As parents and as therapists, we are always looking for ways to help our children build skills while they have fun, through participation in activities that are affordable and that fit with our family culture. Some children are lacking in social skills which makes it hard for them to make and keep friends. The good news is that these skills can be taught -the trick is to find the right setting for your child. Activity-based social skills groups provide that setting for several reasons. They have built-in peers, a setting in which children can engage with one another, and a leader to provide the support the group members need to learn and practice skills for better interaction. The leader is also planning activities that promote interaction or address specific social skills very directly, with didactic information and then opportunities for practicing how to apply those skills.
As parents of young children, we have all had the experience of seeing our kids imitate a peer and do something we have been trying to get them to do for months. In therapy groups, children will often extend themselves more to keep up with peers than they would do for the therapist alone. Groups begin with the advantage of peers in close proximity-as both role models and as opportunities for your child to be a role model. Age-appropriate activities, combined with skilled leadership, create an environment that is rich in opportunities for skill building in a naturalistic setting. While participants appear to be “just playing games,” they are actually finding their way through the complex maze that is social interaction.
For example, if five boys are playing a board game and one of them becomes frustrated, he may act out and exhibit behaviors that are inappropriate, such as yelling, knocking over the game board or running out of the room. This disruption provides a perfect opportunity for the leader to spend some time problem-solving with the whole group to identify alternative ways to handle frustration. Thus, one child’s difficulty becomes a learning experience for the whole group. Every activity is rich with learning opportunities, such as when disagreements erupt over the rules or when one participant monopolizes the conversation of players waiting for their turns.
Group leaders can also design activities to create specific types of challenges for participants. For younger children, a mural project provides multiple opportunities for cooperation and sharing. The fact that there is only one canvas to be shared forces participants to be aware of each other in the space and share access to the mural paper. There is often a need to negotiate who will use which space on the paper and what should be included on the mural. In addition, if there were four kids participating, by providing only two pairs of scissors, the leader sets up a problem for the participants to solve. They may do so without assistance, or it may become the center of a conflict. If this were the case, it would be the perfect opportunity to work together as a group to figure out a solution. This has then provided a learning opportunity for all members of the group.
For older group members, leaders might have a game night where the challenges would be higher level. Participants might be expected to bring in their favorite game and then teach it to their peers. In addition, leaders might choose age-appropriate community-based activities such as going to laser tag, bowling, or swimming at the community pool. Participating in these activities provides multiple opportunities for potential conflicts or challenges that can be addressed with the group. Group projects can be structured so that two or three kids work together, under the guidance of the group leader. This type of structured activity requires participants to cooperate and compromise as they plan and execute their project, which takes communication, cooperation, compromise and problem-solving skills.
Older students can also engage in community service activities, which helps them expand their perspective by introducing them to people and places they might not otherwise have known about. There is no better way to begin to broaden a self-involved perspective, than to go out into the community and engage in activities with the sole purpose of helping others.
In a program that serves different age groups, there are opportunities for peer mentoring. Some activities might be planned to have kids of different ages come together for events, allowing older participants be role models for younger ones. In addition, older students can act as assistants in groups that serve younger students. This will challenge them to demonstrate leadership and manage increased responsibilities.
As an occupational therapist, I have been trained to use occupation as a therapeutic tool. For kids, their occupation is play. This holds true even as our kids get older and are in the middle and high school years. It makes sense that the best way to help them develop better social interaction skills would be through use of games, sports, and age-appropriate extra-curricular activities. With skilled leadership, you will be surprised how much your child can learn “just playing.”