George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Using a Theater Game to Link SEL and Academics

A social and emotional learning game helps elementary students explore different feelings, and it can be connected to the curriculum.

October 12, 2021
An elementary school student acts surprised
Wavebreakmedia / iStock

“In order for a kid to be generous and thoughtful and selfless, they have to be able to understand another person’s emotions... recognizing what they look like and what they mean.” —Melinda Wenner Moyer, author and journalist who covers parenting and science

Student engagement and social relationships are front-of-mind for educators this year. Furthermore, the latest research in neurobiology shows an essential link between students’ social and emotional health and their ability to learn. In my work as a theater arts consultant, I help teachers use games to foster their students’ well-being and self-expression. More than ever, these are imperatives for building a thriving classroom community.

The game Expert/Emotion is a creative way for teachers to connect academics with social and emotional learning. The benefits are manifold. As they play, students become more emotionally literate, celebrate their individuality, and bond as a class. Additionally, teachers can use this game to help reinforce their students’ English language arts (ELA) curriculum and public speaking skills.

How to Play the Expert/Emotion Game

1. Start with a simple topic, either something personal (“What I did on my summer vacation”) or more general (“How to make a sandwich”).

2. Decide on the two emotions that you will use in this round of play—for example, joy and anger.

3. One student volunteers to be the “expert” and stands in front of their peers to discuss the topic.

4. As they talk, the teacher calls out one of the two emotions, letting the student speak for only a moment before calling out the second emotion. The teacher continues to call out these two words while the student is speaking. The game’s challenge (and delight) is that the expert has to keep talking about the topic, even as they switch between the two feelings.

Example Script of the Game

Student: Making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is…

Teacher: Anger!

Student: …really hard because you have to find the peanut butter and jelly in your fridge, and where is it?

Teacher: Joy!

Student: …but also, it is a delight! First, you get wonderfully, fluffy bread. Even better if it has just come out of the oven, yum! And then…

Teacher: Anger!

Student: …you have to spread the peanut butter, which is impossible! It always clumps on the bread, and then the bread rips…

Teacher: Joy!

Student: …but that’s A-OK because you can just snack on that while you make another sandwich!

Social and Emotional Learning Through Play

This game helps students develop crucial social and emotional learning (SEL) skills, such as regulating feelings and encouraging empathy. It also provides them with a nuanced emotional vocabulary to support their communication.

Once a turn is over, the class can talk about what they observed, noting body language (like clenched fists, rapid breathing, smiles, etc.). You can also create a poster of these observations, adding pictures for early learners. Display it prominently so that students can recognize and manage big feelings when they surface. This can go a long way toward conflict resolution in the classroom.

Connecting the Game to ELA Curriculum

After establishing the game with a general topic, use a book that the class is reading to explore the characters’ perspectives. As they play, students can find a deeper connection to the literature, increasing their ability for analytical thinking and retention of complex plotlines.

For example, if the students are reading Matilda, they can talk about the events in a chapter from the protagonist’s point of view using two emotions.

(Frustration) I hate that Ms. Trunchbull locks kids up… 

(Excitement) …and I can’t wait to get back at her!

(Frustration) I only wish I were stronger and better at magic.

(Excitement) I know—tomorrow I’m gonna put a newt in her glass of water!

Making the Game Even More Engaging

Get the kids moving. Designate one side of the room with one feeling and the opposite side with the other feeling. Then, as the teacher calls out the emotions, the student runs from one area to the other. They will be empowered to express feelings more freely when they are physically engaged.

Encourage kids to talk about what they are passionate about (like Minecraft, soccer, manga, etc.). The enthusiasm they feel around a topic will make it easier for them to speak extemporaneously. Once they are confident in the game’s structure and have had success speaking improvisationally in front of their classmates, it will be easier for them to apply this game to an ELA-related topic.

Frame the game creatively. For example, the teacher can pretend to be a talk show host, interviewing a world-renowned authority (the student) on a given topic. This imaginative context can increase a student’s engagement, ideally empowering them to speak with greater ease.

Games are an integral tool for education. Especially now, since most of us are back together in person, educators can use games to create connections among students, lift their voices, and engender enthusiasm for the content they are learning.

Canadian educator Mary Gordon said, “We know that even for children who have a solid start in life, nourishing emotional literacy and empathy through the school years strengthens social competence and altruistic behaviors.” Expert/Emotion is one of the ways that teachers can help students foster empathy, and the game can be modified to explore themes in ELA. 

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Arts Integration
  • Communication Skills
  • Game-Based Learning
  • English Language Arts
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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