Kids learning social skills, having fun as they go.

These being my personal experiences concerning RPG with children aged 10 to 14. It's not a factual node as such, since I do not back up my own observations with quotes or cite sources beside myself.

I work with children, trying to provide them with sensible rolemodels and interesting activities (after school and before their parents get home from work). The Danish term for my position is pædagog (pedagogue) in a Fritidsklub (activity center for kids aged 10 to 14). Most days the kids are in the "Klub" a couple of hours (typically between 14.00 and 17.00 week days); they play with friends, do homework, use our Internet Café, or "hang out" with us, the pedagogues.

The children I deal with are "ordinary everyday kids". Which means that they are as kind, vicious, loving, thoughtful, and vengeful as most grownups - only more obviously so.

When a lot of people - kids - are more or less forced to interact, conflicts are bound to occur. And it seems to me, after more than ten years as pedagogue, that children are losing the ability to solve conflicts. They get on the cell phone to Mommy or Daddy, expecting them to help. Sadly the parents often think it is their job to solve their children's every minor problem, and the kids are robbed of the opportunity to learn1.

So, how to put kids in situations where they must solve problems and address critical situations, cope with failure and muster courage to try, try again - without the aid of Mommy and Daddy? One answer is: Role playing games!

Starting the fun
I picked out a handful of children I knew had "issues". Some were bullies and some were being bullied. Some always got into fights, apparently over nothing and anything, and some were so well adapted2 it was almost scaring.

I explained the RPG concept to them and asked them if they were interested. "Sure!" A couple of the older boys (12 - 14 yrs) already played Dungeons and Dragons so I put them in one group. Four girls (10 - 11 yrs) went into one group, and five boys (same age as the girls) into another.

I crafted some adventures that would challenge the players ability to cooperate, and I manoeuvered the character creation so I got teams consisting of very different characters. I drew a large map of a continent, and placed all the parties on the same continent although in different countries. And we were ready to go.

Having fun
I started out with these three player groups, but within a month I had two more. Trying to remember five different storylines, a good twenty characters plus companions and non-playing characters... It's not something I would recommend. (I could probably do it with more experienced players, who could remember their own stats and so on, but these players knew nothing, and I, the Gamemaster, had to know everything).

Each group played for a little over an hour (that was the longest time they could concentrate) every two weeks. Since there were five groups it made for a pretty full schedule.

I took the teams through some really good (if I may say so myself) adventures. I made it clear to them that they would die if they did not work together and take advantage of one another's special abilities. I gave them experience points for being accepting and supporting. I killed off a few of them to show I was serious.

And they did indeed get the picture. In the beginning it was very much "me": "When is it my turn?" and "I can kill this ogre (yeah, right!), step aside". Followed by: "Why did I lose so many hit points??" and "Could we have done it, if we had tried together?"3

Then they began to learn. They began asking for - and offering - help, and they learned that the best person for a job is not always or necessarily "me". They saw that acting as a group rather than as four individuals sometimes got them through some pretty nasty situations. They also found that sometimes a hero is just a gutsy, lucky person. Even if it isn't "me".

The great feeling when something turns out right...
This did not happen overnight. But as a year passed the changes became visible, not only in game but in the real world too. The bullies bullied less, and the "too quiet" kids began to speak up. The fights subsided and the older boys stopped taunting the younger ("Hey, we're all gamers, right"), and some of the lonely kids became friends with their fellow-gamers. I wasn't all peaches and cream but it definitely got better.

Even the parents noticed the change4. They told me that their kids entertained the family at home, with updates on the latest events in Erdophal or Arboretia. Some parents (to the younger players) came by and sat, very quietly in a corner, listening in and having a good time. The kids loved it, providing the parent was really quiet and didn't disturb...

RPG is not the solution to big problems5. But when it comes to learning kids some everyday "getting-on-with-your-peers" stuff it is a great tool. It lets the players try and fail under the cover of the character; the weak can be strong and the clumsy can be nimble. And it is a question of positive reinforcement as good behaviour is rewarded with XP and bad behaviour just gets the player nowhere.

Holding the reins
When RPG is used as a tool like described, it is very important that the pedagogue has an agenda. Be it "learning to cooperate", "accepting differences", or just "think, child, think before acting!" Without this premeditated agenda, the game may be good fun - but it may also miss the target: to educate the kids. During the two years these five groups played, the changes to the way they interacted were profound. No, they did not begin to behave like little saints, but they became more conscious of their actions. And that's a big step in a good direction.

  1. The term is Curling-children: children whose parents remove every little obstacle in the their path to make their life totally frictionless.
  2. When children are adjusted to only react to other people's needs to a point where their own needs become secondary - that's scaring!
  3. I know kids don't talk like that. Just get the general idea, ok?
  4. Yes, that was mild sarcasm.
  5. I have played with children who had been diagnosed with ADHD, ADD, and Asperger. But that's quite another story...