DnD has taken our kids by storm and we are loving it. This year, at Child’s Play NY, we have created custom DnD classes for schools and families that incorporate the elements of traditional gameplay and also use theater skills to go deeper into characters and plots. The theater exercises that we love (grounded in movement and collaboration) have been a gateway for invention and imagination. I interviewed two of our expert teachers, Brandon Zelman and Alex Grimm, to discover the benefits of playing DnD.
Teachers Talk about the benefits of DnD for kids
JG: Why do you think kids are so into DnD right now?
BZ: First, the obvious: goblins and battles and unicorns are just plain cool. As kids, we’re greeted by these ancient archetypes, and they’re the building blocks for all the stories we come to love. Beyond the fantasy world itself, DnD provides a landscape for anyone to throw their own ideas into the mix. This is where the freedom of it all becomes so enticing. You can be who you want, do what you want, and say what you want, all while playing a game, playing a role, solving a puzzle, or fighting a 200 foot tall rock monster. There is no other experience that balances between freedom and game-play and performance. What kid wouldn’t want that? DnD feeds the need to have one’s ideas validated. Their choices are their own.
AG: Good advertising. DnD has always been a perfect codification of “Play” and “make believe” that kids love, they just didn’t know what it was. Stranger Things and other pop culture references have helped to make it common knowledge at this point, so I’m not surprised it’s becoming more popular to everyone. On top of that, the latest edition of the game is very user-friendly, made more for the 1st time gamer than the veteran, so that helps too.
JG: What are ways that DnD can help kids socially?
BZ: When you start a DnD campaign as a group, kids have to learn and re-learn to honor one another and their ideas. Players have to respect that they themselves cannot reach the end alone. Rather, it is the combination of the entire party’s skills, talents, and insights that can resolve their obstacles. No one can afford to be selfish with their ideas. I can see over the course of a campaign, how kids will learn to value the power of collaboration over individual acts.
AG: Social Contracts! In the right game, the players are constantly engaging with not only the DM (Dungeon Master – a teacher in our case), but also their fellow party members. If the DM would like, they could theoretically engineer specific scenarios to encourage these kinds of interactions and build social skills, but even if they don’t the players will still be getting in some good practice just talking to each other and resolving the conflicts that come up naturally.
JG: How does DnD help kids academically?
BZ: DnD asks for an environment of strategizing and critical thinking skills. In DnD, players are asked to solve puzzles, answer riddles, and find out-of-the-box solutions to escape peril. This translates directly to skills needed in the classroom.
AG: I agree critical thinking skills do come up in the game, I suppose I’m just less sure about DND developing any “hard skills.” For the characters with more complicated spells and magic, it could certainly help promote reading comprehension, but we tended to lean away from the math/rules oriented parts of the game in favor of a smoother gaming experience.
JG: You both taught a new course for Child’s Play NY this year on DnD. Sometimes the kids knew so much about Dungeons and Dragons, and other times it was a hybrid of our typical dramatic play games and introducing the idea of world-building. What did you use from your own experience playing as a young person or an adult as you led the class?
BZ: The first time I played DnD, I started with a character who’s whole deal was that he hated adventure. I learned very quickly that this would be the opposite of fun to play, and had him sit in a hole until his perspective changed. I realized that leading with joy was the best way to ensure a fun experience. And in my experience, the kids have reacted positively to that joyful flare.
AG: That the most important thing at the table is that the players are having fun. A lot of games I’ve played in have fallen apart because someone thought “We weren’t playing it right,” and what I’ve come to realize is that it truly doesn’t matter. The rules are just guidelines, and as long as everyone at the game are enjoying themselves, you’re good to go
JG: How did you come up with the curriculum?
BZ: I started by coming up with the KIND of story I thought they might enjoy most. For my first group, I attempted to tell a classic A to B adventure. Make your way to the top of the mountain to stop the evil wizard before he destroys the land. Then I worked backward to plant all of the obstacles that such a wizard might place to make their journey hardest. I set a personal rule for myself that there was no NPC too silly, and I think I earned the trust of the students from balancing the hyper-serious with the buffoon-ish. People arrive to the class with very different experiences and expectations about what DnD “should” be, so I wanted to give them something original, so it would appear fresh to the seasoned and the new. Each session was packed with a smattering of battles, contests, puzzles, riddles, and crafts, which created a varied experience from class to class.
