Promoting Social and Emotional
Learning With Games
“It’s Fun and We Learn Things”
University of Sydney, Australia
University of Western Sydney, Australia
This article has two broad objectives: (a) It reviews the theoretical and practical litera-
ture on the use of games to facilitate social and emotional learning (SEL). (b) Based on
this review, it argues that games are a powerful way of developing social and emotional
learning in young people. In addition, we draw on our collective experience as educa-
tional psychologists to identify effective practice when using games to teach SEL. The
social and emotional skills needed to play successfully with others are those needed to
succeed at work and in adult life. Prosocial skills involve regulating negative emotions,
taking turns and sharing, support orientations to others that are fair, just, and respectful.
The natural affiliation between children, play, and the desire to have fun with others
makes games an ideal vehicle for teaching SEL. Circle Time games are used to support
universal programs for teaching SEL to whole classes. Therapeutic board games pro-
vide an effective intervention for young people who have been targeted for further
guided practice in small group settings. Verbatim quotations from students and teachers
demonstrate ways in which SEL has generalized to real-life situations. The role of
facilitator is crucial to the success of this approach, both in modeling appropriate skills
and making the learning connections for students. In this article, facilitation and
debriefing are deconstructed and the value of collaborative, rather than competitive,
aspects of games highlighted.
Keywords: Circle Time; cooperative games; debriefing; emotional literacy; experience-
based learning; facilitation; fun; games-based learning; pedagogy;
resilience; school connectedness; social and emotional learning; thera-
peutic board games; well-being
The report to UNESCO for the International Commission on Education for the
Twenty-first Century (Delors, 1996) titled, Learning: The Treasure Within, described
the “four pillars of education”; “learning to live together, learning to know, learning to
do, and learning to be.” A few years before Salovey and Mayer (1990), building on
Simulation & Gaming
Volume XX Number X
Month XXXX xx-xx
© 2009 SAGE Publications
Authors’ Note: We would like to acknowledge the reviewers of our article, Louise Rowlings and Alison
Soutter, whose suggestions and insights added clarity and structure to our article.
Simulation Gaming OnlineFirst, published on June 15, 2009 as doi:10.1177/1046878109333793
2 Simulation & Gaming
Gardner’s (1983) model of multiple intelligences, began to develop the concept of
emotional intelligence. In 1996, Goleman published his best-selling book on emo-
tional intelligence and the connection between self-knowledge, self-management,
relationship skills, and success became established internationally. Although much
debate still exists about the definition and parameters of social and emotional intel-
ligence, it has sparked a new education focus on “learning to be” and “learning to live
together,” often referred to as “social and emotional learning” (SEL) or “emotional
literacy”. This has often been incorporated into a more general focus on “student
well-being,” developed from our increasing knowledge about the protective factors
that enhance resilience and good mental health (Benard, 2004; Blum, 2000).
In 1994, Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)
was established at the University of Illinois in Chicago, with a brief to provide evi-
dence and resources to promote SEL. Their aims are to “advance the science of
SEL” and to “expand the practice of SEL.” CASEL now has an impressive research
record influencing education and mental health policies across the United States. In
the United Kingdom, the profile of social and emotional learning has risen incre-
mentally over the past decade to the point where all schools, both primary and sec-
ondary are expected to follow the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning—known
as the SEAL program (Department for Education and Skills [DfES], 2005). In
Australia, the concern to reduce bullying and increase student resilience, together
with implementing the Framework of Values for Australian Schools has also initi-
ated an interest in social and emotional well-being and learning.
With the growing interest in SEL comes the need to identify programs and prac-
tices that effectively engage students. Experience-based learning tools like games
provide a forum for the development of the skill-sets, attitudes, and values that build
resilience and maintain well-being. This highly motivating approach provides the
opportunity for skilled facilitators to create a safe, fun environment, where social
connectedness and meaningful participation are likely to occur. This article focuses
on games in two different contexts. Circle Time uses games to engage all children
within a preventative model to promote positive relations and caring classroom
ethos, whereas therapeutic board games target students who need extra guided prac-
tice in relationships in a smaller groups setting. We set out the rationale for this
approach and the processes for effective implementation.
