Play and Empathy
Empathy is a critical and complex skill; it is also a beautiful part of what makes us human. When children empathize, they display the ability to identify and understand other people’s perspectives. They also recognize another person’s thoughts and feelings may be different than their own. Acting on empathy, children can come up with appropriate responses to individuals having different experiences than them.
Children’s ability to navigate the intricacies and nuances of empathy is developed during play. While engaged in play, it is common for children to practice perspective-taking. They may pretend to be a grocery clerk, a teacher, or a caregiver. Stepping into these different roles, children see how their actions affect others and experience how other people may feel in different situations.
Play exposes children to new ideas and different ways of experiencing the world. Children playing house may have a disagreement over what food they should eat for dinner, or how that food should be prepared and consumed. Through play, they practice embracing these differences and learning from one another. In this situation, some children may feel challenged by new ideas. With a little practice, and the help of a thoughtful caregiver, they can improve their self-regulation skills and develop appropriate emotional responses to these challenges.
Play and empathy are intertwined. Through play, children develop confidence and communication skills, learn to share, and practice working together towards a common goal. Play helps children build positive social relationships. Play builds bridges of shared experiences and connects children with the vast possibilities the world has to offer.
How We Can Encourage Empathy in Children
When you play with your child, talk openly about “big feelings”. Discuss the importance of sharing feelings and respecting the feelings of others. Supporting children emotionally helps them show this support to others. Have age-appropriate discussions about accepting other people’s ideas and experiences. When tough questions come up, research them together!
We can also help children build empathy by teaching and modelling self-regulation. In doing this, we teach children how to process emotions rather than avoiding situations they may find emotionally unpleasant or uncomfortable.
Children understand the world through the representations they see in our homes, in our communities, and in our media. We can nurture empathy in children by providing them with perspective-building play materials. Choose toys that represent our diverse community. Read books that highlight cultures, family structures, and experiences different than your own. Listen to music in different languages from diverse artists. Explore food from all over the world and engage with art from different communities.
The Importance of Children’s Voices
We honour children by empathizing with them, attentively listening to their voices, and actively engaging with their stories. When we listen to their words and experiences, we show them they are important and valued. They learn that we respect people by listening to their ideas and perspectives, and in turn, they demonstrate this respect to others.
We listen to children’s voices because they matter. Children have meaningful contributions to make in this world. They may even have views that challenge us as adults. Children often display a natural inclination towards fairness and a sophisticated ability to understand fairness in different contexts. By listening to the voice of children, we allow their empathy, honesty, compassion, and views on equity to help shape the world.
- The London Children’s Museum team