Using Board Games to Build Social and Emotional Skills in Young Children

by June Matthews

As a teacher of 3 to 5 year old children, I often surprise parents by telling them that we play board games in small group time. Games are more than just fun for the kids. With the appropriate pre-teaching, children as young as 2 years old can play and begin to develop life-long social and emotional skills.

Playing board games can build the following:

  • Resiliency, being able to recover quickly from disappointment
  • Negotiation Skills
  • Assertiveness
  • Patience and the ability to wait
  • Collaboration
  • Problem solving
  • Good communication skills such as eye contact, using a strong voice, using an appropriate tone of voice and matching the conversation/ actions.
  • Focus and attention
  • Handling losing well—being a good sport
  • Handling winning well—being happy without gloating and taunting
  • Being happy for others

Pre-teaching “Musts” for Children:

Before playing a game, set some guidelines.  These guidelines are helpful for all ages of children, not just the very young.

Review how to be a good winner
First, demonstrate being a poor winner (gloating / taunting—“I won and you didn’t!”) and ask the children if this is being a helpful winner.  They’ll assure you it is not and then ask them what being a helpful winner would look like.  (Hint: exaggerate the gloating and taunting). 

You want to get the point across that it’s good to be happy but it’s also important to talk to friends and give them positive feedback such as “Great game”, “Thank you”, or “I had fun”.

Review how to be a good loser
First, demonstrate being a poor loser (such as exaggerated crying, pounding on the table, saying “I never want to play again”, etc.).  Ask them if this looks like a good loser. Once they agree it’s not, problem solve what being a good loser would look like, such as smiling and saying “Good game”, “Congratulations” or “I’m happy for you.”

Handle turn changes
Communicate to the children that when their turn is over, they will be expected to tell the next person that it is their turn (such as “Your turn, Tommy”).  They will need to use a strong voice, use eye contact and use the person’s name.

If you have a prop in the game that the child can pass to indicate it’s the next person’s turn (like a key in “Cariboo” or a hammer in “Don’t Break the Ice”), have them pass this prop when they’re telling the next person it is his or her turn.

Help the children figure out who will go first
If they cannot decide quickly (which they likely won’t), suggest picking numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 OR pick straws OR use some other form of random choosing.  Let the winner of this random choosing go first and go clockwise from there.

Be available!
Throughout the game, be fully present for coaching and reminding, especially when finishing a turn and letting the next player know it is his or her turn. 

When you see someone is about to win, review what they will need to say if they win or if they lose.

At the end of the game, have them all give some sort of verbal feedback to the group, such as “Congratulations”, “Good game”, etc.

Recommended games for young children

  • Cariboo by Cranium (out of print but available on Ebay and a favorite)
  • Hullabaloo by Cranium (active movement)
  • Hyperdash by Wild Planet (active movement)
  • Hiss by Gamewright (another favorite and it is a snake building card game)
  • Zingo by Thinkfun
  • Hi Ho Cherry-O by Hasbro
  • Candyland by Hasbro
  • Chutes and Ladders by Hasbro
  • Crocodile Dentist by Winning Moves
  • Finders Keepers by Educa
  • Duck, Duck, Goose by Milton Bradley
  • Don’t Break the Ice by Hasbro
  • Disney DVD Bingo by Mattel
  • Charades for Kids by Pressman Toys (partner up with a teacher or friend if extra help is needed and omit the board if desired. This is also a great game to play in partners when you have a variety of age groups, including adults)
  • Various versions of Bingo (Lakeshore Learning Store has many varieties to teach skills and concepts, as well)
  • Various versions of Go Fish. Gamewright has “Little Hand Card Holders” to help little hands hold a hand of cards
  • Various versions of Memory
  • Various versions of children’s Dominos, typically with pictures at this age

Have Fun!

Once these lessons are learned, you’ll find that the kids can play without an adult. They’ll be able to relax and enjoy games with their friends, and won’t get into nearly as many squabbles or fights. Games (and playing in general) will become a more enjoyable part of all your lives.


June Matthews has been teaching for seven years. Before that, she worked as a camp director and social worker. She has also worked as a social skills facilitator, teaching social skills to children of all ages. She has a Masters in Social Work, and is currently finishing up her Masters in Early Childhood Education. She speaks regularly to parents and teachers about developing social skills in children.

  1 comment for “Using Board Games to Build Social and Emotional Skills in Young Children

  1. November 10, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    Hello,
    Just enjoyed the NECEYA expo in Dallas and enjoyed alot of encouragement for my PLAY BASED LEARNING GRID games.
    MATH is the focus but also creative thinking problem-solving games.
    If you would like more information please contact me.
    Thank you Dale , Creator of GRID games

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