Social and Emotional Learning
Social and emotional understanding and skills underpin both personal resilience
and healthy relationships. Howard Gardner (1999) identified the two intelligences as
intrapersonal—understanding and managing the self, and interpersonal—establishing
and maintaining positive relationships. Although the following list is not exhaustive,
the authors identify SEL as including the following:
Hromek, Roffey / Learning With Games 3
• recognizing and labelling personal feelings, strengths, and values
• knowing how to regulate and express feelings effectively and safely
• having a prosocial orientation to others, which is not bound by prejudgment
• being able to read and take account of the emotional content of situations
• being responsible to oneself and others and making ethical decisions
• being able to set goals in both the short and longer term
• problem-solving skills, especially in the domains of personal coping and interper-
• focusing on the positive
• respect for others, including valuing diversity
• treating others with care and compassion
• good communication skills
• knowing how to establish, develop, and maintain healthy relationships that promote
connection between individuals and groups
• being able to negotiate fairly
• having skills to deescalate confrontation and manage conflict well
• being prepared to admit mistakes and seek help when needed and
• having personal and professional integrity demonstrated by consistently using rela-
tional values and standards to determine conduct
Although these competencies are written here as separate, they are dynamic and
overlapping, and always in interaction with specific contexts (Triliva & Poulou,
2006). This makes the teaching of such skills complex and highlights the importance
of pedagogy and teacher skills. Social and emotional learning may focus not only on
the acquisition of knowledge and skills as in other subject areas, but also in changing
or developing values, beliefs, attitudes, and everyday behaviors. As can be seen from
the above list, SEL is not just about individual well-being but also about the develop-
ment of healthy relationships and caring communities. SEL takes root when it is
embedded within whole-school practices that support school connectedness and
student well-being. The congruence of the values and ethos of a school are critical
to embedding such learning across the whole school community (Roffey, 2008).
So why are educators excited about SEL? What do they think it can offer? What
does the research say?
Research and Effective Programs for SEL
Indications are that higher levels of SEL or emotional literacy can reduce subjec-
tive stress and increase feelings of well-being (Slaski & Cartwright, 2002), improve
coping abilities, (Salovey, Beddell, Detwieler, & Mayer, 1999), limit drug and alco-
hol addiction (Trinidad & Johnson, 2002), mediate aggression (Jagers et al., 2007),
enhance psychosocial functioning (McCraty, Atkinson, Tomasino, Goelitz, &
Mayrowitz, 1999), increase school connectedness (Whitlock, 2003), reduce bullying
(Bear, Manning, & Izzard, 2003), and increase the capacity of students to learn (Zins,
4 Simulation & Gaming
Weissberg, Wang, & Walberg, 2004). These results reinforce earlier research indicat-
ing that children’s peer relations in school predict school success (Ladd & Price,
1987). The finding that children’s social competence develops in the context of
interacting with their peers is especially important as children of primary school age
have fewer opportunities out of school for interacting freely with peers and thus
developing social competence (Burdette, 2005).
A plethora of information exists about the need for evidence-based SEL pro-
grams, multiyear and integrated programs, principal and staff support, community
involvement, coordination, and congruence with caring, school practices (Zins &
Elias, 2007). Triliva and Poulou’s (2006) review of studies on competence-based
programs, however, reveal a lack of research on teachers’ perceptions or understand-
ings regarding the development or implementation of SEL within school settings. As
it is well documented (Alvirez & Weinstein, 1999; Donahue, Weinstein, & Cowan,
2000) that teachers’ implicit theories have a significant impact on their approaches
to teaching, teachers’ attitudes toward implementing SEL in schools become crucial.
The literature focuses on what should be taught in some detail but not about the
how within the classroom. The training of teachers on the PATHS program mentions
both principal support and “implementation quality” (Kam, Greenberg , & Walls,
2003), but provides little clarity about what “implementation quality” means. Much
of the language in schools remains based in the realm of targets, instruction, and
program delivery. Less information exists on pedagogy—the way in which this
learning might come about and the teaching approaches that facilitate both knowl-
edge and skills. Zins and Elias (2007) mention just one: “addressing emotional and
social dimensions of learning by engaging and interactive methods.”
However, research has been conducted on what is involved in “transformative”
learning—where education is seen as the vehicle for both personal and social change.
This is sometimes referred to as “critical pedagogy” and rejects didactic methods of
teaching as technical and instrumental. Fetherston and Kelly (2007) explore a peda-
gogy for conflict mediation, which is itself a feature of SEL in that it requires self-
and relationship exploration and new ways of thinking and doing. They base their
thinking around cooperative learning. When students engage with content at the
same time as learning/practicing prosocial skills in collaborative ventures, they are
employing basic conflict resolution skills to make their learning groups effective.
