Play + Empathy
Play Cultivates Empathy
We know that play is important in the development of essential lifelong skills, such as fine motor skills and social cues. Empathy, the foundation for human relationships, is also one of these.
At its most basic definition, empathy is awareness of the feelings of others. Children can begin to recognize others’ emotions or feelings as early as age four. “A strong sense of empathy allows children to make decisions that are right for them without hurting others or seeking approval or acceptance.” writes David Sack, M.D., for Huffington Post. Children with strong empathic skills tend to perform better academically and socially, and are more in control of their feelings.
When children play and take on roles of others- say a server in a restaurant or even an ant in an anthill-they immerse themselves into that role and truly “feel” what it is like to be someone (or something) other than themselves. This is how children begin to grow their ability to empathize. The more they practice, the more natural this response comes toward other people in various situations.
Being empathetic in nature is a key aspect in the ability to collaborate effectively with others. It includes other caring notions such as showing consideration for others, noticing others’ emotions and having compassion for another. Empathy is a big part of what makes a person, a kind person.
So what can we do to encourage empathy? The example provided by adult caregivers is critical. “Children who know they can count on a parent or caregiver for emotional support and physical affection are more likely to offer help to others,” writes Sack. We can also identify and validate all emotions that the child is feeling, and encourage giving back through service.
There is another (and our favorite) solution: let them play. And we mean letting them play whatever they want, not necessarily what society has deemed appropriate, such as, gender-segregated activities. “When we deny children those activities and those opportunities, we are denying executive function and the ability to develop social and emotional skills that first begin with concentration and develop into respect and empathy,” says Jacqueline Cossentino, Ed.D., senior associate and director of research for the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector.
Pay provides the perfect outlet for cultivating empathy. Kids learn to work with each other to achieve a common goal. Role play allows children to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and understand from another’s point of view. Board games such as checkers or chess also allow children to try to understand things from an opponent’s viewpoint. Reading aloud stretches a child’s imagination to different situations.
We encourage this kind of pretend play here at Minnesota Children’s Museum. You can role play as an ant in the Earth World giant anthill, or reenact real life in our Mini Our World market. Come play with us and get that imagination working!