6 Social Learning Activities for a Socially-Distanced Summer
“A huge chunk of your child’s social-emotional learning takes place in adolescence, when time with peers begins to surpass time with family. The pandemic has disrupted this critical developmental time, already extra important for kids like mine, who has ADHD and auditory processing disorder. Here’s how we’re salvaging social learning in quarantine this summer.”
Social skills are life skills. They allow both children and adults to start and maintain friendships, collaborate with colleagues, and engage in conversation — with new acquaintances and familiar faces alike. Many of us crave that connection and have missed it sorely during pandemic isolation.
Adults typically understand when we need to reach out to someone and why we miss that interaction. For tweens and teens, that recognition may be murky. And for adolescents who struggle with social skills — like my daughter, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and auditory processing disorder (APD) — that interaction may not be missed at all.
In addition to her inattentive symptoms, my daughter struggles with learning differences. Large groups, classrooms and other school settings, and even playdates can make kids like her feel anxious or awkward. Children like her are happy to simply stay at home in their comfort zone. She has thrived during this time of remote learning and recent reports show she is not alone.1
However, while my 13-year-old may not understand the importance of maintaining social connections, I do — and here’s why.
Adolescence: A Crucial Time for Maintaining Social Growth
Several studies, including one from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), have shown that social-emotional learning forms the foundation for close relationships, which are often closely connected to happiness.
Children typically achieve huge advances in social-emotional development during their first five years and then make another jump during adolescence.3 During the teen years, in particular, kids learn to reason, focus attention, make decisions, and relate to others.4
According to the National Academy of Sciences’ 2019 report, The Promise of Adolescence, “…throughout adolescence, the connections between brain regions become stronger and more efficient.” Adolescents learn to adapt through learning environments at school and through social interactions with their peers and families. Further, states the Academy, “adolescents must explore their environments to build the cognitive, social, and emotional skills necessary for adulthood.”5
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), it is important for parents and adult mentors to support adolescents as they begin spending less time with their families and more time with their friends.
Clearly, the pandemic has interrupted this crucial developmental shift. For kids who struggle with ADHD and APD, social isolation may be even more detrimental since many are already behind in their social-emotional development. For them, regular practice is essential for building social skills such as regulating one’s thoughts and knowing when to chime into a conversation, listening attentively and making eye contact.
Social skills also play into self-advocacy — a crucial skill to any person with a learning difference. Unfortunately, remote learning, coupled with a lack of regular therapeutic services like speech therapy, may hinder such development for these kids.
6 Ways to Build Social-Emotional Skills at Home
Given what we know about social growth during adolescence — and my daughter’s nonchalance about pursuing social interactions — I am motivated to make those interactions happen this summer as long as social distancing directives remain in place.
Here are a few ideas I’m planning to prevent a summer social skills slide.
Social Skills Idea #1. Debate and Dessert
My daughter is not one to talk for long periods, or even loudly and clearly enough for us to hear her sometimes. Her dueling ADHD and APD cause her to get distracted, tired, overwhelmed, or bored so we’re planning twice-weekly dinner conversations about interesting topics. I have asked her to come up with themes so that she’s invested. Once she has her ideas for the week, we’ll all do a bit of research on the topic. (If this sounds like work, I’ve found that 2 or 3 minutes on Google can inspire lots of talking points and raise a few questions, too.)
To date, we’ve had talks about the amount of plastic in the ocean and how we can improve our recycling/composting game, the details of our favorite animals (and why they are our favorites), as well as the current political climate.
We make every other dinner conversation debate-style, calling it “Debate and Dessert.” My daughter created a tally system for points. For instance, if you support your statements with facts (a working memory booster) and use an assertive voice (a social skill), you earn points. If you interject instead of taking turns or slip on making eye contact (also social skills), you lose points, and so on. Whoever wins gets to decide what we’re having for dessert.
My daughter looks forward to these conversations, which also help push her out of her comfort zone. We’re not just talking about how our day went or what’s coming up; we’re asking questions and discovering new things — about the world and each other. In terms of social skills, she’s improving active listening and shaping thoughtful responses and questions — not to mention expressing curiosity, sensitivity, and empathy.
In the long term, these dialogues will help her engage in high school and college course group discussions, formulate her role in the larger community and know how to conduct herself in an interview down the line.
