How to teach children character traits

51vkrH+D5uL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)Public school in America does a good job at teaching the basics: reading, writing, math, science, and other subjects.

Public schools are known to be a place where kids go to “socialize” with their friends.

However, public school typically don’t offer a course on friendship and interpersonal skills.

Kids with pro social character traits are generally more likeable. The kids poor social character traits are federally less likeable and more often rejected. They suffer more mental health problems too.

My book, Building Character with Sam and Izzy aims to bring social skills and character development to the classroom. The book has a mission to help kids to make more friends and to feel happier (most of the time). Being happy 100% of the time isn’t realistic.


My sister’s wild animals.

The book uses pictures of dogs (and some cats) to teach children how to make friends by improving their character traits. The book started when my sister’s two dogs Izzy (a Chihuahua) and Sam (an English Bulldog) became friends. What an unlikely friendship. I figured if these two (very different dogs) can be friends then any two kids could become friends too.

In fact, even the dog (and cat) can be friends. See the picture of my sister’s dog Sugar and the cat. I can’t recall that cat’s name.

My book isn’t therapy, but it uses a lot of recreational therapy interventions.

  • Bibliotherapy is a type of therapy based on reading books. My book could be used in recreational therapy.
  • Animal therapy is uses animals in the facilitation of needs. My book uses pictures of friendly animals
  • Activities are part of recreational therapy. My book includes access to download an instructor’s workbook with activity ideas: like making a compromise to select a game, volunteering and helping; being a team-member; and a good sport.

Here is the summary of the book:

Danny Pettry is a Recreational Therapist who specializes in working with children (ages 7 to 12) who have mental and behavioral health needs.
Now he has put together an astonishing children’s book to help ALL children have better social health and wellness.
Danny Pettry’s book teaches character lessons to children using colorful pictures of animals. This book is a valuable tool for teachers, group leaders, therapists and parents alike.
This book covers social skills and character values like:
Accepting others
Having good sportsmanship
Being respectful, generous, helpful, empathetic, and more.
This book helps children learn how to make friends and get along with others.
You’d like for your child or a child you know to develop and improve these skills, wouldn’t you?
You like pictures of cute animals don’t you?
All right then.
Just read the book to your child.


I’ve been featured in the media a few times with this book.

  • I did an interview for National Public Radio (but they’ve taken down the recording – I guess because it has been so many years).
  • Parenting Magazine featured the book
  • Several newspapers


Seal of Approval Winner by The National Parenting Center
Testers were delighted to discover this storybook that teaches children important lessons about tolerance, empathy, sharing, compassion and much more. Pettry uses adorable dogs and puppies to illustrate these good character traits. Parents noted how well the book was written. The style easily connected with children and was fun for parents to read. What many parents told us was that this book sparked conversations about various behaviors including how humans and dogs share many similarities when it comes to caring for each other.

5-Star Rating from Reader’s Favorites

5-Star Rating from Reviewers on Amazon!

Get the book here:


Personal Experiencecanstockphoto26598298

I wasn’t the smartest kid in my class. I didn’t have a 4.0 in public school or undergraduate school. I did finally get a 4.0 in graduate school. I had an A in almost every course. I did get a B in Ethics. I know – that doesn’t sound good, does it?

However, I did win the class of 1992 Good Citizenship Award at my Elementary School.

I’d argue that a child’s social health (interpersonal skills) and ability to deal with emotions (affect regulation skills) might be more of an indicate of success in life compared to just having high grade point average.

The Benefits of Being Likeable vs. the Cons for Being Unlikeable

canstockphoto21350525 copyLikeability is one social skill that can be addressed by Recreation Therapists.


Recreation therapists who provide services for people (children, teens, and adults) with behavioral health needs may encounter clients who lack interpersonal skills needed to get along with others, to make healthy relationships and connections, and to keep those relationships.


Rec therapists can provide education:


  • People who have unlikeable characteristics are more likely to be rejected, ignored, and left to fend for themselves. Think about it for yourself. How likely are you to reach out and help someone who has been rude and disrespectful towards you? It would be difficult to do.


  • People with likeable characteristics are more likely to get help, support, care, and things they want from others. Think about it for yourself.  How likely are you to reach out and help someone who has been helpful, kind, and just amazing towards you? You might feel inkling to help out that person.


Education alone won’t cause change. In example: cigarettes have educational warnings on the packages that let people know how dangerous they are and yet people still smoke.


