70s RPG Dungeons and Dragons might conjure up images of orcs and elves and faceted dice. But today, D&D and games like it are helping children and teens learn important life skills.
Liz Wollman lives in New York City. Her son Phil, 15, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when he was 4 years old. While he displayed remarkable areas of intelligence, such as being able to memorize the entire London Underground system, Wollman said Phil struggled in other areas of life, such as understanding social cues. He got support at school and saw a therapist, but Wollman had trouble finding easy, fun programs for teens with neurological differences.
Then she discovered Brooklyn Game Lab.
The Game Lab, located in the city’s Park Slope neighborhood, operates Dungeons & Dragons Social skills classes are offered every Saturday for children aged 5 to 16. Just like in regular D&D games, players here still take on the role of fantasy characters, navigating complex narrative quests. But adult counselors tailor games based on the specific social-emotional skills a child needs to practice.
“We had conversations with them and their parents at the start of the term about what we were doing and what their goals were,” said second grade teacher Skyla Lilly, who is also a lecturer and “Dungeon Master” at game lab.
Some players are struggling to regulate their emotions. other about their communication skills. For 15-year-old Phil, D&D helped him learn how to work with others.
How Role Playing Can Promote Collaboration and Teamwork
Jill Pullara, who manages the Play Lab’s social skills program, said many of the kids who attend are dealing with what she calls “protagonist syndrome.”
“They need to be the center of attention,” says Pullara, but through D&D, they learn to “give way to other people and other people’s ideas.”
Wollman saw the change in her son.
“In Game Lab, you’re creating a collective world, and the collective world depends on everyone participating and working together,” Wollman said. If you’re going to take competition seriously, you have to keep in mind the social needs of each individual. “
The fact that role-playing games are cooperative in nature makes them very useful for teaching SEL skills because the game is not about beating the other player.
“You can’t play the game without teamwork,” says Katie Lear, a licensed clinical mental health counselor who specializes in childhood anxiety and OCD. “There’s such a strong collaborative component.”
Build skills for real life
Lear launches her own virtual D&D The treatment program at the start of the pandemic now has eight different groups with 11- to 15-year-olds from all over the country. She said the game provides a safe space for kids who struggle with social interaction to go straight into adventures with other players without awkward small talk. As players take on pretend roles, they can try new ways to interact with their peers and say and do things that might be too scary in their normal lives.
“There is evidence that the skills they practice in role-playing game settings do apply to life outside,” Lear said. “Practice in play can become habit outside of play.” She said children often show their character in dealing with difficult situations, and many have started their own clubs at school, using the language of D&D with their peers. Connect with people and make friends.
The only difference from traditional D&D games is that Healing Games adapts the game’s narrative to specific goals. For example, with a child engaging in impulse control, Lear has natural consequences if the player barges into a room without first asking a question. Or, if the player is developing empathy, she creates a boss fight where the only way to defeat the bad guys is to praise them.
Lilly says the play lab space is also great for interactions that would be nearly impossible in a large classroom. “It gives them the opportunity to have a conversation with their peers that doesn’t usually happen at school. If you’re in a classroom, I have 20 kids. I can only sit down with two kids and talk to them and compromise . This smaller space gives them that opportunity.”
Tips for Parents
For parents who want to play games with their kids, the key is to have fun, said Adam Davis, co-founder and executive director of Game to Grow, a Seattle-based role-play therapy nonprofit.
“Some adults have to resist,” Davis said. “My first piece of advice is to get over it. You have to play. I don’t mean take the game out and read the rules. I mean play. It’s the game, not the rules, that makes them so fun.”
Davis also said that while professional play therapy programs are designed to delve into major psychological issues, playing games at home is not the place to address serious issues, such as trying to address a bullying experience at school.
“Of course, games are designed to enhance prosocial engagement, so there’s nothing wrong with talking about things like frustration tolerance, communication skills, critical reasoning,” Davis said. “Parents don’t have to work hard to reap the benefits, but don’t play the therapist. It won’t help them, and it won’t strengthen the relationship you’re looking for.”
Games That Can Help Kids Build SEL Skills
For parents who have never played an RPG before, Davis admits that D&D can be intimidating. But there are many other options on the market that offer the same experience, but with simpler rules and shorter play times. Here are some examples recommended by experts:
• equestria tail: Also suitable for younger children, especially those who are already interested in the My Little Pony series.
• key core: Presented by Game to Grow, Critical Core is a tabletop role-playing game developed with the help of therapists, educators and psychologists to develop children’s social skills.
• kids on bikes: Inspired by the hit Netflix series Stranger Things, Kids on Bikes is a collaborative world-building RPG that’s easy to set up and pick up quickly.