Social Skills Idea #2. Lemonade on the Lawn
When my husband and I are facing work deadlines, or simply need a childcare break, we bring in the reinforcements. Grandparents, or other relatives, can be a great source of engaging conversation and tend to be more patient than parents. This summer, my daughter is hosting weekly “Lemonade on the Lawn” discussions with Nana and Pop. As part of these intergenerational talks, she plans to interview her grandparents and compose a story to present to them at the end of the summer.
If your relatives don’t live close by or aren’t ready to engage in close contact, video chats can work just as well. My daughter has even played a round of Uno and other card games online with her grandparents using mobile apps.
Social Skills Idea #3. Outdoor Hangouts
As the country slowly opens up, so are businesses including popular tween hangouts like restaurants and malls. But not all families — this one included — are ready to dive back into close contact. Until we know more about how the novel illness spreads and how to better treat it, I’m opting for outdoor gatherings that follow social distancing protocols.
Sidewalk chalk, bike riding, soccer, hiking, and even just strolling around a park give my daughter the opportunity to talk, laugh, and play with friends that she hasn’t seen in person for months.
For the time being, she is hanging out with just one friend at a time. For me, a smaller group seems safer, and for her, being with just one friend makes it easier to chat since her APD makes it difficult to decipher multiple people talking at the same time — not to mention through masks. At the end of the day, both friends are tapping into the social functioning side of their brains and feeling reconnected.
Social Skills Idea #4. Pen Pals: Yes, They’re Back
The lost art of letter writing offers kids of any age a unique opportunity to shape their voice, to transform their thoughts into sentences, and to learn from — and about — others. Written language is known to be an important aspect of social cognitive learning. To exercise this muscle, my daughter will be exchanging one letter a week with her long-distance cousins.
If you want to branch out, there are several educational groups such as “Students of the World” that offer free and safe pen-pal setups. The Boys and Girls Scouts of America offer this service as well.
Social Skills Idea #5. Spread-Out Sports
Being outside and off-screen is more complicated right now as pools and day camps are still limited in many communities. Where we live in New Jersey, my daughter will be able to participate in individual sports that don’t require close contacts such as track-and-field, tennis (singles), or swimming. Youth sports like these provide kids a chance to literally get back in the game and work with peers cooperatively in a way that doesn’t require screens!
Social Skills Idea #6. Virtual Sleepovers
Here’s the scoop: Invite a few of your child’s friends to a Zoom or other online video platform. Before the big night, put together little goodie bags (microwavable popcorn, candy, virtual game props such as a printed Bingo or Trivia card, and anything else that would be fun for your child and their friends) and drop them at the guests’ doorsteps.
Once everyone is online for the virtual sleepover, they can gab over a movie together with programs like Netflix Party, enjoy their treats, play games, and chit-chat in their PJs from their own beds before falling asleep.
As a social skill bonus, I plan to encourage my daughter and her friends to have a “rank this movie” conversation afterward where they can talk in more detail about what they liked or didn’t like about the film.
A Summer to Remember
Overall, I’m kicking off my daughter’s summer with creative ideas for promoting social interaction safely. While her favorite camps, big backyard barbecues, and traditional sleepovers are off the table for now, I’m hoping this will be a summer to remember — for all the right reasons.
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1Fleming, Nora. Edutopia. Why are Some Kids Thriving During Remote Learning? April 24, 2020. https://www.edutopia.org/article/why-are-some-kids-thriving-during-remote-learning. Accessed June 23, 2020.
2Collaborative for Academic, Social,and Emotional Learning (CASEL). The Impact of Social and Emotional Learning.
3Malik F, Marwaha R. Developmental Stages of Social Emotional Development In Children. [Updated 2020 May 23]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK534819/
4Kim H, Ross K. Brookings. How Do Social and Emotional Skills Develop in Youth? August 9, 2019. Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/education-plus-development/2019/08/09/how-do-social-and-emotional-skills-develop-in-youth/ Accessed June 23, 2020/
5The National Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences Education. The Promise of Adolescence: Realizing Opportunity for All Youth. May 2019 Available at: https://www.nap.edu/resource/25388/Adolescent%20Development.pdf Accessed June 23, 2020.