Learning Social and Emotional Skills Through Play: Notes from the field by our author Jennifer Stanchfield.

This time of year many summer recreation and camp programs are gearing up to begin the season. These programs offer great opportunities for youth to develop important social and emotional skills through a myriad of activities. Though many of these programs offer great structured activities led by adults, it is important to allow some opportunities for free play without a great deal of intervention from adults—situations where youth can practice the important social and emotional skills gained through making decisions, learning how to compromise with each other and resolve conflict.

Students often depend on teachers and other adults to pick teams for games, decide who should go first, or who should be it. These are decisions that I remember sorting out with my peers during our pick up games of kick-the-can, kick-ball and other games we played in our neighborhood or playground.  Many children in today’s society don’t have the opportunity to engage in the unsupervised free play with peers that many of us who are now adults did during our childhood.

I believe we can intentionally bring some opportunities for this kind of peer-to-peer learning and conflict resolution practice in our structured settings such as school, camp, and other recreational programs. When I work with people of all ages in experiential team building programs I purposefully create situations/opportunities for participants to practice coming to agreement on the rules of the game, a team name, a team symbol etc. I use methods that involve pairs and then groups making simple choices together and work up to practicing consensus.

Here is one simple activity I use to divide up a group for teams that helps practice these skills:

Which One? Partner Decision Making Method for Dividing Into Teams

This activity came from my time teaching in Stevens Point, Wisconsin School District’s Experiential Education program. I started getting bored with the old counting off “1-2″ method of dividing students into teams or groups for a project or activity. I discovered through experimenting with this new method that I had found a fun and engaging way to divide into groups or teams for an activity or classroom project while at the same time helping participant’s practice communication, decision- making, consensus, making a compromise with peers.


  • Have everyone find a partner.  In many situations a student will often pick a buddy you would rather they are separated from. This is fine, even preferable, because they will soon be splitting up. This method of dividing honors their need to partner with a friend because it gives the friends something to do together before they split up.
  • Present a hypothetical situation with two choices. For example: “Imagine it is summer and the two of you are near a river. You want to play on the river, but the only boats available are a kayak and a one-person canoe. Which one of you will take the kayak, and which the canoe?
  • Or: You are at an ice cream stand and the freezer has broken down, there is only one cone of chocolate, one of cookie dough. Who gets which? Cookie dough’s become one team, chocolates the other. Other scenarios I have used: cotton candy flavors, roller blades or skateboards, toboggan or saucer sled, etc.

Kids of all ages seem to buy into this method of dividing teams without “pre-arranging” themselves the way participants often do with the old 1, 2 count off method.  It could be because they get to have the comfortable connection with their friend first before sending them apart. It can be surprising how intense the discussions and negotiations around these imaginary decisions can be!

Many teachers report how they have appreciated this simple exercise for helping practice and reinforce conflict resolution, positive decision- making and the idea of compromising/coming to consensus. Adult participants share that they enjoy the sense of connection and humor from sharing and making decisions about these hypothetical scenarios.


Tips & Tools for the Art of Experiential Group Facilitation. Jennifer Stanchfield, Wood ‘N’ Barnes Publishing 2007

Middleton School District Experiential Education Curriculum; Jennifer Stanchfield, 2001

To contact Jen Stanchfield, or for more articles on group facilitation and teaching visit www.experientialtools.com.


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