AG: I worked outwards from the structure we made. Puzzle, Roleplay, Combat. I’d think about what they had experienced so far, and what they could possibly experience next at their Adventuring School, and make content for the class accordingly! Tying it all together with continuity and plot is quite complicated, and something that can be done in hindsight behind the scenes to equal effect, in my opinion. You don’t need to know why it’s happening now, as long as you can come up with an explanation later! (just don’t tell your players!)
What were the ages and group sizes of the DnD classes/campaigns you’ve recently led?
BZ: I recently led two groups in schools with Child’s Play NY, a troupe of 17 1st and 2nd Graders and a troupe of 10 3rd/4th graders.
AG: I ran a small group in a school, just under 8 kids, mostly 3rd-5th grade. Now I’m leading a custom class with Child’s Play NY hosted in a home. We have 7 kids in that class.
What were some of the most successful elements of the class when you taught it for young kids since they might not have been ready for the traditional DnD structure?
BZ – My younger students most enjoyed the silly aspects of playing a character, and engaging in physical challenges. I’d lead transformative moments where we became everything from goblins to dolphins, and the kids were so excited to share their personal interpretations of those characters. We’d learn more about them by moving around the space, greeting one another, and eventually interviewing our characters to learn their nuances. Also, the adventure challenges like obstacle courses, or sneaking past villains were a huge smash.
AG: My kids really enjoyed personalizing their characters. We had dragon people and magic swords and all kinds of unique personalities that they came up with, totally unprompted on my part. Embracing those elements and heightening them was a lot of fun, as well as giving them time to come up with other creations! We spent a whole day coming up with our own fantasy monsters, and then battling them when they sprang to life!
JG: What were some of the challenges?
BZ: Finding continuity from week to week with a young group is very challenging. For those who are too young, or perhaps disinterested in a larger story arc, developing a campaign over 10 weeks is nearly impossible. To combat this, we shifted our focus to daily campaigns, revolving around a theme (like underwater, or space) and offered a new adventure every week.
AG: I agree with Brandon. We had a larger arch in the background, a setting of the school, and a looming mystery “bad guy,” but each week could be taken as is, and the kids could enjoy the game without having to understand the deeper machinations at play. Kinda like Marvel movies! If you’ve watched the 3 billion other movies for context you might understand the new one a bit better, but even if you haven’t you can still enjoy the new Spiderman movie.
JG: Should everyone be playing DnD?
BZ: Certainly! DnD is for all. If you’re just starting out, you can find a group that is ongoing, and would graciously take you on, or you can start your own group, with people of varied skill-levels. If you want to play one-on-one with just you and your child, you can start as simply as you like! Get a giant foam D20 and just start rolling. No need to know it all at once. Start slow and learn as you go.
AG: It’s what I keep telling people! There’s a reason that I’ve introduced it to pretty much every social circle I’ve ever joined. And the game morphs to fit the group, so there’s really no excuse at this point.
JG: Based on your experience, and then seeing these kids who are the future of the game play, what sorts of changes do you think are in store for tabletop RPGs in the future?
BZ: I think tabletop games are going to continue to bring people into a room together. It’s a very different experience than playing any kind of online or screen-based game. Having all of the kids in one space has been really encouraging to see. There is a sense of camaraderie that is akin to being on a sports team or in the ensemble of a play.
AG: I think these games are just going to keep getting more and more advanced. I wasn’t introduced to these games until I was in 5th grade, and now I’m seeing kids younger than that with more knowledge than some grown-ups I play with now! If this pattern keeps going, by the time these kids grow up they’re going to have us all playing VR DND, or making all kinds of role playing game content. It was actually really inspiring to be a part of!
JG: DnD is a game of the imagination. What are some of the most creative things your kids have thought of?
BZ: I had a student who was having a hard time “making any big moves,” as he put it. He was concerned that he wasn’t a valued member of the team. When the team discovered their foe, a rat with time-travel powers, this student immediately decided that their character would swallow the Time-Rat whole – a completely wild and out-of-left-field move that completely saved the day.