When students are asked to reflect on group processes and skills, they are able to
connect them to the course content and then to wider, deeper issues. “Through
changes in understanding and perspective, through the reframing of ‘problems,’
personal and social transformations become possible.” P. 264 Fetherston & Kelly
(2007) Elias and Weissberg (2000) contend that when SEL activities are coordinated
with and integrated into the regular curriculum, they are more likely to have lasting
effects. A student who is discussing what a character in a story feels, or what emo-
tion a piece of music or art conveys, is actively developing emotional understanding
(Mayer & Cobb, 2000). Reading and discussing stories where the characters have to
Hromek, Roffey / Learning With Games 5
confront dilemmas with a wide range of feelings, or having students address emo-
tions through role-plays, can provide them with a repertoire of responses to real-life
situations (Norris, 2003).
Fun and Games: Positive Emotions in Learning
I am so happy when we do Circle Time, it is so fun. I can’t wait until next Tuesday
when we will do Circle Time. (School student)
Playing games and having fun are crucial to development and highly motivating
to children. The natural setting of a child’s game provides opportunities for language
development, hypothesis testing, problem solving, and the formation of thought
constructs and “scripts” that reflect the shared cognitive themes related to cultural
understanding (Fromberg, 1992; Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990; Vygotsky; 1976).
Paramount to a child playing a game is the element of fun. Fun and humor stimulate
creativity as the brain moves from a cognitive, rule-bound state to a more fluid,
relaxed state where the whole body is engaged in problem solving (Prouty, 2000).
The joy that many students seemed to experience, expressed as having fun, seemed to
be tied into the way in which understanding their immediate physical and social context
allowed them to make informed decisions. (p. 299, Light, 2002)
Fredrickson and Joiner (2002) emphasize the role of positive emotions in broad-
ening people’s capacity to learn. They say that positive emotions enhance optimistic
thinking, which leads to more creative problem-solving capacities. Research also
demonstrates that positive emotions have the ability “to undo” the effects of stress
and encourage both emotional and physical resilience (Fredrickson & Tugade,
2004). Having fun together is a bonding experience and increases the sense of
belonging to the group (Ayers et al., 2005). The psychological safety of all is an
important element in having fun. The ways in which facilitators respond in a situa-
tion have a significant impact on enjoyment.
There were times when students would laugh at what someone had said and we would
remind them that there were no put downs in Circle Time and how would they feel if
that happened to them. Eventually the students would stop laughing at each other and
instead give positive feedback such as “that’s a great idea.” (University student work-
ing in a school)
Games as a Pedagogy for SEL
Until the late 1960s, the dominant paradigm for teaching and learning involved
information transfer by experts to learners, using instruction technologies such as
books, lectures, and articles, with success measured by written examination. Although
6 Simulation & Gaming
these teaching methods are common in some educational settings today, pedagogy
has moved on to broader understandings of teaching and learning processes. Cognitive
theorists such as Vygotsky (1934/1978), Gardner (1999), and Goleman (1996) dis-
cuss social and emotional environment and its impact on learning. Intelligence is
now seen as multifaceted, with emotional intelligence a pivotal factor. This diverse
view calls for more complex approaches such as those provided by “experience-
based learning,” which Ruben (1999) sees as having the potential to address the
limitations of traditional paradigms. Experience-based learning is interactive and
relational and uses instruction technologies such as simulation, games, role-plays,
case studies, scenarios, multimedia presentations, and encounter groups. It is also a
pervasive and subtle process, resembling life in many ways. Table 1 sets out what
Ruben sees as the limitations of traditional paradigms and the potential for life-long
learning skills offered by experience-based practices.
Games-Based Learning and SEL
Games, as a form of cooperative, experience-based learning, appear to be highly
motivating to young people. Games have set rules agreed by players that govern the
process. Game designers can create effective tools to teach a myriad of lessons, from
mathematics to money management, from reading texts to reading people. By keep-
ing a balance between chance, skill, strategy, hope, competition, and fun, they engage
the attention of young people. Every face-to-face game, no matter the objective,
provides a “social experiment” in which players must use self-regulation and social
Attributes of Traditional and Experience-Based Learning
Teaching and learning = stimulus and response
Passive, memory-based learning
Learner watches and listens to “expert” teacher
Learning viewed predominately in the cognitive
Learners learn what teachers teach,
standardization leads to mediocrity
Knowledge most often assessed by written
Predictable, static, and unchallenging = boring
Books, articles, lectures, examinations
Learning mediated by socioemotional and physical
Active, collaborative, critical thinking, analysis,
problem solving, evaluation
Learner interacts and collaborates with adults and
Learning linked to cognitive, affective, and
Diverse learners and environments lead to
Knowledge assessed as it is applied—projects,
Fun, challenging, relevant, mult-media
presentation = engaging
Simulations, games, role-plays, case studies,
encounter groups, multimedia
Hromek, Roffey / Learning With Games 7
skill to play successfully with others. The complexity of games played by young
children varies from turn-taking games, such as tag, to more complex games where
players require a fair degree of social and cognitive sophistication to play (Connolly,
Doyle, & Reznick, 1988). It is the interactional nature of games that makes them
especially suitable for delivering SEL. Games designed for this purpose use strate-
gies such as discussion, role-play, and problem solving to engage players in solving
social dilemmas whilst practicing social and emotional skills. Players balance per-
sonal goals with those of others while managing emotional reactions to frustration
and delaying gratification in order to play collaboratively and cooperatively. After
repeated interactions in such games, young people become familiar with each other
and can then interact in other, more complex ways. At least one influential educa-
tional theorist (Piaget, 1962) suggests that games have important implications for
children’s, and especially boys,’ social and cognitive development. Piaget also sug-
gests that one of the functions of childhood games is to practice working with rules
and self-discipline, which ultimately underpin social order.
