Building Empathy Through Play

Emotions are part of a child’s life from birth. Children continually experience facial expressions and vocal responses from those close to them, and slowly begin to realize emotions of their own as they grow.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person, and is an emotional skill that takes time to form. Developmentally, young children tend to think other people see, hear, and feel the same as they do. Helping a child build empathy at a young age can be difficult, but that’s where play comes in!

Why is play beneficial for building empathy?

  • We pretend while we play – During play, children can step into the shoes of others. Whether those shoes belong to a superhero or an animal, children are actively imagining what it would be like to be someone other than themselves. Pretending provides an opportunity for children to view the world through a different lens. Make sure to stop by the imaginative play station at LEAP to see what you and your child can be!

  • We cooperate while we play – When children share play, or even a space to play, they experience cooperation and compromise. Next time you’re sitting near the sensory bin, listen to the small conversations that are happening. Little ones are learning to share shovels and switch treasures. Many times these situations are sticky and may result in tears, but these small moments can help children better understand how others feel and put their own feelings into perspective.

  • We model when we play – Playing with your child provides insight into their views of the world, which can lead to great conversation! Play is also the perfect time to model empathetic behaviors and responses. It’s a time to discuss how you are feeling and why you are choosing to play in certain ways.

  • We talk while we play – Speaking of great conversation, one of our favorite ways to communicate during LEAP is with rich, sensory-based language. The conversations that arise during play allow us to express our feelings and learn more about the feelings of others. When we model rich, sensory-based language, we are providing little ones with vocabulary they can use to do the same!

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All types of play can be beneficial to the growth of empathy. Children learn about winning and losing while playing soccer, and they learn about helping others achieve their goals while climbing on a log tower. At LEAP we have the added benefit of playing with and in nature. Nature play is the perfect outlet for marveling at all life – both big and small. Gently feeling a blade of grass or watching a busy ant walk through the dirt are empathy moments. We hope you and your little one(s) enjoy experiencing these moments together!

Written by Nicole Hodur