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How role-playing in Dungeons & Dragons is used as therapy for kids

A Washington nonprofit uses role-playing games to help kids socialize and gain self-confidence.

Middle school was challenging for Adam Johns. He was small. He had trouble speaking up. But when he took part in role-playing games, Johns was able to take on characters who were his polar opposite.

"It gave me a chance to be that role, gave me a chance to have that self-confidence," Johns, now a family therapist, told TODAY All Day for a "Mind Matters" special.

Johns co-founded Game to Grow, a nonprofit in Kirkland, Washington, that uses Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games to teach kids new social skills and give them a sense of community.

"The players are playing characters that might be elf wizards, or orc barbarians, or these sort of high fantasy concepts that are really fun for them to escape the mundane and be a heroic fantasy character," said Adam Davis, Game to Grow's other co-founder.

Game leaders might throw in challenges a child needs to tackle, like a role that makes a shy child speak up. The ideas and techniques they use aren't different from other therapists, they say, but through games they can encourage collaboration, planning, and the ability to take different perspectives.

"The skills we're working on with our participants in Game to Grow groups aren't trying to address any sort of deficit. What we're trying to do is support them to flourish socially on their own terms," Davis said.

"We have a lot of players who have never had a safe and supportive friendship before. They've never had rewarding social experiences. And oftentimes, what we're working on with them is building their capacity to connect with other people."

Buffy Munson, a 13-year-old participant, said bringing characters to life helps him take on characteristics he'd like to have, gain confidence and cope with difficulties.

"I used to have pretty bad anger issues where I'd just get mad and lash out," he said. "And so this has taught me to be calmer and to be more open and warm. Like, caring instead of just lashing out."

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