“Playground” is a really good game to get people to stop being mean to everyone. It
tells you how to deal with problems and is very fun to play. (Student)
Games, psychodrama, role-plays, and simulations have been used in various con-
texts to develop insight, empathy, prosocial skills, and improved behavior (Dromi &
Krampf, 1986; Hromek, 2004; Porter, 1995; Sheridan, Foley, & Radlinski, 1995;
Tingstrom, Sterling-Turner, & Wilczynski, 2006). Despite repeated calls for more
research on games over the past 50 years, children’s games have surprisingly lacked
empirical attention from psychologists or educators. However, Malouff and Schutte
(1998) field-tested therapeutic games by evaluating the types of therapeutic experi-
ences produced in the games and the extent to which players enjoyed them. The
results supported the effectiveness of therapeutic games with children, adolescents,
and adults. In a meta-analysis of moral education interventions, Schaefli, Rest, and
Thoma (1985) concluded that programs that involved moral dilemma discussion,
psychological development, and ran for a course of 3 to 12 weeks with a skilled
facilitator produced significant results.
Games-Based Learning and Resilience
This game helps me to work things out by myself and not go and tell the teacher that
is on lunch duty. (Student)
Emotional resilience refers to the internal and external adjustments we make
when adapting to adversity and change. Benard (2004) highlights three key features
of resilience: supportive communities that foster relationships based on caring and
respect; opportunities for young people to gain competence in a range of skills; and
8 Simulation & Gaming
the opportunity to contribute and participate. Blum (2000) followed a cohort of
children over their lifetimes and identified a range of personal, family, and peer/adult
factors that were common in resilient young people. The research emphasizes the
importance of creating opportunities for skill development and for involvement in
humanitarian activities, adventure, and fun. Table 2 sets out the ways in which
games-based learning activities have the potential to increase resilience.
Cooperative and Competitive Learning
The pedagogy for SEL requires an approach that fosters discussion and reflection on
experiences, not just reading a text book, or being told what to do, or think by someone
in authority (Illeris, 2002). Johnson and Johnson (2004) argue that for children,
To establish and maintain healthy relationships and manage emotions and internalise the
pro-social attitudes and values needed to set positive goals, make responsible decisions
Sense of humor
Average to above intelligence
School: positive early experience, connectedness,
Family: qualities valued by family, warm rela-
Social opportunities: leadership, talent, positive
relationships, adventure, fun, humanitarian
pursuits, success, coaching responsibility
Games-based learning provides opportunity to
gain skills through modeling, guided practice,
Skill-set developed: turn-taking, listening, sharing,
negotiating, resolving conflict, apologizing,
Guided practice in identifying emotions in self
and others, perspective and empathy
Games inherently provide fun and humor
Solution-focused, positive interactions
Thinking skills: attention, explaining,
perseverance, problem solving
Prosocial skill-set: social skills, thinking skills,
emotional regulation, perseverance
Confidence and skills gained through persistence
in a safe environment
Positive, fun-based, democratic, collaborative
Skill-set is developed for maintaining positive
Positive relationships, fun, confidence, helping
skills, values clarification, moral development
Resilience Factors in Children and Opportunities
Provided by Games-Based Learning
Hromek, Roffey / Learning With Games 9
and solve problems, they must be members of a cooperative (as opposed to a competi-
tive or individualistic) community, manage conflicts in constructive rather than
destructive ways and internalise civic rather than anti-social values. (p. 41)
Small group learning is an essential component of this approach. More than a
thousand research studies have documented the many benefits of cooperative learn-
ing (Benard, 2004; Marzano, 1998). Researchers have identified that cooperative
learning leads to increases in academic outcomes, social skills, empathy, motivation,
acceptance of diversity (racial, ethnic, physical), conflict resolution, self-esteem,
self-control, positive attitudes toward school, and critical thinking (Johnson, Johnson,
& Stanne, 2001; Slavin, 1995). Cooperative learning and cooperative group work
have also been associated with lower levels of bullying, an increased ability to toler-
ate different perspectives on the same issue, and increased levels of assertive problem-
solving skills (Johnson et al., 2001; Ortega & Lera, 2000).
