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Social and Emotional Learning Through Games and Play


Social and emotional learning (SEL) helps young people of all ages better understand their emotions. Although SEL is common in the context of students and school, any type of youth programming can support SEL.

Social and emotional skills can be built and strengthened with practice. And we all have a role to play.

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    Why social and emotional learning matters

    Social and emotional learning (SEL) teaches young people critical skills that will help them throughout life. Skills like the ability to understand themselves and to develop a positive self-image.  SEL also helps them take responsibility for their actions. And it supports their ability to achieve goals. Moreover, it helps them build strong relationships with people around them.

    SEL represents a broad set of skills a young person needs to thrive.  They are often described by five core abilities:

    • Self-awareness
    • Self-management
    • Responsible decision-making
    • Relationship skills
    • Social awareness

    In other words, it's really about setting a foundation for safe, positive youth development.

    SEL skills you can focus on

    Younger youth need more support with SEL skill development. Because they tend to be more impulsive. And they're more self-centered. So, they may struggle to adapt their plans when things change. They're also more emotive. These are natural hurdles in teaching younger people SEL skills.

    Some traditional teaching and coaching techniques depend on using cognitive processes. In younger people, that area of the brain is not fully developed yet. So, there are times you’ll need to get creative to model SEL.

    Still, there are big social and emotional learning skills you can focus on. Skills like self-regulation and executive functioning skills. It's best to aim for improvement over time. And remember to gear your support for the age of the young person. Also be mindful of their current developmental level. Another skill to work on is growth mindsets.

    Mindsets are flexible, to a point. For example, a young person may express a fixed mindset. It can sound like “I’m not good at this.” With SEL support from a caring adult, a fixed mindset can be changed to a growth mindset. Your support could sound like “You're getting better at reading because of your hard work!”

    Ways to strengthen SEL skills

    There are many ways to build and strengthen social and emotional learning skills.

    Teach young people concepts like problem-solving, empathy, growth mindsets and affirmations. Give them language to communicate with you and others about their needs and feelings.

    Role play scenarios. Let youth concerns decide the discussion topics.

    Use program materials that reinforce SEL skills like posters, fidgets, and breathing balls. Make it visual!

    Read stories and books that focus on topics like managing strong feelings and self-regulation, such as GRUMPY MONKEY by Suzanne Lang and IRA CRUMB Feels the Feelings by Nadeem Hrab.

    Try board games (Connect 4, Snakes and Ladders, Pictionary, Tic Tac Toe, etc.), group activities like Charades or Rock-Paper-Scissors, outdoor games, and projects like journals, art, or greeting cards. Many of these games can be played online, too.

    Remember, play can be messy and that’s okay. It’s important to give young people the freedom to use and practice the information they learn from you. Emotional buttons can and will be pushed during social play, so be nearby and be supportive.

    Behavioral support includes mirroring the tone you want youth to reflect back to you, modeling calm breathing, and coaching the strategies you’ve taught. And if no one is having fun, it’s time to switch up the activity!

    The social and emotional well-being of young people is critical to their overall wellbeing. You can create a welcoming, supportive program space where they’re encouraged to grow into skillful, balanced adults. Want to learn more? YIPA’s training on The Welcome Table: Supporting SEL with Facilitated Play will give you even more ideas to strengthen SEL skills with the young people you serve.

    About the author

    Jade Schleif is the training coordinator of the Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA), a non-profit association of youth-serving organizations. We're your source for exceptional, affordable, personal and professional online learning via The Professional Youth Worker.  Join us!

    To ask Jade a question or share your feedback about this blog, email

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