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Creating Empathy Through Play

Updated: Oct 22, 2023

This post is for parents and other important educators of children 0-8+ who share the goal of creating more empathy in the world.

When I was a fairly young teacher, volunteering at an ethnic festival, a fellow worker asked me a really great question. One I'll never forget because it was so simple and so profound.

She said, "How DO you teach empathy to young children? It took me back a bit. Although I felt like I taught empathy for a living, I couldn't give her a good answer. That's bothered me ever since.

So for the past 25 years, I’ve been trying to pinpoint some ideas that work to create empathy in very young children. It somehow seems super important now especially since we know that 80% of a child's brain is formed before the age of 3. That includes attitudes, emotions, and the potential to learn and apply new things.

So after 40+ years as a head start teacher, kindergarten teacher, 4-year old teacher, mixed age group center teacher, childcare director, special education aide, before and after school and summer camp teacher, child/parent educator, UU teacher, family aerobics instructor, and proprietor of my own Child Development Home (29 years), I’m suddenly without a day job due to COVID. Plus, I'm an empty nester!

So I've had some time to reflect.

After all of that reflection, I can say two things for sure. Empathy isn’t born of curriculum, activities, or field trips to help feed the hungry. It is born of living with and being around empathetic people day in and day out as well as having the stability of people with empathy sticking around in one's life.

And it's about the adults in charge creating empathy intentionally through both honesty and effort.

I wish I could say that modeling empathic behavior is all that has to be done in order to raise empathetic children. My experience with children and families has taught me otherwise. Sometimes certain children need a little bit more than good role models. They might need some extra help understanding that others have feelings or they might have trouble expressing themselves when they feel wronged. They may have unusual sensory needs.

I’ve seen some truly empathetic parents with some truly unempathetic children and that’s not a pretty family picture. Sometimes completely well-meaning parents miss a critical point or two. That's why It’s important to teach empathy and emotional learning intentionally. No one wants to leave anything out or be unsuccessful at teaching any crucial idea.

The hand that rocks the cradle truly does rule the world so let’s think really hard about the kind of world we want to live in and work together to create it.


Nanci J. Bradley is a child and family educator, parent, author, family aerobics instructor, and all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, lifelong learning, healthy eating, fun, and more than anything else, PLAY! She studied early childhood education at Triton College and received her BA in education from Northern Illinois University in 1986. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison, WI.

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