The “Too Good for Violence” program (What Works Clearinghouse, 2006) uses
role-play, collaborative learning games, small group activities, and classroom dis-
cussions to effect changes in behavior and knowledge, values, and attitudes. Students
are encouraged to apply their learning in different contexts. In a study of 1,000 stu-
dents, significant improvements were noted in behavior and substantial, although
not significant, changes in knowledge, values, and attitudes. Johnson and Johnson
(1999) assert that cooperative groups lead to greater efforts to achieve learning.
Team games have a long history of promoting social-moral development although
what actually happens, as with other SEL, depends on the focus, skills, and attitude
of the teacher or facilitator.
There is an argument that competition increases motivation but research indicates
that although competing for high grades can increase the academic performance of
some students, many young people are less motivated under these conditions (Meese,
Anderman, & Anderman, 2006). More relevant to learning is the situation where
support and guidance is provided by a teacher or facilitator to someone who has
done well or to someone who needs to cope with the emotions in “losing” (Jones,
2004). These are relevant to both resilience and healthy relationships.
The Continuum and Context of Intervention
Historically, social and emotional learning was seen as appropriate, and therefore,
only available to those who had experienced crisis or had been identified as having a
significant deficit. This took place in the form of individual counseling, group ther-
apy, or social skills training to address the needs of a vulnerable minority. The para-
digm is now shifting to include a focus on social and emotional well-being at a
universal level within education (DfES, 2005), although there will always be students
who benefit from additional support and teaching. Here, we outline interventions at
10 Simulation & Gaming
two ends of the spectrum using games as a pedagogical approach. Circle Time is a
universal and inclusive intervention; all students within a class group participate, and
the facilitator is usually the class teacher. Therapeutic games are for smaller groups,
although these can usefully be a mix of vulnerable young people and their prosocial
peers. The facilitator can be a teacher, but is more likely to be effective if he or she is
a special-needs support person, school counselor, or psychologist.
Circle Time (also known as Magic Circles, Circle Solutions, and Learning
Circles) is a framework for group interaction based on the principles of democracy,
inclusion, respect, and safety. These are encapsulated in the three simple rules: You
will have your turn to speak, when it is your turn everyone will listen to you; you do
not have to say anything if you don’t want to, you may “pass”; there are no put-
downs, no naming, blaming, or shaming (Roffey, 2006). Circle Time has a focus on
the positive and has two symbiotic aims: to create a caring classroom ethos that
promotes a sense of belonging, and to provide structured and facilitated opportuni-
ties for social and emotional learning. To be effective, Circles need to be a routine
part of the school week, not an occasional “fun time” or used exclusively for prob-
lem solving. For younger students, Circles take 20 minutes or so, up to 45 minutes
for older students. Participants sit in a circle and are mixed up regularly to interact
with others outside of their usual social groups. Activities are presented in the form
of games and include paired, small group, and whole group activities. These have a
focus on the positive and encourage communication on important issues, such as the
meaning of trust, what are the qualities of friendship, and how can we as a class
group help everyone feel safe and valued. Examples of games are:
1. Class Web—where students make a Web using string thrown between them until
everyone is holding a section—demonstrating that each person is important to the
2. Pair Shares—in which students discuss and agree two things they have in com-
mon, such as “We feel happy in school when . . . ” This not only focuses on simi-
larities rather than differences between people, but feedback from everyone shows
that positive feelings are generated by friendship, engagement, safety, inclusion,
and having fun.
Circle Time enables the teacher to talk about the connection between feelings,
rights, and responsibilities and can lead to further small-group creative activities that
give students agency to address issues affecting them as a class group. When Circles
are facilitated in line with the basic principles, students are very enthusiastic. Teachers
say it changes the way students relate to each other and that the benefits generalize
outside the Circle (Roffey, 2005).
Hromek, Roffey / Learning With Games 11
You think about when you have done bad things and want to make up for it. (Year 5
The no put-downs rule has rolled over into every day. (Teacher)
A student admitted to bullying and said he realized it was because he was angry
because his parents were splitting up. Other kids went to comfort him and his behavior
since has totally changed. (Teacher)
Having the opportunity for this girl to tell her story of being a refugee has made a huge
difference to how others have accepted her in the class. (Teacher)
It also benefits teachers in that students learn strategies to resolve conflicts and
relational dilemmas themselves without the need for adult intervention.
