From the Playground to the Playroom – Games That Teach Social Skills

Research has proven over and over the power of play to support children’s growth into healthy, productive adults. Unfortunately, for low-income children, there are fewer opportunities for unstructured play time, which leaves them at a significant disadvantage when negotiating the classroom and eventually, the work world. That’s why United Way Lead partner Playworks uses the playground as a venue for teaching these skills. Schools with Playworks programs report that students are more physically active, have greater feelings of school safety and experience less bullying.

Though Playworks’ methodology was developed to fill a need in low-income schools, their curriculum can be used to help any child become more socially fluent.

We asked Amy French, Development Associate at Playworks New England to share some best practices for parents to help their kids improve social and emotional skills at home.




Preschoolers playing during recess in the Playworks program, Hamilton Elementary School, Baltimore, Maryland.

In an increasingly polarized society, how can we teach our children to be inclusive and empathetic toward their peers? Encourage girls and boys to play together,and give older children an incentive to include younger siblings. When there are language barriers between friends, facilitate games like four-square or Penalty-Kick Soccer that can be learned and played without verbal communication. Avoid games where kids will be permanently ‘out.’ Instead, play games like ‘Watch Your Back Tag’ or ‘Crossover Dodgeball’ where everyone can participate until the game is over.

Conflict resolution

Empowering kids to resolve their own conflicts instead of making an adult step in to mediate is a skill that will serve our children into adulthood — and a skill that many of us still lack! Teach simple games  like Ro Sham Bo or Rock, Paper, Scissors so problems can be resolved quickly and won’t linger after playtime is over.

Positive reinforcement

positive-reinforcementSomething as simple as a high-five or a “good job, nice try!” can go a long way in creating a positive environment and instilling confidence in children. Adults should constantly be modeling this behavior and encouraging kids to follow suit. Play games like Traffic Jam that don’t end until all the players have reached a goal. Promote teamwork and encourage kids to cheer each other on. When you see your children encouraging others, you’ll know the lesson has stuck.



Kids in the Playworks program learning leadership skills and more by playing One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish

The playground is a perfect place to give children opportunities to lead. Teach one child the rules of a new game and have her teach the rest of the group. Have a child lead a game of Up Down Go or One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. These methods can be especially effective with children who are shy or hyperactive.



It’s easy to let winning take priority over having fun.  Most kids at some point have claimed that they weren’t really tagged in kickball or that the dodgeball missed them just to secure a victory. But the momentary win can feel so rewarding that sportsmanship starts to take a back seat. If you want to practice accountability and honesty, play Museum Night Janitor. It’s almost impossible to claim “I didn’t move!” when the janitor catches you moving. Think about a way for kids to get tagged back in so losing isn’t permanent. This will help them make the right decisions in the moment and eventually teach them that losing a point isn’t worth being dishonest.

While all kids are different and unique and wonderful, in many ways they are all the same. They all want to succeed, be happy, and have good relationships. And we all want to help them. To learn more about how Playworks is using the playground to help make this happen, visit their website here.