For me, the idea of "Theater of the Mind" style play is a bit romanticized. I always imagine a group of players sitting in a room, each on the edge of their seat as the Game Master describes in epic detail the dungeon corridor, dark alleyway or the inter-dimensional alien craft in which the PC's find themselves. Though the players have no visual representation before them, the GM's descriptions are vivid, so vivid that they draw the players out of the room and into the scene. The players can smell the foul odor of the goblin warren and feel the cool clammy air of the alien ship. These are the moments GM's strive for...but on the other hand, I do so love my Dwarven Forge pieces.
Miniature/Tactical play involves the use of some form of character and environmental representation. These may be miniatures that the Participants have painstakingly painted by hand. They may be pre-painted miniatures bought in a randomized box, or flat tokens with pictures on them. The environment could be a roll out wet erase tactical mat that the GM draws chambers and passages on. Or it might be eye popping 3D terrain.
GM's and players often have strong feelings around which method is most conducive to a deep and immersive gaming experience. One school of thought is that having physical representation can impede immersion into the world; that it can feel like a board game vs a collaborative story. Others claim that having pieces and visuals can intensify focus and further connect the players by allowing them to see their character. Miniature/Tactical provides a visual standard for spatial placement which prevents disagreements; disagreements that can break immersion.
For Game Facilitators teaching life skills during a Skill Centric Role Play session, choosing whether to use Theater of the Mind or Miniature/Tactical play presents an additional consideration beyond those of aesthetics and story immersion. Namely, what do each of these methods offer as teaching tools?
Theater of the Mind style play is dependent on effective communication skills by all at the table. The Game Facilitator must describe the environment that the Participant Characters are in with as much detail as necessary for the Participants to make informed decisions in-character. The Participants, must describe their characters actions as completely as necessary for the Game Facilitator to respond effectively through environmental events. This often requires asking for clarification when needed and effectively articulating intended actions and responses.
Miniature/Tactical play allows Participants to have visual representation of their characters and the environment in which they find themselves. Being able to look at this physical display allows Participants direct access to the environment they are in. Accessing physical risk, for example, can be much easier for Participants if they are looking at it. Seeing a chamber with crates stacked in the corners may prompt Participants to anticipate an ambush as opposed to a solely verbal description.
Depending on what life skills are the focus of a Skill Centric Role Play session, each of these methods have strengths that support particular skills. However, that's not to say that Miniature/Tactical play isn't an effective approach when seeking to promote communication skills, or that Theater of the Mind isn't an effective approach for teaching physical risk assessment. The beauty of tabletop role play as a means of imparting life skills is its flexibility as a teaching tool. Either of these approaches, alone or in combination, can certainly be used to teach any skill. As is the case with other aspects of tabletop role play, it is largely a matter of taste and preference.