Therapeutic Board Games
Therapeutic board games are psychoeducational tools used to teach skills and
strategies for dealing with issues such as friendships, teasing, anger management,
sportsmanship, anxiety, depression, and happiness (Hromek, 2005). They are played
with small groups of children targeted for guided practice and usually include a
competent peer with prosocial skills to help come up with positive solutions. SEL is
embedded on the board-faces or in the cards that are turned over during the games.
The social dilemmas and challenges presented provide opportunities for behavior
rehearsal, collaboration, and self-reflection. Each game becomes an “experiment,”
allowing the child to make comparative observations, try new strategies, and watch
the “experiments” of others from within the safety of a game. When played with
a skilled facilitator, they provide a safe, fun, way of coaching young people in
prosocial skill development and emotional regulation (Hromek, 2007).
The reason I like this game is that when I have a fight with my friends this game makes
me feel better and tells me how to say sorry or them to say sorry to me . . . I think it is
a good game because it is so much fun. (Student)
Learning appears to take place at several levels during a therapeutic board game.
First, the psychoeducational or skill-element level, where players practice the social
and emotional skills embedded in the game, for example, saying something funny in
response to a tease. Second, the interactional level, where these skills are used with
each other during the game, for example, when players become frustrated with each
other and use self-calming strategies. Third, the mediated level, where facilitators
enhance learning with strategies such as modeling, scripts, or hinting at solutions.
The role of the facilitator is pivotal to the success of the intervention. Although pri-
marily designed for use at the targeted level, these games can be used both to support
SEL in the classroom and also as a clinical intervention with individuals who have
not responded to small-group work. At this clinical level, playing games must be part
of a broader response to meet the needs of the young person.
12 Simulation & Gaming
Facilitation and Debriefing
The role of facilitation in the delivery of games-based learning is crucial to providing
a motivating, and safe learning environment and is arguably the most important part of
the intervention (Crookall, 1995). This is especially so with games designed to enhance
SEL. To this end, facilitators must present activities in an engaging manner, with “flair
and panache” and with the safety of players foremost (Jones, 1999). It is the facilitator’s
role to create emotionally secure environments, where aims and objectives are clear,
rules are applied fairly, and where trust issues are explored. According to Jones, effective
facilitators set the scene and “sit back” in a curious, philosophical manner, waiting for
the “teachable moments” that present in the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD,
explained later) to scaffold learning. Mistakes are welcomed as opportunities for growth
through problem solving and debriefing. Debriefing provides the opportunity for players
to make connections between experiences gained from playing and real-life situations.
Although games-based learning has definite benefits, players and facilitators face
potential risks. Klabbers (2006) uses the metaphor of the magic circle in which play-
ers create a real situation and feelings within the game from which they can learn
about themselves and the field being explored in the game. Jones (2004) makes the
point that emotions in games are often themselves feared, and that teachers may not
want to “lose control” by allowing a situation in which emotions come to the sur-
face. This means that some of the most powerful learning, for both individuals and
groups, is lost. With the right approach, facilitators use debriefing as a powerful
learning tool in the face of emotional crises. Understanding the players and their indi-
vidual characteristics, developmental stages and their varying capacities to participate,
reflect, and draw conclusions is crucial for facilitators who wish to enhance the learn-
ing experience. It is also helpful for facilitators to be aware of the types of situations
that may cause stress in games, for example when players give personal opinions,
disclose feelings, provide anecdotes, or are put on the “spot” (Hill & Lance, 2002). By
remaining alert and responding immediately to possible issues of harm, facilitators
provide a break or “out” for participants, avoiding shame or embarrassment.
The experiential learning described here directly addresses rather than sidelines
the emotions that are, whether we admit it or not, always present in any learning situ-
ation and explores options for both personal and interpersonal responses. By engag-
ing in games for social and emotional learning, teachers as facilitators may learn
skills that enable them to more effectively address the emotions in the classroom,
thereby both embedding social and emotional learning throughout the school day and
harnessing a major factor in student motivation. Facilitators encourage collaboration,
cooperation, and perseverance amongst the players while modeling expectations.
At first, when the children would not listen, the teacher would intervene and shout at
them, defeating the whole purpose of Circle Time. When she fully understood the prin-
ciples she changed her approach and then we saw some real changes in the students.
