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Building Empathy Through Play

2020-06-05 by Dr. Jenny
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My heart is heavy from watching the unrest in the U.S. this past week — and I bet our kids are feeling it, too. As I’ve said in the past, kids pick up on our heightened stress and feed off of it, or maybe, like me, you’re having daily conversations with your kids about injustice and discrimination. So what can you do with this energy, to try to raise good humans who will be patient, fair, and empathic with one another?

One thing I love about play is that it gets us into each other’s minds, and helps us build empathy. We can see one another’s perspectives more clearly when we play games or make up imaginary worlds together. Play creates a space for conversations that might not otherwise happen.


5 Ways to Help a Child Develop Empathy

I want to share a few classic ideas for playing with young kids that naturally support empathy and flexible thinking:

  1. Get lost in pretend play
    I know it feels silly, but go ahead be the evil queen while your child is a brave knight. Be Rey and Finn running away from Storm Troopers. Be the shopper in your child’s grocery store (with masks, maybe!) Or be a veterinary assistant while your child treats a packed waiting room full of stuffed animals. Listen to your child’s ideas for where the story should go, and add your own. Talk about how your stuffed animals might be feeling, as if they were alive, and imagine new potions to help them feel better.
  2. Think about your opponent’s strategy
    There’s nothing like getting in your opponent’s mind to help you win a game of chess! But the same thing goes for card games, strategy games like Battleship or Suspend, or old fashioned games like Tic Tac Toe or checkers. Teach your child to watch what the other person is doing, help them try to guess what the opponent is thinking, and be ok with losing!
  3. Have them make something for someone they love
    Mom, want a mocha or an iced coffee? What would you like on your sushi roll or pizza? These little acts of pretend play help kids practice at serving others, and getting pleasure out of seeing someone else’s happiness.
  4. Focus on character’s experiences
    Reading is a crucial way that children learn to think about other people’s perspectives and emotions. When you notice that your child really loves a character, use that as an opportunity to ask: What is that character feeling? What might he do next? I wonder why she did that? I love the book “Have You Filled a Bucket Today?” — which teaches that you can either fill or empty someone else’s bucket based on your actions.
  5. Arrange a grandparent storytime over video chat
    It’s amazing to hear what grandparents were like when they were little. This really opens up children’s minds to the idea that people change through life, have very individual experiences, lived in times that were in some ways different and some ways the same to ours, and how people we love are shaped by these times and experiences.

OK, I realize that none of this may seem easy when your own mind and emotions are in overload. You may need to schedule some time every day to slow down to play speed, and put your news/technology/work brain on the shelf. You can try to take stock of what color zone you’re in, and do a few stretches, breaths, or thought exercises to get your bodies grounded and minds open.

Of course, I understand that play alone is not enough to put an end to racism — that needs to be done through lots of hard work on policy, community, and relationship levels. But being empathic and mentally flexible can hopefully help our children be the upstanders and problem-solvers of tomorrow.

Want to learn how to talk about racial bias with your children? Check out this article by the American Academy of Pediatrics >

The American Academy of Pediatrics is partnering with Melissa & Doug on the Power of Play to raise awareness about the health benefits of open-ended play and how important play is for both parents and kids.

Learn more about the Power of Play >

This web site is not an attempt to practice medicine or provide specific medical advice, nor does use of the site establish a physician-patient relationship. The use of this web site does not replace medical consultation with a qualified health or medical professional to meet the health and medical needs of you or others.


Dr. Jenny

Jenny Radesky, M.D., is a Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician whose research focuses on family digital media use, child social-emotional development, and parent-child interaction. She graduated from Harvard Medical School cum laude in 2007 and is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. Her clinical work focuses on autism, traumatic stress, ADHD, and self-regulation. Dr. Jenny’s ultimate goal is to help parents understand the individual ways their child thinks, learns, and feels; to help parents provide the best therapy and play experiences for their children; but to also allow parents to sit back and let their child’s mind take the lead sometimes. She authored the 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics digital media guidelines for young children.

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