Imagine a healthy, happy child.
In your mental picture, what is this child doing? Most likely, he or she is smiling, laughing, and enjoying the people and things in the surrounding environment. This is a child who likes to play!
A child’s engagement in active play is a significant part of his or her mental health.
It may seem obvious that children like to play, but we may not be aware of how much a child desperately needs to play. Play habits are one of the many ways in which a child’s mental and emotional health is assessed. Along with other benefits, purposeful play is a way of building empathy in children.
It is recognized by leaders in the mental health community that play and creativity can promote healing, healthy expression, and empathy. I can offer you some tools that will be applicable to your life as a parent.
So, why is play such an important component for building empathy in children? And how can a parent make use of this information?
Using Play to Build Empathy in Children
1. Play is connecting with another person in a meaningful way.
“When we connect with another person, we reach a higher level of complexity & fulfillment.” – Dr. Dan Siegel
(Learn more about Dr. Dan Siegel here)
Why: Children, and all human beings, crave connection. That’s why it becomes a concern for parents and teachers if it seems difficult for a child to appropriately play or connect with peers. While healthy connection means different things to different people, finding the way that a child can have fulfilling connection that promotes growth is an important part of parenting.
Connection with peers isn’t always easy. Sometimes a child seems to have trouble understanding that his or her behavior might hurt another child. At times, an adult may respond by restricting the play time for that child, or reprimanding that child. Both of these approaches seem logical in the moment (probably because of a desire to address the situation as quickly as possible) but they can have negative impact on a child in the long run.
How: Connect with your child through active engagement in play time. Also, be available to listen to and process your child’s experiences engaging in play with other children each day. These are opportunities to build both your child’s self esteem and capacity for empathy as you note his or her skills and offer support through his or her mistakes.
Most importantly, don’t punish your child by not allowing them to play. Your child needs the experience in play in order to learn the lesson of empathy. Providing the structure needed in order for play to be safe and purposeful will allow your child to improve and to maintain a healthy view of the world.
2. Play teaches your child’s brain to connect learning with enjoyment, and so invites your child to crave learning experiences.
“Making sense of the world through play and imagination is a fundamental part of adaptive human activity.” – Stuart Brown
(Here is Stuart Brown’s TED talk on why Play Is More Than Just Fun)
Why: Engaging in play brings a person into the present moment, which makes us aware of endless possibilities. This is important for your child, as he or she is forming a view of the world – and you want that view to be as hopeful as possible, rather than limited and constricting.
How: Try to ensure that your child is invited to be creative and expressive physically, verbally, and emotionally as a part of learning experiences in order to build empathy.
Follow your child’s lead when it comes to a desire to play. If your child tends to be restless, it may mean that he or she needs more time for physical activity each day. If your child withdraws from activities, it may mean that he or she may need more one on one opportunities before feeling comfortable within a larger group environment.
3. Your child will form a more healthy identity when encouraged to engage in play.
“We learn about ourselves by the way people play & interact with us.” Phyllis Booth
Why: Imagine a world without play. Could empathy even exist? What about adaptability, curiosity, or engaged learning? Empathy in children is a direct byproduct of their confidence, openness, and connectedness within their play.
Empathy in children is especially low if a child is experiencing depression. For a child, depression may appear to be anger or frustration. Purposeful play teaches your child to naturally appreciate his or her own creativity, which increases hope and self esteem. The ability to engage in creative play may be one of the leading ways of preventing depression in children. This is because it requires them to be spontaneous within the present moment without self-judgement.
How: Simply by shifting your view and intention and allowing play to become a priority, you may notice a natural reduction in frustration and increase in attention, joy, and empathy within your child. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, incorporating play into your own life as an adult not only allows you to model to your child the importance of play, but will allow you to be more present and available to your child emotionally. Building empathy in children begins with their parent or caregiver’s ability to connect.
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Please note: If you feel that your child’s behavior or lack of empathy is impacting the quality of his or her life at school or at home, don’t hesitate to seek help and information about how to create positive change in your child’s life.
Contact me via email or phone. I offer a free phone consultation.