(University student working in a school)
Hromek, Roffey / Learning With Games 13
Facilitator Skills Across the Continuum of Social and Emotional Learning
Circle Time as a Universal
Activity for all Students
Therapeutic Board Games
for Targeted groups
Belief Relational values and social and
emotional skills important for all
Board games support reflection on
behavior and coping skills
Attitude Respectful, curious, neutral, supportive, philosophical stance reduces stress and
creates environments in which young people can try new skills and solve problems
Immediacy Activities are related to what is needed
in the class group with a focus on the
Teachable moments arise within a
game and between the players
Language Inclusive language that is nonjudgmental, encourages children to take
responsibility for their actions and develop empathy for others
A major role for the facilitator is commentary on the learning that is taking place,
such as pointing out commonalities, shared feelings
Scripts Encouragement to devise ways and
words to facilitate a friendly and
Scripts are modeled for dealing with
anger, frustration, and conflict
Modeling Facilitators model courtesy, rule-keeping, turn-taking, apologizing, resolving
conflict, smiling, and having fun
Participation The facilitator participates fully and leads games to show what is expected. Full
participation maximizes the sense of belonging and equality in the class group
Circle Time activities are not usually
dependent on literacy skills, but
students with language difficulties
may need to be placed with supportive
peers and given visual support
Poor readers may need assistance with
written material. Some concepts will
need to be discussed to enhance
Cheating Cheating is less likely in collaborative
games and within a Circle, behaviors
are more observable
A curious, philosophical attitude
allows the group to decide how to
Competition only takes place between
groups to engender a spirit of
cooperation. Acknowledgement of
the strengths and efforts of others—
including opposing teams is part of
this. Both celebration and condolence
Winning is not the object and is not
emphasized. The emphasis is on
having fun. Children may, however,
be interested in who finishes first or
has most tokens. Acknowledge
feelings that arise while using
“scripts” that suggest coping
The philosophy of Circle Time is
summed up in the three rules that
provide for democracy, safety, and
respect. When these are broken by
individuals they are first repeated to
the whole group. If disruption
Rules such as turn taking, listening to
others, and respect are negotiated at
the beginning. If the game becomes
unruly, the facilitator stops play and
asks what needs to happen in order
to play. Players are invited back to
14 Simulation & Gaming
Orientations and Approaches
Facilitators come from a wide range of backgrounds, including psychologists and
educators and will often be working with children who have difficulty regulating
emotion and lack empathy for their peers. A particular set of values, skills, and atti-
tudes are required as set out in Table 3.
The Zone of Proximal Development
Studies in the fields of primate cognition and artificial intelligence draw on the
theories of Lev Vygotsky about the mind. Vygotsky (1934/1978, 1925/1979, 1934/1986)
argued that cognitive development takes place within a dynamic interplay of socio-
historic environments and biophysical factors. He saw the mind as being constructed
from the outside, through interactions with this life-space, and language developing
initially for social contact and control and later as egocentric speech, which, in turn
Table 3 (continued)
Circle Time as a Universal
Activity for all Students
Therapeutic Board Games
for Targeted groups
continues, students are given choices
to stay or leave. The focus is on
inclusive practices so they may return
when they wish to abide by the rules
try again. Reduce the size of the
group, invite players with pro-social
skills. Most players are keen to play
and will cooperate
Minimizing harm A focus on the positive and use of the
third person reduces capacity for
harm. Peer pressure and repeating the
rules usually stops hurtful behavior.
If this continues, it may be actively
addressed in the Circle with a focus
on feelings. Students are discouraged
from inappropriate disclosure but
issues followed up
The design of the game should not
disadvantage any player. Discuss
issues of trust at the beginning of the
game. Address teasing or put downs
Debriefing Circles finish with a calming activity
that may summarize the learning that
has taken place. Role-play games
need to ensure that students return to
their own identity when the game is
Discuss issues that arise immediately
and if necessary at the end of the
game. Use a life space interview if the
Incentives Circle Time is a different way of being
in the class and interacting with both
peers and the teacher. When the
facilitator ensures that this is positive
experience for everyone this in itself
is highly motivating. Teachers say
that students love Circle Time and
are always keen
Young children enjoy receiving
something as simple as a sticker at the
end of the game. This adds to fun and
motivation and ameliorates the pain
of not finishing first. Older children
usually find the games intrinsically
Hromek, Roffey / Learning With Games 15
directs thinking. Language is the primary tool for mediating between the elementary
mental functions (perception, attention, memory) and the higher skills (conscious-
ness, meaning, intentionality), that is, between “stimulus and response.” Language
scripts create helpful “mind schema” that mediate between thoughts, feelings, and
behavior, thus regulating human social behavior (Corsaro 1985; Snow, 1989). This
process of internalization occurs within the ZPD surrounding child and challenge.
