My whole life I have been interested in psychology, neurosciences, social sciences, and above all – people and D&D. In the past several years I have obtained a certificate, a diploma, and countless hours of continuing professional development with a focus on early childhood education and development. My personal focus is on speech, language and cognitive development as these areas have always fascinated me.
The love for D&D and other roleplaying games surfaced in my early teens and slowly latched onto me, becoming a part of myself for years on end, though I took several ‘vacations’ from the game when life became overwhelming. However, it has been a consistent part of who I feel myself to be. It wasn’t until only the past several years as I raised my own child while still playing the game I love that I came to realize just how beneficial roleplaying games can be for children, too.
As adults, we find usually selfish (rightfully so) benefits from playing roleplaying games such as socializing with our friends, finding a place to relax and step into the shoes of anyone we may want to be, escape the stresses of adulthood, and let our imagination collaboratively explore without boundaries. It certainly is a game which provides a great range…but what can it do for children?
In Canada, we describe development as a spectrum and not a milestone, all children’s development ranges and is personalized to who they are, but there are still generally oversights of development which can be used based on the ages of the child. These are split into five domains consisting of Social, Emotional, Communication literacy and language, Cognitive, and Physical.
For the purpose of this article, I will be focusing on School-Aged children, ages 5-8 years old, though I fully believe roleplaying games provide fantastic opportunities for children aged 3-5 as well and of course children over the ages of 8. 5-8, however, is the sweet spot for really facilitating developmental growth. Even for toddlers and infants under the age of 3, dice can provide bright, colourful, tactile loose parts for children to sort, organize, seriate, and more (always under adult supervision, and no I don’t recommend foam dice over regular plastic polyhedral sets, I fully believe children are competent and capable of handling loose parts especially with adult supervision).
The document I will continually refer to is the early childhood education “Bible” for Canadians called “Excerpts from the ELECT” (Queen’s Printer, Ontario, 2014). It gives a brief overview of all five areas of developmental domains as well as in-depth details of each.
Fostering social development in children between the ages of 5-8 is incredibly important as it will set the framework for their later social skills in life. RPGs can provide a grounds for facilitating these skills on multiple levels. Starting at the beginning, roleplaying in social groups can allow children the opportunity to create friendships with one another, participate with peers, begin to understand social hierarchies, trust one another, explore typical and atypical gender roles, and work on their socio-dramatic play skills. Just by sitting at the table and beginning this cooperative journey are they able to foster the development of all of these skills.
Then we come to children’s conflict resolution and problem-solving skills. In a game like D&D, players are constantly faced with problems. You need to retrieve an item but there are locked doors and three kobolds in the way? What do you do? Perhaps you sneak around the kobolds and try to lockpick the door? Or maybe you go in with brute force, pushing your way past and bashing the door down? Or maybe you reason with the kobolds, bribe them, or come to some sort of mutual understanding? There are multitudes of ways players can solve every single issue while playing RPGs and the wonderful thing is that every player, including children, often put forward unique resolutions to every problem. It also really challenges children to work together to solve a problem using logic and a sense of morality.
RPGs can also assist by providing children the opportunity to help their friends and be cooperative. If they aren’t cooperative, there really isn’t any game at all, and I believe all roleplayers quickly learn the more cooperative you are while playing, the more fun the game can be. As well, when the Dwarf Fighter takes a hard hit and is knocked unconscious, the Cleric could offer a helping hand and see the reward of offering said help – really helping children to see the benefits of helping their peers.
A beautiful thing about roleplaying, especially when you invest in longer stories and campaigns, is the chances you have to practice empathy and take the point of view of others. Sometimes you may encounter somebody you think to be a villain, but upon realizing their reasoning to doing what they are doing, you’re able to understand why they may be doing these things. Empathy can also be practiced while playing by protecting the common people within the game, by standing up for the rights of characters who cannot stand up for themselves, showing the children once again the rewards of doing so, but also the hardships of the people they are standing up for. Developing empathy at a young age, when a child’s neuroplasticity is still at a height, is vital in creating an aware and caring future generation.
Every player of roleplaying games understands that at the basis of the game it is not about mechanics, it isn’t about the glory, but it’s about the social aspect of sitting and playing with your friends or even strangers and connecting with those people via character relationships and situations. This is the same for children as it is for adults, the only difference is their minds are usually more accepting of alternate thought than adults who have molded themselves into thinking in a more linear fashion.
This might be a bit more difficult to showcase but truly RPGs can assist in children’s emotional awareness and development, though often through the eyes of their characters do they facilitate this development.
From the very first steps of character creation, children are examining personality traits and what they mean and how they affect others. If they create a rageful barbarian, they are exploring the consequences of anger. If they choose to play a righteous paladin, they are able to compare themselves to those who may play characters who are less morally righteous. It is vital for children to explore these stereotypes, people’s expectations of themselves and others, all based on identity formation as well as their self-concepts. Even if they do this via a character, they are still equally developing these skills and abilities which will be the building blocks of them becoming the persons they want to be and the humans they want others to view themselves as.
