Social Emotional Learning Games

social emotional learning games

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What is Social Emotional Learning?

Social emotional learning (SEL) is both a new and an old concept.

It’s a method of learning that encompasses the whole person, not just the facts that you learn from books and lectures. As the name implies, this way of learning (and and teaching) incorporates social and emotional aspects into the curriculum.

When Did Social Emotional Learning Come About?

The whole-education concept is not a new one. Nearly 2,400 years ago (in 380 B.C.), Plato wrote The Republic, and in it, he talked about a system of education that covered not only book learning, but learning that encompassed the whole person.

Plato talked about how it was necessary to include 4 elements into education: music, gymnastics, mathematics and dialectics. He felt that including these topics when teaching students would ensure that the components of the soul would be in harmony with each other, and as a result, the student would be well-balanced.

In the 1960’s, a holistic education program was put into play at 2 under-performing schools in New Haven, CT by a man named James Comer. 20 years later, the grades and achievements of the students had dramatically improved, and researchers at Yale took notice.

Psychology professor Roger Weissberg and Yale graduate Timothy Shriver created a Social Development program in the New Haven schools to expand on the holistic education concept.

The term “social emotional learning” became mainstream in 1994 when CASEL was formed. CASEL is an organization dedicated to this whole-person education concept, and the acronym initially stood for “Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning”.

The goal of this type of educational program was to prevent violence and drug use in the schools, to encourage students to make healthy choices, to strengthen connections between the school and the community, and to help students make responsible behavior choices.

In 1995, David Goldman wrote a book called Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. The book indicated that character matters more than intelligence in life situations, and the book became a huge success. Another important point in the book is that character can be taught. It’s not just something someone is born with or without. This helped push the educational ideas put forth by CASEL and its social emotional learning concept more into the American mainstream pop culture.

In 1996, CASEL moved from Yale to the University of Illinois at Chicago, and in 2001, they changed their name to “Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning”. So the acronym stayed the same, but they changed the name to include a focus on academics, as well as the social and emotional aspects of education.

In 2011, Congress even passed H.R. 2437, which is known as the Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning Act of 2011. The purpose of this bill was to provide funding to schools in order to train teachers and educators about how to teach kids the attitudes and skills that lead to social and emotional competency.

What are Some of the Tenets of Social Emotional Learning?

CASEL defines social emotional learning as “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions”.

Some of those SEL skills include being able to recognize their feelings, deal effectively with conflict, and exercise self-control.

Maurice Elias, head of Rutgers University’s Social Emotional Learning Lab, describes it this way:

“Think about what it takes for kids to be in school. They have to sit. They have to listen. They have to pay attention. They have to wait their turn. They need to have the ability to remember and follow directions. These are all social-emotional learning skills. If kids don’t have those skills – even if they are smart – they are not going to succeed academically. And even if they succeed academically, they are not going to put their intellect to productive use in the context of the workplace. Indeed, it’s clear that these same skills are essential for vocational advancement.”Maurice Elias

Does Social Emotional Learning Only Apply to Kids, or Can it Be Used in Adult Education, too?

People tend to automatically think that, if you’ve reached adulthood, you’ve already matured and have no need for further developing your social and emotional skills.

The Ultimate List of Educational Apps for Adults

Obviously that’s not the case for a large proportion of adults. Just because you’re past the age of 18 doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from using the principles of SEL.

Supporting and helping an adult socially and emotionally is just as crucial as it is for kids, especially when they’re in a learning environment like college. It’s important even in informal, non-academic classes and environments.

A 2011 study showed that adults who participated in SEL-enhancing activities showed lower cortisol secretion (the “stress hormone”), better physical well-being, as well as an improved quality of social and marital relationships.

Using Games to Teach Social Emotional Learning

Games make learning fun, and, especially in some subject areas, the research shows that games enhance learning.

Stephanie Jones, a professor at Harvard, has conducted research on which activities are the most effective in teaching kids social emotional skills. She has developed “Brain Games” that teach kids SEL concepts that research has shown to be effective in a fun and engaging way.

I've listed the games according to the social emotional skill that the game helps foster.

GOAL: Regulate Negative Emotions

Video Games (Yeah - Really!)

Video games often get a bad reputation among parents and teachers, but some video games are beneficial and are designed to teach the player to regulate negative emotions.

  • Neuro'motion has created a video game called RAGE Control, which stands for which stands for "Regulate and Gain Emotional Control". Research studies at Boston Children's Hospital have shown that it works: After playing it, kids can better calm themselves down in stressful situations. It's a great tool for the 16 million kids who have been diagnosed with ADHD or Autism.

  • A 2013 study conducted by the National Institute of Health (NIH) found that people who played the video game Playmancer / Islands showed improved emotional regulation, increased heart rate variability, and reduced respiratory rate and impulsivity measures.

  • There have been many studies done showing how video games can teach emotional regulation. This study published in American Psychologist shows that many video games (especially puzzle games, but also games like Pokemon and World of Warcraft) teach players to "flexibly and efficiently reappraise emotional experiences, and learn the benefits of dealing with frustration and anxiety in adaptive ways".


