Turning Games into Social-emotional Skill Building

Turning Games into Social-emotional Skill Building

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Brian Brandt, Associate Professor, WSU Pierce County Extension,
Games are a popular activity in afterschool programs, clubs, project meetings, youth events, and camps. They’re fun and also provide potential health benefits and social-emotional development opportunities. This Extension curriculum includes activity cards designed to support “life skills” development in youth. In addition to learning techniques of experiential education, practitioners gain skills in intentionally selecting games that support specific social-emotional development areas. Youth professionals equipped with discussion skills and a set of strategies increases successful outcomes for youth programs.
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Purpose of the Activity/Game Cards

These activity cards are for staff, volunteers, and youth leaders who want to maximize the effectiveness that games can have on youth development. They are written for 4th grade and above, but you may adapt them for younger youth by more explicitly telling the youth how life skills are tied to the games or challenges in which they are engaged.

Games are a popular activity in afterschool programs, clubs, project meetings, youth events, and camps (DeBord 1989). They provide fun, potential health benefits (Strong et. al. 2005), and social-emotional development opportunities (Durlack et al. 2010), or what 4-H programs refer to as “life skill” development. These activity cards have been used by groups that report youth being more active, developing life skills while having fun (Brandt 2013). Life skill development provides youth with coping skills (Lerner et al. 2005), skills for independent living after high school (Casey Foundation 2008), and supports future job success (Lemke 2003). In many instances, working on skills during these games provides opportunities for teambuilding, which in turn supports youth success in many social circumstances (Henderson 2012).


Most, if not all of the included activities are the result of decades of sharing by experiential education practitioners. Over the years, various iterations of these activities have been published or simply shared through workshops and presentations, such as those sponsored by the international Association for Experiential Education. Rather than having a traditional “scientific,” empirical basis, such activities are typically developed through a logical application of metaphorical development. That is, one takes an abstract concept such as “responsibility” and adapts a physical activity or “game” that represents an example of what responsibility might “look like” in daily activities (much like developing an “operational definition”). As mentioned above, these activities go through various iterations as they are shared from year-to-year, much like open-source code for computer programs. Over time, as with stories passed down across the years, the original source or developer for these various activities is lost in history, and therefore cannot be cited in a traditional manner. For an in-depth examination of the application of metaphors to experiential education, the reader is referred to an excellent book, Book of metaphors: A descriptive presentation of metaphors for adventure activities – Volume II, by Michael Gass (1995).

Thanks go out to the original authors, youth and adults, who have created, shared, recorded, and modified these games throughout the years.

Christina Murray is credited with testing early versions of the cards and adding input to early designs and trainings.

Thanks to Dr. Marc Levy for his editing and re-writing expertise throughout this document.

Thanks also to Katie and Isaac Brandt for the creation of the feeling faces used in “Feeling Cards: Charades.”

The Life Skills

The Washington State University (WSU) Extension program focuses on variations of these life skills with the youth:

  • Decision Making
  • Leadership
  • Wise Use of Resources
  • Useful / Marketable Skills
  • Communication
  • Healthy Lifestyle Choices
  • Accepting Differences
  • Self-Responsibility

Choices about which life skill to focus on with any particular group of youth or for a given situation depend on such factors as the age/grade level of the youth. Also, life skills the group may be developing could be good life skills to focus on during play. Some youth are able to select their own life skill to work on. Selecting specific skills supports each unique situation a group has.

Experiential Education

Another purpose of these structured activities is for youth professionals to improve their discussion skills with a set of strategies from the field of experiential education, which increases successful outcomes for youth programs (Ripberger 2008, Torock 2009). In addition to learning the techniques of experiential education, practitioners gain skills in intentionally selecting games that support specific social-emotional development areas (Brandt 2013).

The activity cards are based on David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle, which has four parts: (1) Concrete experience; (2) Observation & reflection; (3) Generalizing to other areas/situations in one’s life / thinking abstractly about other applications of the exercise; and (4) Applying concepts to new situations (Kolb 1984). To simplify and improve the cards, the



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