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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

9 Ways That Play Helps Children Develop Empathy for Others

Photo by dadblunders (Flickr)

My girls recently discovered a new passion: volunteering at the animal shelter. They love cuddling, feeding, and playing with the animals, and I love watching them show empathy. Empathy, the ability to identify what others think and feel and put yourself in their shoes, improves our kids' understanding of and respect for their peers, adults, and animals. Although our kids aren't born with the ability to empathize, I found nine ways that play helps our kids develop this essential skill and become more compassionate human beings.

Imagine Life as Someone Else

Pretend play and role play introduce kids to someone else's world. As they pretend they're teachers, veterinarians, or a classmate, they step into a different persona and must act, feel, and think like that character. Through play, kids see life from someone else's viewpoint and improve their understanding of the people around them.

Cooperate With Others

On the playground, in the classroom, and on the sports field, our kids must work with others. Teamwork can be challenging, though, particularly when our kids don't understand or agree with their peers or the adult in charge. Fun games and activities like scavenger hunts, relay races, and cooking prompt our kids to listen to others and cooperate, compromise, and share.

Understand That Others Have Feelings and Emotions

As a toddler, my younger daughter often pulled our cat's tail and then wondered why the cat avoided her. I used puppets to act out stories that demonstrated how animals and people have feelings. We also observed people, wildlife, and insects during our daily walks and talked about emotions they may feel. As we played, my daughter realized that others have feelings and emotions, and she learned to respect those feelings and emotions.

Consider What Others Think

I admit that sometimes, I wish I could read minds! Because that will never happen, I encourage my girls to play checkers and chess. These two strategy games challenge our kids to think like their opponent, understand their viewpoint, and become more empathetic to how others think.

Learn a Vocabulary for Feelings

By the time they turn two, most kids use 50 words regularly. They don't yet know words to describe all of the emotions they and others experience, though. That's where play comes in. Play "Simon Says" and ask your kids to show you their happy, angry, and sad faces, talk about what two dolls may feel as they get dressed for a party, and discuss what taking turns feels like during family game night. With these play activities, we equip our kids with the words they need to describe feelings.

Respect Unique Play Choices

One of my daughters prefers to play with trucks, and the other loves dolls. I encourage them both to disregard gender norms and respect the choices others make during play. When kids feel accepted and learn to respect and encourage their peers, they develop and show empathy to others who may make different choices on the playground and in life.

Achieve Common Goals

Some days, my girls fight like cats and dogs, usually because they focus on all of the ways they're different. But when they work together to complete a puzzle, build a blanket fort, or create a musical show for their grandparents, they focus on each other's strengths and talents. Let's provide opportunities for our kids to build block creations, make art, and play other games and activities that encourage them to focus on their similarities and appreciate others as they work together to achieve a common goal.

Expand Their Worldview

A boy in my daughter's class has autism, and he sometimes stims. She didn't really understand him until we read a few children's books that describe autism. Now, she understands him better and plays with him every day. I often use books and stories to expand our kids' worldview and improve their understanding of the people and animals around them.

Recognize Facial Expressions and Body Language

A person's facial expressions and body language often demonstrate how they feel or what they're thinking, but kids don't always identify these signs. My girls and I often make faces in front of a mirror. I call out an emotion like joy, anger, or excitement, and they show a matching face and body language. As they mature, I've added more complicated emotions like shock, anxiety, or discouragement so they can recognize and understand the full range of what others may feel.

I love watching my girls show empathy to their peers, adults, and animals. Through play, we help our kids develop compassion and understanding for others. What additional play activities do you recommend as we help our kids learn empathy?

Find more about the author: Kim Hart

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