Using TTRPGs to teach kids social-emotional skills

TTRPGs can be amazing tools for helping players, particularly kids, practice social and emotional skills in a fun and engaging way.  Check out below to see why they work so well AND get a few easy ways that you can incorporate social-emotional learning into your TTRPGs!

This article is sponsored by Xoe from Knife Bunny Games! Thank you Xoe for supporting SEL TTRPG resources, and please check out its work here at Knife Bunny Games!

This article by TTRPGkids is part of a parallel shared guest post with Thomas Wilson, a Neuro Diversity Specialist, who has written another article on Welcoming Neurodiverse Youth to the Game Table.  You can find his article on his website here or on TTRPGkids here.

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Why TTRPGs naturally work so well for SEL (social-emotional learning)

TTRPGs inherently help us practice SEL skills by nature of them being a social game that relies on players to continually take different perspectives, work with other players or a game leader, and to just generally communicate.  These games give us hours of practice with speaking in front of others and discussing plans… while also having fun. 

Structured social interactions feel safer and more manageable

Particularly for kids who are coming into the game shy or who have been bullied or who are at a different social and/or emotional state than their day-to-day play and learning peers, TTRPGs uniquely provide a structured and lower stakes environment than many other play situations.  Kids who aren’t as comfortable joining a game on the playground or playing a random-ish pretend game because they aren’t sure what to do or how they’ll be judged can find clear rules and a safe environment where they can get past that initial barrier and start having fun socializing and building their abilities.

Less pressure when facing challenges or “failure”

With TTRPGs, there’s fewer consequences to “failing” at a social interaction, so there’s more freedom to try things out and learn without so much fear. In real life, you may get a reputation with classmates who you’ll be around for years based on a few social interactions, but, in a game, your fictional character has only impacted a fictional NPC.  There’s a degree of separation where players can observe the consequences play out, learn from it, and move on with that knowledge in their bank and no real long term negative impact with their social circle.  

Creating positive social experiences for the XP bank

It also provides a place where players can bank up positive social experiences to balance out previous real-life experiences that they’ve had prior to the game.  If someone is having a hard time socializing with their peers, they may have 9 out of 10 of their social interactions being internalized as a negative experience, so they view socialization as something bad or hard.  When you bring in a TTRPG, they can add and observe positive social interactions to that bank of experience and shift their perspective.  If they’re successfully teaming up with other players and seeing their character make friends with other characters in the game, that adds to the pool of social understanding.

Making social and emotional learning FUN

While there are many other points that I can go into, the last one I’ll discuss here is that TTRPGs make this practice fun!  There’s no having to go to sit in a practice session or getting lectured at or being told that “you just need to get out there more”, which, can not only be boring or stressful for kids, but can also make them feel like they aren’t doing enough themselves.  TTRPGs are really just a game and play and something that’s fun that happens to involve social and emotional skills as a means to an end.  It turns SEL from something that “you have to practice” to something that just happens when you’re enjoying yourself and that facilitates a cool game that you WANT to play.  Instead of it being working on a skill, it’s felt as a skill being used to have fun.

How to apply SEL elements to your TTRPG

Use safety tools and caution

Before I get into how to apply specific elements, I do want to have a quick note on using safety tools and about being cautious with any applied gaming. 

Using TTRPGs for therapy should only be done by someone who is trained as a therapist or in a directly related health application.  We don’t want to be stirring up trauma and accidentally making things worse.  That said, there are ways to still apply TTRPGs and tap into therapeutic (not therapy) benefits just by the nature of the game and by watching how we set things up. 

We also want to make sure that whatever game we run, but especially ones that internationally include social-emotional learning elements, we are using safety tools.  One of the reasons that TTRPGs can help develop these skills is because they’re being exercised in a safe environment.  We want to keep it that way.  We want to give a way out or a place to discuss if something triggering comes up, and we don’t want to stress someone out to the point where this becomes a negative experience in the SEL bank or push someone out of the game because they don’t feel safe.  To find out more about safety tools, I have an article here that goes into more depth and gives some easy examples for tools to add to your games.

Integrating SEL skills into your TTRPGs

We’ve talked about how TTRPGs inherently promote social-emotional learning even if we don’t change anything about the game, but there are also ways to mildly direct game play to help focus on those social-emotional elements.  This is done through the types of stories and characters and challenges that you set up in the game and can be easily done by shifting some of the focus from a standard TTRPG adventure towards more SEL focused themes.

If you want to help players grow their teamwork skills, give them challenges that specifically require a skill from each player to complete.  These could be puzzles where you need to have players each hold down a button on opposite sides of the room at the same time or a heist where it’s very important to distract a guard, pick a lock, and disable the security system AT THE SAME TIME so that everyone needs to participate and plan together. 

If you want to focus on perspective taking or empathy, when they interact with an NPC, just casually ask the players how they think the NPC would feel after the interaction.  Take a few seconds to let them assess the situation and try to recognize how someone would react.  You can also ask how the player’s character is feeling after an event AND how the player is feeling to show that the player and the character (that you’re taking the perspective of) can feel different things. 

I wrote a 30 week SEL TTRPG curriculum for pre-K kids that covers a specific skill each week by integrating it into the game’s adventures.  For the week about dealing with shyness, we had a story about a yeti named Betti who was nervous about attending a winter festival.  It walked through this character trying to find ways to get closer and closer without being seen and then asking questions about shyness and embarrassment when they were found out.  The adventure was a fun story and game first and foremost with the yeti going through a hide-and-seek style challenge, but the character was made to give an example of someone who was going through tough feelings… and then came out alright in the end (so it adds to that positive social XP)!

For intentionally adding SEL topics to your TTRPG, there are so many routes you can take to teach concepts like sharing (via loot distribution), taking turns (via turn-based events), handling big feelings (through NPCs), and creating social experiences (through collaborative storytelling).  Get creative and focus on making it fun so you and your players can share and grow together!

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