According to Vygotsky (1934/1978), the ZPD is the distance between the actual devel-
opmental level as determined by independent problem-solving and the level of poten-
tial development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or on
collaboration with more capable peers. (p. 86)
In this zone, facilitators mediate experience by scaffolding words and resources
around the child and challenge. Scripts, hints, encouragements, explanations, mod-
els, role-plays are examples of strategies that influence the development of thought
concepts and behaviors and assist the process of integration into a framework of
internal meaning. A repertoire of sample behaviors and scripts develops from which
to choose future responses to challenges. Rather than simply being told what to do to
solve the problem, the child develops higher mental functions while endeavoring to
do so. For example, the simple question “Who wants to go first?” creates the oppor-
tunity to earn valuable experience resolving this dilemma rather than being told who
will go first. Each child is likely to want the first turn. Group members will be tack-
ling issues of fairness and self-interest in an emotional milieu while deciding who
goes first. They will be making decisions about whether to cooperate with the major-
ity solution or to “make a fuss” and protest their rights, prolonging the conflict, and
delaying the game. This opportunity would have been missed if the facilitator simply
chose who would go first.
The Life Space Interview as a Debriefing Tool
The Life Space Interview (LSI) is a verbal technique for working with students
in emotional crisis and is useful when dealing with issues that sometimes arise while
playing SEL games. The LSI was initially developed by Fritz Redl (1966) and has
been refined by Wood and Long (1991), and Watson (1992). The LSI provides emo-
tional support while using events surrounding a crisis to expand understanding of
behavior and the responses of others. Emotional first aid (Hromek, 2007) is applied
when the young person is experiencing “floods” of emotion. Once calm, the young
person is assisted with the process of decoding the feelings behind actions, identify-
ing central issues, and discovering values such as respect, fairness, and justice. They
are then guided through the problem-solving process to choose alternative behaviors
and take steps to repair and maintain relationships. LSIs are immediate, meaningful,
solution-focused interviews that encourage empathy and provide emotional space
for restitution. LSIs can be used as brief interventions during a game or as a private,
in-depth interview afterwards. The steps of a LSI are as follows:
16 Simulation & Gaming
1. Emotional first aid—use reflective listening to identify and empathize with emo-
tion, encourage use of emotional first-aid strategies, such as having a drink of
water, taking a walk, breathing evenly.
2. Focus on the incident—once emotional control has been gained, talk, listen,
reflect, in order to understand the facts surrounding the incident.
3. Identify the values being defended by the young person. Decide on therapeutic
goals, for example, anger management, assertive communication.
4. Problem solving and restitution—brainstorm alternatives, evaluate consequences,
explore restitution, make a plan.
5. Plan for success—rehearse the plan, anticipate reactions of others, and accept
6. Reenter the game/event—with a calm, responsible, matter of fact attitude.
The power of using games to teach socioemotional skills lies in the interactional
nature of playing a game together. Games are fun to children and young people and
therefore highly motivating. They provide the potential for transformative learning
through social interaction, social connectedness, cooperation and collaboration, and
possess many of the features that encourage student well-being and resilience. While
in the ZPD, the skills and language of positive relationships are shaped and guided
in meaningful ways. Clearly, a vital role exists for the facilitator to enhance the
learning that is taking place within a game, both at the skill-based level and at the
interactional level and to provide opportunities to extend and embed this in the for-
mal and informal curriculum and the myriad of interactions that occur in every day
school life. In this article, we have presented theoretical and practical evidence to
support using this highly motivating approach to teaching SEL. Based on our expe-
rience as psychologists and educators, we believe the range of experiences provided
by Circle Time, and therapeutic board games provide powerful tools to enhance SEL
in children and young people.
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Robyn Hromek is a practicing educational psychologist working for a government school system in
Australia. She has a Masters Degree in Educational Psychology from the University of Newcastle, NSW
Australia and has created a series of innovative, games-based learning strategies to readily engage chil-
dren in social and emotional learning. Publications (Paul Chapman, Sage, UK) include ‘Planting the
Peace Virus’, ‘Game Time: Games to promote Social and Emotional Resilience’ and ‘Emotional
Coaching’ (Shortlisted for NASEN/TES Award, 2007). Contact: NSW Department of Education, Bondi
Beach Public School, Campbell Pde, Bondi Beach, 2026, NSW Australia ph/fax 0293657327e-mail:
Dr. Sue Roffey is a strengths-based educational psychologist, academic and author specialising in social,
emotional and behavioural issues for children and communities. She is Adjunct Fellow at the University
of Western Sydney and international consultant. Her publications include books on behaviour, Circle
Time, social and emotional wellbeing and the promotion of positive relationships. More details on www.
sueroffey.com Contact: 40a Rickard Avenue Mosman, 2088, NSW Australia; ++ 61 (0) 409 047 672
(Mobile) email: email@example.com.