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Zoo U

Online game-based social and emotional skills assessment and skill-building program for children aged 7-12
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Project Description

The Challenge

Research demonstrates positive social and emotional skills and relationships in childhood are associated with children’s positive behavioral, emotional, and academic wellbeing. However, many children struggle socially throughout their school years. Without early intervention, these children can face a wide range of social, emotional, and academic problems that can persist into adulthood.

In-person training presents a variety of challenges — financial costs, resource needs, time and travel requirements — as does determining which children have social and emotional skills deficits. Traditional assessment methods can require too much time and cost and can also be unreliable for a variety of reasons.


Our Response

With funding from the U.S. Department of Education, we developed Zoo U, an online game-based social and emotional skills assessment and skill-building program for children aged 7-11 — the only online game that both assesses and teaches social and emotional skills. In Zoo U, children become students at a virtual school for future zookeepers and build their skills by working through a series of common social scenarios.

Zoo U leverages powerful technology to eliminate the barriers of traditional social and emotional skills assessment and training methods.

  • Administration of Zoo U requires minimal training.
  • Subjective bias and recording errors are eliminated because the assessment system—rather than observers—scores the child’s behaviors.
  • Social comparison data can be collected efficiently from a large group of children.
  • Situations that are important for assessment but that occur infrequently can be incorporated into the assessment.
  • “Stealth assessment” techniques — in which assessments are embedded into a game and students aren’t even aware they’re being assessed — greatly reduce the likelihood that children will alter their behavior to please an observer.

We researched the effectiveness of Zoo U with a group of children aged 7–11. Both parents and children completed questionnaires about the child’s social and emotional skills and behaviors before and after using Zoo U.

Analyses revealed children who played Zoo U…

  • Showed significant improvements in controlling impulses, initiating conversation, and managing emotions
  • Showed less aggression in social interactions
  • Reported feeling more confident about social interactions and more accepted by peers
  • Made significant gains in social and emotional skills knowledge, especially in the areas of communication, cooperation, and empathy

Available for purchase from Centervention.


Efficient and cost-effective implementation

Zoo U can be administered to many students at once. Students receive tutorials and directions as they play, requiring no need for counselor oversight.

Stealth assessment

While using Zoo U children aren’t aware they’re being evaluated, making them more likely to make choices that they would make in real life, as opposed to the socially desirable choices that plague traditional assessments.

Personalized learning

Zoo U adjusts the difficulty level based on the student’s responses and actions and provides hints and prompts as needed to help the student progress through a scene.

Graphic Assessment & Skills Reports

Zoo U provides data on individual students’ social and emotional skills and directs each student to game scenes for the skill in which they need the most intervention.