Edited by Crystal Thornebrooke

Children can understand feelings and behaviors by playing detective

In School of Wonder, we create games and immersive experiences for children to help them develop emotional intelligence, following the latest advancements in cognitive science

Some weeks ago the School of Wonder played the adventure of “Spying on Humanity”, a fun and immersive experience designed to foster emotional intelligence. We beta-piloted this lesson-adventure for our Portfolio School kids at the Pier 25, at West St in TriBeCa (NYC), in co-creation with our very talented friend and collaborator, Sami Sutcliffe.

Spying on Humanity Adventure — video summary

~ An immersive experience for kids

This is the original sketch, when i first imagined this adventure (August 2017, during the Pyramid Tour with Future Clear in Oregon)

We designed the lesson-adventure as a mission in which kids had the opportunity to make observations about human interactions, feelings and discoveries in a park setting by pretending they were spies.

The kids were instructed to take notes of their observations, and then afterwards head back to the Detective Room to analyze their discoveries. For example, what happened, to whom, when, and how. And then, the children analyzed the interactions they observed through a social emotional perspective: what feelings were happening? what behaviors were observed? what choices and reactions?

~ The Magic and Science Behind

On the Magic side, we felt very lucky to collaborate with the great artist Sami Sutcliffe, co-founder of Future Clear Productions. Future Clear is a Brooklyn based collective that creates pyramid installations and other physical platforms where visitors are invited to experience new ways of living and interacting, of cultivating curiosity, and expanding their perspective.

Pyramid Tour of Future Clear Productions at Mount Shasta, CA (August 2017)

On the Science side, we had the honor of having Melissa Cesarano, Columbia University Professor of Cognitive Science and Social Emotional Learning, provide guidance and support in creating lesson-adventures based on the latest advancements in cognitive science and social emotional learning. Read more below about the theory behind the River of Emotions lesson-adventure.

~ Reflections on the experience

Kids enjoyed this experience very much, and commented about it a lot in the consecutive days. During the whole journey from opening the suitcase to coming back to the detective room, they seemed to be in pure state of awe. Sometimes a bit confused, too.

The successful elements of the adventure

  • Kids love becoming spies. They responded enthusiastically to immersive elements such as: getting dressed up and using detective props, setting up the observation base, and unlocking the suitcase. All of which culminated to create the magical environment of the adventure.
Family Portrait — before we head to the park
  • Kids love going on a mission. Curiosity and imagination are natural for kids. They love going on adventures that provide novel experiences with meaningful tasks and goals, and give them a sense of agency in the decision-making process.
  • Most kids were perfectly able to analyze the emotions and behaviors they had seen. It always amazes me how good kids are at recognizing non-verbal communication.
  • They were also very fast at understanding the visual thinking tool of the River of Emotions. I believe that kids are more ready to understand complex activities when they are presented as the rules of the game.

Things to consider next time (lessons learned):

  • From 8 years old on: all kids were really engaged in the observation phase in the park, but children over 8 years old were more engaged in the analytical phase of the adventure.
  • Balance between fun and theory: there is a lot of amazing Scientific theory that could be part of the learning experience (check, for instance, the theory of the Fundamental Human Needs , from Manfred Max-Neef, or imagine, for instance, analyzing the causes and consequences of the feelings and behaviors in action), but it’s also healthy to keep it light and fun, specially for a first interaction with this topic: the mere exposure to this topic is giving the kids new tools and perspectives.
  • Tell them the truth: the idea of preparing a secret scene made it a bit confusing for the kids. The game can be simply played with the real events happening.

~ How teachers can use this tool in their classrooms

The “River of Emotions” game

The ‘River of emotions’ refers to the never-ending stream of emotions that humans feel from moment to moment. These emotions are intimately tied to our thoughts and motivate our future behaviors. Therefore, being aware of our emotional experiences allows to further understand our behaviors.

The ‘river of emotions’ game is a simple and fun way to represent this concept, both physically and visually. The name of the board converts a metaphor into something suddenly physical and tangible.

By analyzing facts and events, kids become familiarized with the visualization of the situation. This allows them to think about the scene from the perspective of others involved.

The River of Emotions game can be played in and outside the classroom as a way to address, analyze, and resolve conflicts where different types of behaviors may lead to different paths.

It’s effective for helping kids reflect about a shared experience, from a point of view of emotions, choices, and behaviors. Be more careful to use it with their own emotions and behaviors, because they can feel judged if it’s not made from a place of simply exploring what happened without judging it.

Interested in knowing more?

Contact us to learn more about how to use this game in your day-to-day life with children — we can share some P.D. materials with you or your school including the prompts, techniques, tips and tricks , as well as the science behind this approach.

We can also have a real-life session with your kids so that they can learn by playing. By experiencing the approach and techniques, kids can later utilize these techniques to resolve real conflicts or simply to start playing to watch others feel and behave.