AG: One kid came up with a chimera of sorts. It was a dragon with as many heads as a hydra, aptly titled: The Hydragon. I honestly may steal that for use in my games one of these days.
JG: What place do you think DnD has as an in person, pen and paper game, in a world of screens?
BZ: Zoom DnD exists, and is fun and a great way to keep a game going from a distance. But the person-to-person gameplay of real-life is something else entirely. It is so exhilarating to go on a journey together and in-person, and we can afford to suspend our disbelief even less when we can see our compatriots, and face the trials at their side.
AG: Everything Brandon said. Online is a good supplement, and very functional as a way to “play DND.” But having the chance to see everyone in person is a much more organic experience, and allows space for the more social aspects of the game. It’s like having a conversation over text message vs FaceTime. Texts will get the job done, but FaceTime allows for so much more communication.
JG: What can the way your kids play DnD teach us about our world and the future they might create?
BZ: These kids have shown inquisitiveness and a desire to challenge the status quo. As they ask difficult questions, and push back against the base reality of their fictional world, I see a generation of kids not afraid to stand up against narratives they disagree with, and offer their own ideas as a solution.
AG: I think that question varies for each of the kids in my group, but I can say that after having run this game for them, I have a very clear idea of the unique potentials in each one of them, and how they vary from each other
JG: Has DnD changed with the times? How?
AG: The game is evolving, and they’re still working on becoming more inclusive year to year. Just last year they moved some skill knowledge out of the “Race” section and into the “Past Experiences” section, to allow for more diversity in characters. Like I mentioned before, the latest edition of DND is working really hard to be accessible, not just to those people who are new to gaming, but to everyone in general. Of course, your experience will depend on what table you’re at, but as a rule the community is moving in a very positive direction in my opinion.
JG: Thank you so much for pouring your talents and skill into making these classes so creative. I’m thrilled that the structures of improv and imaginative theater games are helping to support the already rich world of DnD. I look
Social Emotional Benefits of Playing DnD
Inspired by Alex and Brandon’s interview, I went on a deep-dive about the benefits of DnD. At Child’s Play NY we are deeply interested in how the theater arts connects back to making our kids more compassionate and collaborative. This game, while not a traditional acting class, fits so beautifully in our wheelhouse since it relies on imagination, creativity and teamwork. No surprise, the critical thinking and social skills involved in gameplay are profound. Below are some of the SEL (social emotional learning) benefits of DnD that I learned about:
The name of the game is collaboration and cooperation, as players work together to achieve a common goal. SEL (Social-Emotional Learning) starts with young people communicating with each other, listening, and compromising, if need be. These skills are essential for healthy relationships and social skills. As kids practice these skills through play, they get better and better at them and feel at ease applying them to real-world scenarios.
Since kids are exploring different characters in a safe space with the guard rails of the game, they are getting first-hand experience with behaviors and personalities that might be new to them. As they play, they learn how unique temperaments might react differently to situations. For example, kids create arrogant, shy, boastful, or courageous characters. Playing in character, in turn, builds their perspective-taking, which is crucial for strong social skills and a better understanding of others.
DnD can help young people develop their emotional regulation skills since it involves challenges and the potential for unexpected twists. This lack of predictability can bring up a host of emotions. It is natural to experience frustration while working through DnD puzzles, riddles, moral dilemmas, or time-sensitive tasks. Practicing regulating emotions (and patience!) when things get hard can help kids learn to manage their feelings and remain calm under pressure. Kids can recall the way they used grit and resilience to work through in-game challenges. Later, they can apply those same skills to any real-world scenario that might come their way.
Critical Thinking Skills
DnD presents kids with complex scenarios that require a series of problem-solving skills to achieve. Since much of what kids work on during gameplay is creative and high-level solutions to problems, they cultivate the ability to think outside the box.
Overall, DnD is an excellent tool for building social and emotional skills in kids. It encourages collaboration, empathy, emotional regulation, and problem-solving, all of which are essential skills for success in life. If you are in the New York City area, reach out to make your own DnD class with our expert teachers!