Role Playing

Role Playing is perfect for teaching kids (or adults) how to better understand their own or another’s feelings.

For this game, you need at least 2 people, but more than that is even better. Or, you can use pets (if they’re willing!).

Pretend you’re a caregiver, a nurse, a teacher, a firefighter, or an animal rescue worker. Or you could pretend there’s been an earthquake or a tornado, and people (or animals) need help. Act out what you would do in your chosen scenario.

Make it as detailed as possible. One person can play the victim in need of help or assistance while the other is the one tending to the other.


Teach kids (or adults!) that they have the power to affect the outcome of a situation. It reinforces the idea that the current outcome is the result of a previously made decision.

Board Games and Card Games

Uno and Chess are two good examples.

Regular board games or card games are ideal for this. You can enhance the teaching if you prompt the child (or adult) as you're playing, saying things like "You are in control. What you decide affects the outcome", or "Take time to think about the best move for you".

For younger children, a good board game they can play is called Q's Race to the Top. It's a game designed to teach social skills, better behavior, and manners. It's for ages 3-10, and it has a 5-star rating on



Research shows that some games can improve your ability to ignore irrelevant information. Being able to do that helps regulate emotions and improve performance and well-being, even in people with ADHD and Autism.

  • A 2016 study showed that games where people were trained to ignore irrelevant information produced visible changes in the amygdala in the brain. This allowed them to better regulate negative emotions such as sadness and anxiety. It also showed that these types of games reduce the tendency to continually think about a negative event repeatedly. Furthermore, they also help those with ADHD and Autism to better cope with distractions.

  • Apps and games like Tetris and Candy Crush help players ignore the irrelevant colors. When players are searching for the one color in a display that is different from surrounding colors, performance is badly disrupted by the presence of a shape in a different color in the display. However, players eventually make the right response. Ignoring in this case requires disengaging attention from the stimulus that initially drew attention to itself, and suppressing any response tendencies that came about during that initial misdirection of attention.

  • Story-Telling Game:

    Tell a story with lots of external distractions. You can do this activity with either children or adults. Tell the child (or adult) to think of a story to tell you. Then, set up external distractions. Turn the radio on. Turn the TV on. Sit outside where cars are going by, or go into a room where other kids or animals are running around.

    Instruct the person to tell the story. Every time they get distracted, gently remind them to return to the story and ignore the distraction. (You could say things like, “Look at me when you’re telling the story”, or “Ignore those sounds and think about the story”, etc.)

The Ultimate Self-Education Reading List

GOAL: Reflective listening, Empathy


This is similar to the telephone game I played as a kid where a group of people sit in a circle. One person says something to the next person. That person has to then tell the next person in line what the first person said. When it gets to the last person, you check to see how the message changed along the way.

How to Play:

Have one person tell a story or describe a situation to another person. Have the second person re-tell what that person said back to the first person. Try to include as many details as you can remember. This works great with kids, because they tend to love to tell stories.

Prompt them along the way when they're retelling the story. Ask questions like, "And what color was the car?" (just point out specific details from the story that they might have overlooked).



Pairing up with older mentors, What-if Scenario Card Game

Here are two ways to help a child increase their confidence and improve their social coping skills.

  • Research shows that pairing a child up with an older child who acts like a helpful, supportive mentor helps children improve confidence and social skills. Of course, you have to make sure the older child is actually helpful and supportive, though!

  • How to Play the What-If Scenario Card Game:

    Get some index cards and write down some negative events that can happen to you in life. Ask your child or in the case of adults, a friend, “What are some bad experiences that you think you would have a hard time dealing with?” Write them all down – one per card. Make about 10 cards.

    Then make a game, and see who can come up with the most (or the best) ways to effectively handle that situation.

    For example, if one of the cards says “My classmate (or colleague) laughs at me when I make a mistake”.

    First, talk about what your initial reaction would be and what you would do when that happens (e.g., I’d feel humiliated and stupid and want to cry/run away, etc).

    For the next step, each person comes up with a list of ideas on great ways to handle that situation.

    An example might be, “Use humor. Turn it into a joke and laugh it off” or “Think about all the things I am good at, and realize that everyone makes mistakes. One mistake doesn’t make me stupid, so I shouldn’t feel humiliated”. The person with the most useful (or unique) ways of handling it wins.

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  • What is Social Emotional Learning?
    • The 5 Aspects of Social Emotional Learning (Image: Chart)
  • When did Social Emotional Learning come about?
    • Timeline of Social Emotional Learning (Image: Timeline)
  • What are some of the tenets of Social Emotional Learning?
  • Does Social Emotional Learning apply only to kids, or can it be used in adult education, too?
  • Using games to teach Social Emotional Learning
    • Goal: Regulate Negative Emotions
    • Goal: Teach Empathy
    • Goal: Increase Empowerment and Confidence
    • Goal: Ignore Distractions
    • Goal: Reflective Listening, Empathy
    • Goal: Confidence, Social Coping Skills
  • Poll
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