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May 1, 2020

Social–Emotional Learning in Animal Crossing

With COVID-19 disrupting the lives of teachers and students, the need for social-emotional learning in the online classroom grows even more crucial. With that in mind, imagine this scenario.

You live on an island strewn with fruit trees, babbling rivers, and stone bridges. Anthropomorphic animals move in next door. Your neighbors, who span the zoological gamut from dogs and cats to alligators and elephants, become your friends. With these quirky critters by your side, you spend your days catching fish, decorating your house, collecting bugs, digging up fossils, and exchanging gifts. Worst case scenario, you might get stung by a bee.

What sounds like a Lewis Carroll-inspired paradise describes Animal Crossing, a simple video game about living life and getting along with others. Serendipitous for teachers and parents, Animal Crossing contains oodles of social–emotional learning (SEL) opportunities. This simple game drives home essential SEL skills such as personal responsibility, intelligent decision-making, altruism and generosity, and even financial literacy.

Many of your students likely already know about or play Animal Crossing, and you can take advantage of their playtime by helping them connect their in-game adventures to real-life skills that will help them grow and connect with others. In this article, we dive into how the game helps students enhance their emotional intelligence, and how you can use it as an at-home or in-class activity to develop students’ SEL.

Mastering Communication

Animal Crossing doesn’t have a strictly defined storyline or final goal. Instead, you spend most of your days on the island communicating, whether you’re bartering, completing a task, or simply chitchatting. No matter their purpose, these conversations require emotional intelligence and an understanding of social cues.

In the latest Animal Crossing installment, subtitled New Horizons, kids speak with animals and learn the intricacies of their personalities. The AI-engine design boasts such multidimensionality that the animal inhabitants all come with unique idiosyncrasies, preferences, passions, and distastes.

We’re not joking. In fact, here’s an abridged snapshot of Animal Crossing’s bouquet of personality:

  • Alfonso the Alligator is a snack connoisseur who prefers to spend his days loafing around town and dreams of swimming in a vat of chocolate.
  • Klaus the Bear sports a gold breastplate reminiscent of gladiator attire. Though a bit smug at times, he gets along well with most villagers.
  • Goldie the Dog epitomizes congeniality, representing the archetype of a friendly and loyal pup.
  • Angus the Bull is a bit of a grump who takes offense easily, but takes on a softer personality when a player shows interest in him.
  • Erik the Deer likes to take it easy, spending a lot of his time with a fishing pole at the island’s rivers, ponds, and ocean.
  • Eloise the Elephant has a penchant for makeup and beautification. Add to that, she enjoys a wee bit of gossip now and then.
  • Hamlet the Hamster, despite his small size, enjoys bodybuilding. An athlete with a predilection for competition, Hamlet may find the more relaxed neighbors off-putting.

The array of characters is fun, no doubt, but the variance also provides a valuable pedagogical resource. Like the characters in the game, not everyone in “real life” will share the same values or interests, but we all benefit from learning how to form quality relationships despite these differences. As students learn how to adapt to the nuances of the characters’ different communication styles in the game, remind them that they can practice these skills to be a good friend to everyone in their lives.

Personal Responsibility and Financial Literacy

The game is not without challenge. Players have responsibilities. Right away, you have a house and a mortgage to take care of. To earn money, you sell items and do favors for neighbors. Of course, mortgage payments aren’t the only option for kids’ virtual money. They can buy clothes, furniture for their homes, flowers and trees for landscaping, and specialty items to decorate their home and the island.

The choices players make in how to spend their money are eerily reminiscent of the choices students will face as they move into the workforce. They might not be collecting fruit and seashells for a living, but they’ll still have to decide whether they want to focus on paying off their debts, buying luxuries for themselves, or spending money on things that will benefit their whole community. In this way, Animal Crossing can be a fun, low-stakes way for students to practice making financially sound decisions and to learn the relationship between working and earning money to meet obligations and buy the things they want.

The chance to teach personal responsibility doesn’t end with finances, either. As players move through the game, villagers ask for odd jobs and favors, which helps establish rapport and teaches kids about the importance of keeping commitments. Though no harm comes to players who fail to meet their obligations, the affected parties will continue to ask about a task until the objective is complete. These moments are a great opportunity to talk to students about the importance of fulfilling promises and making sacrifices to build relationships.

Fostering Self-Expression

Developing a sense of identity is paramount for a child’s intellectual and emotional development. Although students’ tastes will certainly change over time, it’s essential to give them opportunities to express themselves as they learn and grow. Perhaps the creators of Animal Crossing sensed this, as they made house decorating and clothing design an integral part of the gaming experience.

