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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

7 Ways That Play Cultivates Empathy in Kids

Photo by Colleen Kelly (Flickr)

Empathy is defined by Merriam-Webster as "the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions." That sounds like a pretty good skill for our kids to possess, don't you agree? I know I want my girls to show empathy as they develop positive and long-term friendships, resist the temptation to bully, understand their feelings, and become team players. Our kids aren't born with this life skill, though. It takes practice and time to learn. How do we cultivate this trait in our kids? We play, of course!


Because our kids don't understand what it's really like to walk in someone else's shoes, we can provide opportunities for them to learn empathy through pretend play. Have your kids sit in a wheelchair for a few hours or place their leg in a pretend cast to teach them how people with disabilities feel. They can also participate in an improv play. Let them play animals or characters from other cultures and the opposite gender as they consider how others may feel in different circumstances and situations. By pretending, kids have fun as they become more empathetic.

Include Younger and Older Kids

When kids play together, they learn crucial skills like sharing, taking turns, and teamwork. These qualities are essential as kids learn to respect and care for other people's feelings. I especially think older and younger kids who play together can learn empathy as they work on art projects, play games, or perform service activities as a team. I've watched my girls become more helpful when playing with younger kids and share their feelings more openly after playing with older kids.

Choose Logic-Based Games

Thinking like someone else is part of empathy. That's why I like my girls to play logic-based games like chess and Battleship. As they anticipate their opponent's moves, they put themselves in someone else's shoes, and that's an essential part of empathetic behavior.

Read Books

My girls love reading because it takes them on an adventure. I love books in part because they can teach empathy. While reading fictional and non-fictional stories with various settings, characters, and conflicts, my kids become more mindful of the struggles that others deal with. They also learn how to deal with their own emotions in constructive ways.

Conduct Mock Interviews

If you want to know something, you ask questions. The same principle applies to our kids. Pair them up and let them ask each other thought-provoking questions about how they feel in certain situations and why they act certain ways. I've also asked my kids open-ended questions to help them learn to express their emotions and communicate clearly.

Practice Making Faces and Identifying Emotions

Do your kids like making silly faces as much as mine do? I'm telling you, they can stand in front of the mirror for hours and practice looking silly, sad, happy, and mean. It's funny to watch them, and I know they're also learning empathy. After all, recognizing your own emotions and emotions other feel is part of showing compassion. That's why I encourage you to have fun making faces and identifying emotions with your kids!

Model and Encourage Empathetic Communication

My girls are pretty nice to each other and their friends when they play, but every once in a while, I hear words that aren't very nice. That's when I step in and model empathetic communication. Instead of saying, "This is stupid" or "You made me feel bad," I encourage the kids to use statements like "I saw," "I feel," "I need," or "I would like." I also try to model empathetic language when I play games with my girls. This modeling can go a long way toward teaching your kids how they should act.

Empathy helps our kids be successful in life, and it's never too early to teach this skill. I use play to help my girls become empathetic, and so can you. Which empathy-building activity will you encourage your kids to play today?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

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