Teachers Can Support Social and Emotional Learning with a Simple Theater Game


Student engagement and joyful learning are centerstage when you play “I Have A Gift For You” in the classroom.


This one is for the heroic classroom teachers.

After months of distance learning and endless screentime, we all feel off-kilter heading into September. Although it might be tempting to try to make up for the lost academics, it will be more advantageous in the long run to focus first and foremost on our student’s social and emotional learning (SEL). 


As a theater-arts educator, I help classroom teachers use concrete ways to implement social and emotional learning into their daily routines, a practice that becomes even more important during the pandemic. To this end, games are a powerful tool for teachers to support kids’ emotional well-being and sense of community, whether they are working online or through masks.

Now that we are all heading back into the classroom, theater games can help salve the wounds of the past year. You certainly don’t need to be a drama teacher to play them. But, especially at the start of this new school year, put games in the center of your morning meetings, brain breaks, and closing circles. Furthermore, these games can reinforce academic facts and concepts, and so kids are learning through play. 


The following is one such game that is superb for team-building, centering generosity, and rewarding courage. 

I Have A Gift For You

The class stands in a circle. One student starts by passing an imaginary object to another classmate as if it were a gift. Encourage them to endow it with specificity: Is it heavy and sticky? Light and delicate? Show us!


The following is a sample dialogue for how the students might play the game:


Jorge: Rahmel, I have a gift for you. It is a giant air conditioner! (Jorge tosses or passes the object, straining under the weight!)

Rahmel: Thank you, Jorge! I’ve always wanted a giant air conditioner; now, I can stay cool. (Rahmel takes the heavy object and slowly shrinks it down in his hands until it is tiny) Maribel, I have a gift for you, it is a baby chick. (gently passes it to Maribel)

Maribel: Thank you, Rahmel. I’ve always wanted a baby chick; now, I can have fresh eggs whenever I want! (Maribel transforms it into a tiny, sticky ball.) Jenna, I have a gift for you. It is a piece of endless gum. 

Jenna: (receiving the gum) Thank you, Maribel. Now I can blow bubbles all the time!


Empathy at Work

  • Encourage kindness throughout the game – only give something you would want to receive. Validate all that is generous about the ideas and call it out when a gift doesn’t meet the golden rule standard.
  •  The recipient of the gift should always copy the giver’s gesture as they take it. Scientists have found that mirroring is a critical component of empathy
  • Language is powerful, and as the students repeat the text: “I have a gift for you.” and “thank you,” they will feel the effects of their positive words, and it is likely to have an uplifting impact on your classroom. 

Memory and Executive Function

  • You can use the game to practice the executive function skill of “working memory.” After the class goes once, do it all over again. Make sure they keep the same order and objects that they established in the first round. 
  • Also, you can add another exciting challenge by playing it the second time, wordlessly with only gestures and eye contact. 
Playing a social-emotional game “I have a gift for you” in the Child’s Play NY classroom

Bravery in the Unknown 

It is incredibly empowering for your students to hear that there is no “right answer” as they play this game. They practice bravery simply by not knowing what they will say or what they will receive. They step out on the ledge of imagination to play, and the more they do, the more comfortable they will be with this level of creative risk-taking. Encourage kids to stay physical as they transform their object into the next gift. The more they commit to their actions, the more ideas will come. You may see repercussions of this work in other areas of your classroom: perhaps more imaginative writing and increased confidence in group work. Don’t forget to keep it physical. For more ideas of creative movement games to inspire kindness, read this


Curricular Tie-Ins with a Social and Emotional Learning Game

A group of 3rd-grade teachers I shared this with played it to reinforce the timetables. Their text went like this: 

Emi: Matt, I have a gift for you. It is 3 times 7. 

Matt: Thank you for the 21. Joaquin, I have a gift for you. It is 9 times 4. 

Joaquin: Thank you for the 36. Max, I have a gift for you. It is 6 times 6. Etc. etc. 

You can play it the same way with states and their capitals or the periodic table of elements. Alternatively, wrap this into literature studies by imagining the world of the characters and giving gifts of things found in the story (i.e., for Matilda: a library book, levitating chalk, a newt, hair dye, etc.). 


Now more than ever, kids are hungry for community and collaborative play. If we lean into this need, the outcomes are likely to be deeply rewarding both socially and academically. For more classroom games that celebrate compassion and kindness check out other articles and videos for teachers at Child’s Play in Action.


About the Author

Jocelyn Greene is the Founder and Executive Director of Child’s Play NY, an award-winning theater education company based in New York. She and her team of professional actors run classes, residencies, camps, birthday parties, and social and emotional learning-aligned workshops. In addition, she partners with dozens of schools to bring ELA and Social-Studies programming to life through the theater and use the dramatic arts for professional development training.  To work with Jocelyn in your school, schedule a free consultation here