            Real authentic changes have to be intrinsic and self-motivated. Outside change (like nagging) and (pestering) won’t do much to encourage a person to change.


Here are two rhetorical questions recreation therapists can propose as the start of a session to get a client (or clients in a group setting) to start contemplating (improving interpersonal skills).


Do you like winning?


Do you like getting what you want?


The two questions (listed above) might get people’s attention.


Most people are tuned into Wii FM, which stands for (What’s In It For Me?)



I then suggest: You might want to consider developing interpersonal skills to become more likeable.

Ask this question: 


Which one wins most of the time? Being likeable or unlikeable?


Write this formula on the dry erase board for the day:

Being Likeable is Greater Than > Being Unlikeable



Example of How Being Likeable Wins

 Share this famous story: 

Two politicians in England were running for Prime Minster. Both men wanted to “win” the position of becoming England’s next Prime Minster. One woman was arranged to have dinner with each of them on two consecutive nights. Here is what she had to say about each of them.

  • When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England.
  • But when I sat next to Disraeli, I left feeling that I was the cleverest woman.

Disraeli won the election that year and became the next Prime Minster. 

The same is true in most elections. Unlikeable candidates often lose elections to those people who are likeable (charismatic). Think about it for yourself? Who would you want to pick as the winner: a person you like or a person you don’t really care for? I imagine you’ll go with the person you like.

The same is true for anything that requires picking people. Most people pick the person like the over the person who they detest.

Here are some rhetorical questions for group members to consider:

  • Would you choose to go to a grocery store where you like the staff or would you go to the grocery store with people you detest?
  • Would you choose a dentist that you like compared to one who you dislike?
  • Would you give a loan to a friend who you like compared to a person you can’t stand?

People with “likeable” traits are probably more  likely to get chosen and selected.

The question to ask yourself: do you have “likeable traits?” Do you want to know the secret sauce for being more likeable and winning?

What was Disraeli’s secret sauce to winning the election?

It’s simple: 

Disraeli was more likeable.

He made people around him to feel important, valued, and even “clever” when they were with him. Whereas, Gladstone did not pay attention towards other people. Gladstone was more focused on himself and his own accomplishments.

So, how can you be likeable? Dale Carngie in his classic, best-selling self-help book, How to Win Friends and Influence Others, said: “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other peopleinterested in you.”

The Secret to being Likeable is very easy: be interested in other people.

Discussion Questions About Listening and Paying Attention

  1. How can you tell if a person is not listening to you and not paying attention to you and just not interested in you?


  1. How do you feel when a person doesn’t listen to you?



  1. How can you tell if a person is definitely listening to you and paying attention to you?


  1. How does that make you feel when a person is listening and paying attention to you?



  1. How do you imagine other people will “feel” around you if you don’t listen to them?


  1. How do you imagine other people will “feel” around you if you do show interest in them?



The Take-Home Message

  • Radical acceptance: we can’t change other people.
  • 100% personal responsibility: you can change yourself!

You can start practicing (being interested in other people) so that YOU become more likeable. So, you’ll start to make more positive relationships and keep those positive relationships!

 Attention Rec Therapist: Do you want to learn more about people skills? 

Sign-up for Interpersonal Success Secrets (self-study course). It is worth 5 clock hours of continuing education. Session content is CE pre-approved by NCTRC.

The course requires reading a book. We also include some helpful resources in the membership area for this course.

Go here now:

Let Kids Be Kids: Using Adventure and Nature to Bring Back Children’s Play

Blog written by guest-blogger: CAILEIGH FLANNIGAN

Caileigh is a play practitioner who uses forms of play as a way to promote children’s development and emotional healing. She is an outdoor play and loose parts researcher who is spreading the word about the importance of free play in natural environments.

Note: This article was originally published at


 It is a disappointing thing to see new playgrounds developed in city spaces sit there empty each day, or to walk in the park and hear no laughter. What is missing here is not the children per se, but materials and environments that create challenge, imagination, and creativity that make children want to play outdoors. The absence of such play environments is not only influencing the quantity and quality of children’s play, but also affecting children’s health and well-being. As adults, we need to support children in learning to enjoy what free play in the outdoors has to offer. We need to inspire imaginations, creative minds, and capable bodies. To do this, we can look toward two simple things: nature and adventure.

What’s Happening to Children’s Play?