Students have many opportunities to express themselves and let their personalities become an essential element of the game. They can collect dinosaur bones and make their house into a museum, or they can gather rockets, astronaut suits, asteroid fragments, and satellites to create a space theme. In addition, players can use digital painting tools to design personalized T-shirts and yard signs, an activity that not only fosters creativity but also requires patience as students learn this unique digital craft.

Although this element of the game may seem surface level, the process of acquiring items and implementing design elements requires students to practice patience and persistence to create what’s important to them—a valuable life lesson in any situation.

Creating Classroom Activities with Animal Crossing

No matter how much SEL potential Animal Crossing might have, merely playing the game won’t cut it. This is especially true given that not all kids will have access to the game. That’s why we’ve put together some classroom and online teaching activities that focus on the game’s SEL core, but don’t require every parent to shell out for a new gaming console.

Though she does not touch on Animal Crossing in this article, Sara Potler LaHayne fleshes out the most crucial pillars of social–emotional learning. Ironically enough, students can explore each of these foundational elements through the game. In her EdWeek article, LaHayne focuses on:

  • Interpersonal relationships: If they engage with Animal Crossing long enough, students will likely form attachments to the animal residents. In fact, some relationships will become closer than others, which is a natural occurrence for all age groups.
  • Creativity: Kids need outlets that enrich their sense of identity. Activities like drawing, journaling, or dancing can serve as powerful methods of self-expression. In Animal Crossing, kids will find many ways to show their personalities and learn more about their own psychology.
  • Welcoming spaces: Flexible seating and classroom décor impact the way kids learn. Even if you’re remote teaching, you can assign a task that nourishes this SEL element.
  • Self-reflection: Teachers already know the value of silence. In this regard, students need time to turn the proverbial spotlight inward. What happens in moments of self-reflection opens our eyes to the impact of our choices and how we can become better people.

Given that not every student has access to expensive game consoles, knowledge of Animal Crossing is not required for any of these classroom activities. In addition, teachers can use these ideas either face to face or in the online classroom.

Classroom Activity: Interpersonal Relationships

You make friends in Animal Crossing. Sometimes those friends don’t share your attitudes, interests, or values. This framework provides an excellent springboard into SEL-centric classroom activities.

Pair up your students and don’t let them choose their partners. If you’ve been working with this particular group of kids for some time, you are probably aware of how their social behaviors pull them toward one group. The idea is to team up students who don’t run with the same social circle.

Write up a list of interview questions, or have your class create their own. Ask each pair to interview each other and then present their findings. If you have an odd number of students, you too can participate.

Classroom Activity: Creativity

Though drawing, painting, and coloring typically happen in the elementary classroom, even high school students need a healthy dose of self-expression. In keeping with the Animal Crossing theme, ask your students to do self-portraits, but with the addendum that they must depict themselves as some sort of animal.

Randy the Raccoon? Samantha the Squirrel? Octavia the Octopus? No matter what masterpiece manifests, you’ll learn a lot about how your students view their own personalities, and they’ll discover more about their own psychology.

Classroom Activity: Welcoming Spaces

All teachers know that the classroom is the ultimate safe space. It’s important to create a warm, welcoming atmosphere where students feel comfortable learning and growing. That means setting up art stations, listening areas, reading nooks, and perhaps even makerspaces. As a comprehensive classroom activity, you can have your students design one of these stations according to the class’s unique needs.

In an online classroom, this activity is more of a challenge. Ask your students to design their personal workspace in a manner similar to what they’d do in the Animal Crossing game. When they do schoolwork at home, students’ space might be a desk, a couch, or a kitchen table; regardless, encourage them to find and customize a spot that’s peaceful, inspiring, and motivational. Students will learn about their own learning styles as they discover what works best for them, and you might find that some of their ideas are helpful for creating a welcoming space once you’re all back in the classroom.

Classroom Activity: Self-Reflection

Self-expression and self-reflection are siblings in the world of SEL pedagogy. Self-expression is a process of discovery and exploration, while self-reflection is an exercise in retrospection and evaluation. It’s good practice for anyone, especially students with developing minds, to think about their belief systems and choices. But how do you put that idea into practice?

Journaling and writing letters are tried-and-true systems for implementing self-reflection. In Animal Crossing, sending your neighbors notes is a fundamental part of the gaming experience. Keeping in mind that communicating in written form helps deepen relationships, have your students write one another e-mails or longhand letters. Give them a topic that helps the recipient increase their feelings of self-worth.


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