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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

7 fun activities to teach empathy to young children

Do you ever wish that your boss understood you better when you wanted to leave early to attend your daughter’s dance recital? Or wonder how a horse whisperer tames a horse like it was magic? Or hope that your child should grow up to be more understanding and emotionally intelligent than many adults around you? If your answer to any or all of these questions is yes, you are no different than many other parents like me. We all want our kids to be caring, and empathetic human beings.

Can we teach our kids to be empathetic? There is a lot of scientific debate about it, with strong opinions on both sides of the argument. However, we certainly can arm our kids with better perspective taking skills, which is an essential basis to empathy. In simplest terms, empathy is being able to put yourself in other’s shoes. As simple as it sounds, many a times we all struggle to practice it. Although kids have to be 6 to 7 years old to develop all the cognitive skills required to exercise empathy, we can start building the foundation even before they turn one.

Recently, I stumbled upon a great opportunity to help my 3 year old learn some perspective taking skills. We had requested a kid’s book at our local library. It turned out the book had regular print along with Braille. My son was intrigued by these little dots he was touching on the book. This opened up a conversation about how some people can’t see. I was trying to help him imagine how it would be if you just couldn’t see anything around you. He was having a hard time relating to it. So we engaged in this impromptu lesson in perspective taking by playing a blindfolded game of tag. His reaction? Oh mommy, it is so hard to be blind. Now, he felt a real empathy for the blind. The success of this activity motivated me to list 7 hands on activities to practice perspective taking and teach empathy to kids.

1)      Paint with a brush in the mouth while one or both hands are tied. They will enjoy the challenge of it while they learn how a disabled person might feel. I hope this will help him understand why I am so worried about him accidentally jamming his hands in the car door.

2)      Play a game of tag blindfolded.

3)      A classic party favorite like put the donkey’s tail, will be a great game to develop perspective taking skills.

4)      Cover your mouth and sing songs in a muffled voice. Ask your kids to guess which song it is.

5)      Practice identifying emotions by guessing the expressions of people in their story books or magazines. You can just label it yourself for younger kids. Even when you talk with 7-8 month olds, practice labeling emotions. It’s a good idea to say things like, oh look mommy is so happy or oh, I see you are feeling angry, etc.

6)      You can sit with your child in front of a mirror and practice making different faces like happy, sad, or surprised. My son finds this very funny.

7)      Pretend play is the best way kids practice perspective taking. Don’t be alarmed even if they are playing the bad boy sometimes. Help them understand how the objects or people must feel when they are pretending to be bad to them. Try being a kid when they are pretending to be daddy or mommy. This will help you empathize with them too.

All this practice in perspective taking will not only help them being a good person but these skills are transferable in many other facets of life. An architect needs to think like the people who would use the space she is designing. A player needs to think like his opponent to decide his next move. And a nurse needs to understand why her old patient is so cranky.

What are your thoughts about teaching empathy to kids?

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