program when the pandemic began, and now runs eight different groups with kids ages 11 to 15 from all over the country. She says the game provides a safe space for kids who struggle with social interactions, who can dive straight into an adventure with fellow players without awkward small talk. And since players take on pretend characters, they can try out new ways to interact with peers and say and do things that might be too scary in their normal lives.

“There is evidence that the skills they practice in role-playing game settings do generalize to outside life,” Lear says. “Getting practice in the game can become habitual outside of it.” She says kids often channel their character when dealing with a difficult situation, and that many kids have started their own clubs at school, using the language of D&D to connect with peers and make friends.

The only difference from a traditional D&D game is that therapeutic games tailor the narrative of the game toward certain objectives. For instance, for kids working on impulse control, Lear will build in natural consequences if players barge into a room without asking questions first. Or, if a player is working on empathy, she’ll create a boss fight where the only way to defeat the bad guy is by complimenting them.

Lilly says the Game Lab space is also ideal for having interactions that are next to impossible in a large classroom. “This gives them a chance to have a conversation with their peers that they wouldn’t normally at a school. If you’re in a classroom, I have 20 kids. There are only so many times I can sit down with two kids and talk them through and compromise. This smaller space gives them that chance.”

[READ:How Much Recess Should Kids Get?]

Tips for Parents

For parents who want to get involved in playing games with their kids, the key is having fun, says Adam Davis, co-founder and executive director of Game to Grow, a Seattle-based role-playing therapy nonprofit.

“There’s a resistance that some adults have to play,” Davis says. “My first advice is get over it. You have to play. I don’t mean get the game out and read the rules. I mean play. What makes them so much fun is the play, not the rules.”

Davis also says that while professional gaming therapy programs are meant to delve into big psychological issues, playing at home isn’t the place to grapple with serious issues, like trying to play out a bullying experience at school.

“Certainly the game is oriented to reinforce prosocial engagement, so there’s nothing wrong with talking about things like frustration tolerance, communication skills, critical reasoning,” Davis says. “Parents don’t have to work too hard to get the benefits, but don’t play therapist. That won’t help them, and it won’t reinforce the relationship you’re looking for.”

Games That Can Help Kids Build SEL Skills

For parents who have never played role-playing games before, Davis admits that D&D can be intimidating. But there are lots of other options on the market that offer the same experience with much simpler rules and shorter game times. Here are some examples experts recommend:

No Thank You, Evil!: A tabletop, make-believe game for players as young as preschool.

Tails of Equestria: Also suitable for younger kids, especially those already interested in the My Little Pony series.

Critical Core: Launched by Game to Grow, Critical Core is a tabletop role-playing game that was developed with the help of therapists, educators and psychologists to build kids’ social skills.

Kids on Bikes: Inspired by the Netflix hit “Stranger Things,” Kids on Bikes is a collaborative world-building role-playing game that’s simple to set up and quick to learn.

Sentinels of the Multiverse: A cooperative card game featuring a group of comic book heroes taking on a mad scientist.

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