So your kids aren’t quite in “Lord of the Flies” territory yet, but they could use some social-skills lessons. Tantrums in public, refusing to greet a friend, or meltdowns over sharing are fairly typical behaviors for toddlers and preschoolers. But as children get older, they must learn the basic social niceties to get along with others. Games are among the most effective methods of teaching almost any skill, including social skills. They’re simple, nonthreatening and downright fun.
Games that involve reading body language can boost social skills. Holly Rauser, an etiquette coach in northern California, says, “We tend to like and trust people whom we feel are similar to us. Our brains tune in to body language that mirrors our own and consider the other person a friend. Have children practice mirroring each other’s body language, as if the child is an actual mirror. They will do their best to stand the same, put their hands in the same position, move in the same way.”
Games like charades teach kids how to read body language, especially when the prompts are to act out emotionally charged events: “Act out how you would feel if you lost a favorite toy,” for example, or “Act out how you feel when someone scares you.” Games that rely on strategy, such as chess or checkers, also teach kids to watch body language. Watch your opponent closely, and he just might give away the secret to winning!
Most kids today spend more time plugged into electronics than talking to actual people. Dave Wingler, a teacher and app developer currently living in Japan, says, “I’ve been a teacher in K-12 for the last 15 years and seen a trend in classrooms shifting to technology integration. An inadvertent consequence of this is that it limits the amount of time that students get to interact with one another on an interpersonal basis.This is an impediment toward social development.”
Technology has many benefits, but kids need time to interact with family and friends too. Games that require talking, following directions, and asking questions help children learn the social skills of conversation. A few to try: old classics like “I Spy,” “I’m Going to Grandma’s,” or “Red Light, Green Light.” Some card games have questions designed to spark conversation. Try these to get the conversation rolling at dinner.
Sharing is the biggie for most kids when it comes to learning social skills. Even adults don’t like to share, so it should come as no surprise when preschoolers balk at sharing or hoard their toys.
Games are a nonthreatening way to nudge kids to more peaceful negotiations. Susan Hendler, founder of Sociable Kidz, a social-skills group for kids in Mamaroneck, N.Y., says, “We use role-playing, board games, table tennis and expressive art projects.” During role plays, kids use puppets or act out challenging scenarios, such as what to do when another child wants your toy or how to ask for a turn. Board games automatically reinforce social skills because most board games require players to take turns. Try table tennis or pick-up games of soccer, baseball or volleyball.
If your kids are like most of their peers, they could probably use a refresher course on manners. Of course, they probably don’t need to know what to do with four different forks and spoons, but they should be able to make eye contact, offer a friendly greeting and make polite conversation.
Try playing Simon Says and offering prompts that build manners: “Simon Says, take a dish to the sink,” or “Simon Says, say thank you.” Christina Steinorth, a psychotherapist in Santa Barbara, Calif., and the author of “Cue Cards for Life,” says, “Have dinner as a family and, during dinner, turn off all electronic devices and television. At dinner, role-model and practice making eye contact, and make small talk with your children. Talk about current events, discuss what went on during your day, maybe even plan the dinner menu for tomorrow night. Also, while sitting at the table, teach your children how to hold a fork and a knife and put a napkin on their lap. By simply sitting down for dinner together without distractions, you can teach your children a variety of social skills.”