Outdoor play is a necessary part of children’s development and is considered essential for children’s play and learning. Playing outdoors provides unique opportunities for learning that the indoor environment cannot offer. For example, children engage in higher levels of creativity, imagination, inventiveness, physical activity, language, and curiosity. Most importantly, they are given the opportunity to play freely. Despite this knowledge, outdoor play has been steadily decreasing for North American children.

When we look at why this disappearance of free play is happening, we realize that there are many factors that contribute to the lack of play. There are increases in structured play activities, an emergence of technology-based play objects, higher concerns related to safety and risk, adult control over children’s play activities, academically oriented schools, and an overall disregard for the value of play. More often than not, we see children engaged in a summer filled with structured sports activities or stuck inside with gaming systems and cell phones. We hear adults saying “don’t pick up the sticks!” “don’t go too far!” and “be careful!”. We know that schools are decreasing recess time or taking it away all together.

Unfortunately, it is all too common that today’s society has an overall disregard for the value of play and how important it is for children of all ages. It is ultimately these factors that are placing a barrier between children and their right to play freely in the outdoors.

The inability to cross over this barrier is affecting children in many areas of development. For example, there are increases in anxiety and depression at younger ages as well as difficulties with emotional regulation and self-control. Increases in physical conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and asthma are becoming more apparent in young children and childhood disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder are more frequently diagnosed. Children who do not have access to outdoor play will miss out on the many benefits that free play in the natural environment has to offer toward their growth.

Illustration 1 code:

Why The Decrease in Free Play - Bring Back Children’s Play
Source: Blog

The Importance of Free Play in the Outdoors

When children are engaged in free play in the outdoors, they are provided opportunities for freedom, choice, and fewer routines. In free play, there is no adult direction or control, so children are able to play how they want to play. When children are given such freedom to play, they are more likely to engage in higher levels of social interaction, cognitive skills such as decision-making and reasoning, empathy, and physical activity. In turn, they are less likely to become inattentive, anxious, or depressed and unhealthy.

Illustration 2 code:

The Benefits of Outdoor Free Play - Bring Back Children’s Play
Source: Blog

The outdoor environment in particular has many benefits. A natural green space allows children to continuously explore ways to use materials, discover the varied environment, and create their own play experiences. The outdoor environment is not a man-made area and, therefore, is diverse and timeless. Children who play outdoors have heightened senses and emotions from the ever-changing topography and the rich stimuli that a natural space affords. This is how children learn – through experience: by seeing, feeling, touching, and hearing. The outdoor environment is a blank canvas on which children are able to place their own thoughts, wonders, and creations.

The Loose Parts Movement for Bringing Back Play

So what can be done now? After this discussion of the importance of free play in the outdoors you may be wondering how you can bring back play for children in your life. There are two things to support you in doing so: nature and adventure. What you are going to need to do is reintroduce adventure back into children’s outdoor play. To accomplish this, you can use loose parts.

Loose parts are play objects and materials that are open-ended, manipulative, moveable, and non-dictated. This means that children can use the materials in a variety of ways and there is no suggested way or “story” behind these materials. Loose parts allow children to act upon their environment the way that they want, rather than their imaginations and creativity being predetermined by the materials.

Examples of loose parts are items such as tires, logs, sticks, fabric, rope, and rocks. Loose parts can either be synthetic materials or materials that are commonly found in a natural outdoor environment. Loose parts spark children’s curiosity, which then leads to exploration and discovery. For example, if a child is provided with rope, tarp, and wooden pieces, she will become curious about what the materials are and how to use them. She will then begin to explore the materials in different ways through her imagination and creativity. This leads to discovering that the materials can do many things. This process of curiosity, exploration, and discovery is ultimately what leads to play and learning.

Where Can I Find Loose Parts?

You can find loose parts in many places, and they are often free!

  • Parks, forests, and natural spaces
  • Thrift stores
  • Yard sales
  • Hardware stores
  • Fabric stores
  • Local dairy suppliers
  • Grocery stores
  • Your own recycling bin

Here is a loose parts list that will inspire you to get out there and collect your own:

Illustration 3 code:

What Are Loose Parts - Bring Back Children’s Play
Source: Blog

To support children in loving play again, it is important that we create environments and include materials that are fun, engaging, and challenging. If an environment or an object is too easy, children will view it as boring. To reintroduce adventure and free play to your children, consider using loose parts. When loose parts are paired with the outdoors, it will lift children’s spirits, make them love playing again, and ultimately make them happier and healthier.