As children partake in RPGs, whenever they accomplish a goal they are also boosting their personal self-esteem for completing a task, especially if it is one they met great difficulty to overcome. The persistence needed to play D&D creates a positive attitude in children toward learning, problem-solving, making friendships, patience, and so much more. The emotional curiosity RPGs provide will allow children of this age to develop a greater sense of mastery over the world around them.
Communication, Language, and Literacy:
The areas of this particular domain that RPGs touch on is so expansive I cannot be expected to cover all of them but I will provide a general focus of some.
Constantly throughout gameplay, it is necessary for children to partake in verbal and non-verbal communication with their friends on and off the table. The forms of communication are sometimes written, often verbal, and help children develop a stronger sense of sentence structure, verb, adjectives, and memorization (What was that NPCs name again? Where were we supposed to go again? How many damage dice does Firebolt do?).
As they play, they also receive a whole new set of vocabulary. A lot of it is irrelevant to everyday life, absolutely, but still a child’s ability to intake and understand language at this age is incredible so even if many of the words have a focus on a fantasy world, it still exercises the parts of a child brain that are attributed to language development and comprehension.
RPGs tend to utilize character sheets which really assist in a child’s reading and writing development. They are able to practice their word recognition by searching for the appropriate skills asked for, or by writing out the number of hit points they have left (I suggest asking the children to write their Hit Point Maximums using numbers but their current hit points using letters to help foster these skills even more), or writing out their traits or spells. To exercise these skills more, have children read each other’s character sheets which will also allow them to explore their fellow players more as well.
Even as adults, RPGs challenge our cognitive skills whether we play or run the games (I would argue running the games takes more cognitive power and concentration to do, but they’re both incredibly beneficial for all ages).
Children at this age are in a great throw of cognitive development. They are learning how to plan in order to achieve their goals, how to solve complex problems, how to rehearse, organize, strategize, represent multiple characters in the socio-dramatic play, and regulate themselves to become more adaptable and considerate beings.
Through play, when children are faced with a complex problem, perhaps a riddle in a dungeon, they immediately begin to bring forth suggestions to the group. It is amazing to see them do this, to watch how quickly they begin to leap to conclusions or grandeur that as an adult most of us cannot fathom so easily. They then take this riddle and strategize together – what could it mean? What are the answers to relevancy? They organize the information they have, whether personally or as a group, and they are able to begin learning how to be patient and how to figure it out together instead of growing quickly weary of problem-solving. Giving children this space of imagination, of problem-solving together, truly facilitates a great growth of cognitive development.
When the wizard in the party utilizes all of their spells, they say that they need to rest – but for how long? Children begin to realize at these ages truly how time works and affects individuals. In character, if they rest for six hours, what is going to happen within that time to the world around the characters? Their thoughts around temporal time will be challenged and encouraged by this.
As well as measuring time, children are able to foster their skills of measuring distance (on a map with their minis, how long it takes to travel from city to city on a landscape, etc.), and this also assists in developing stronger spatial relations. I highly recommend the use of maps and miniatures when playing with children, it really assists in their spatial recognition, spatial relations, directions, and more.
It is known at this age that children crave games with rules. If they are not provided games with rules, they begin to create their own. Even giving them an open-ended RPG playing system, they will, as a group, create their own rules simultaneously. It is incredible to watch this happen and it allows children the space to develop purpose and meaning within a self-designed box of guidelines.
Lastly, this developmental domain of early childhood is one I believe to be fostered the least via RPGs, however, there is always potential to provide them with more opportunities regarding this particular skill.
Primarily, their fine motor skills can be facilitated by the usage of miniatures and maps and writing utensils during gameplay as well as rolling dice.
But what about their gross motor skills?
This is where you can have some fun, or provide opportunities for the children to truly explore every facet of RPGs. If children are playing in a continual campaign with one another, which I believe at this age they are fully capable of doing so especially with their developing memory skills, provide them with space and freedom to LARP if they so wish it. This could foster their gross motor skills through physical playing but also their representation skills through play.
Children are incredibly capable and competent individuals. We often, as adults, put restraints on them that we believe they are. But their brains are firing off far more neural connections than we are. They have a greater opportunity in creating strong synapses fostered by all the facets of RPGs.
It is important, however, to keep the individual child in mind. Some children may not be interested in RPGs, just like some adults, and this is perfectly okay. Don’t force an extracurricular activity on a child, ever, that they do not wish to be doing. Adapt the game, whichever system you are using, to meet the needs of the children at the table. Give them the space to create their own games and rules, don’t confine them based off of what you think they should be doing.
There are several systems including No Thank You, Evil and Once Upon a Time which are geared toward younger players. However, I believe you can take any RPG and present it to people in a child-friendly manner basing the adaptions off of the children present.
Otherwise, most importantly, let children have fun. The greatest way a child learns is through play.