Many of us might recall an adult in our childhood telling us to “try and put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” This statement emphasizes the idea of empathy, which is the ability to understand and relate to the feelings of another person. Teaching your kids this concept can be more effective with empathy activities for kids so you can really illustrate the behavior. It also helps to teach them empathy from an early age. Here’s why helping your kids to be more empathetic is important.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is being able to sense other people’s feelings and relate to them. It also involves mirroring someone else’s feelings with no selfish intention. The main goal of being empathetic is to understand someone more clearly. This allows kids to bring kindness and compassion to their relationships.
There are emotional and cognitive aspects of empathy. Emotional empathy means being able to experience the emotional state of another person. Cognitive empathy is the ability to imagine the emotional experience of another.
For instance, if your child sees their friend crying, emotional empathy would motivate your child to want to help. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, helps them understand why their friend is sad and needs to be comforted.
For example, if a child sees his friend crying, emotional empathy motivates the child to want to help, but cognitive empathy brings the understanding that the other child is sad and may need to be comforted.
The Importance of Teaching Empathy to Kids
The importance of teaching empathy to kids is quite straightforward: teaching kids how others feel will encourage them to be more careful with their actions and words. Cognitive empathy, in particular, develops later on in childhood when kids better understand that people may have different perspectives and experiences from their own. This allows for a better understanding of others and promotes kinder relationships with their peers and other people.
At What Age Can Kids Learn About Empathy?
Studies have shown that empathy can start developing at a very early age. Newborn babies are actually able to show distress reactions, which are early forms of empathic reactions, when they are exposed to the sound of another crying baby [*].
As babies develop into toddlers, they are more able to engage in empathic behaviors when someone displays distress, such as showing facial expressions, hugging, verbal expressions of support. This is an example of prosocial behavior, particularly giving verbal comfort and advice, sharing, and distracting the person who is distressed [*].
Benefits of Teaching Empathy to Kids
There are several benefits of teaching kids empathy, including the following:
- It helps build a sense of security in their relationships with other children and adults
- Empathy encourages acceptance and tolerance of others
- It positions children well for learning when they understand themselves and others
- Empathy promotes good mental health
- Empathy promotes higher levels of happiness
- Empathy encourages social harmony and reduces the likelihood of bullying
25 Best Empathy Activities for Kids
Teaching empathy activities doesn’t have to be boring for you and your child! There are many activities that you can try together that will effectively teach what empathy is and allow your child to practice it in different situations.
1. Label your feelings
Present your kids with different scenarios and ask them to label their feelings after imagining themselves in those situations. Some examples include being bullied, sitting alone at lunch, or being teased at the playground. This can help them express emotions such as sadness, frustration, pain, and even anger. You can help them understand their feelings better by talking about the emotion and explaining how to channel it in a healthy way. This activity is ideal for children ages 6 and up.
2. Drawing emotions
Drawing or illustrating is a great way to teach kids about simple and complex emotions. Ask your kids to draw faces depending on how they’re feeling. Afterward, discuss why they portrayed their feelings that way and what may have caused them. This is a great activity for children ages 4 and up.
3. Modeling emotions
If you’re thinking of how to teach empathy to kids in a creative way, then bring out the blocks of clay that you have in your house or classroom. Modeling using clay or playdough can help children work on their fine motor skills, creativity, and socio-emotional skills. Guide them through the activity by asking them to model out their emotions using the clay. You can then ask them specifics on how the face looks to really help them practice their emotional recognition skills. Children aged 4 and up can enjoy this activity.
4. Acts of kindness
This activity will encourage children to be empathic by showing kindness. Have your child tell you about something kind they did for someone else and how they felt about it. Next, ask them to do something helpful for someone else and to tell you about it when they are done. This allows kids to reflect upon their actions and be more motivated to be understanding of someone else’s situation and always be kind. This is a good activity for children aged 5 and above.
5. The golden rule
The golden rule is a great way to teach kids about treating others the way they would want to be treated. You can illustrate this with both positive and negative examples, such as getting invited to play or being made fun of. Here, it is important to teach your child that if someone does something to hurt them, it does not give them the right to hurt that person back. This allows them to develop better relationships with friends and peers as well as understand different perspectives. This is an appropriate activity for children aged 6 and above.
6. Emotion charades
Emotional charades can challenge children to express their feelings without saying them using words. This activity helps kids identify other people’s emotions through non-verbal cues. You can use flashcards to help make this activity easier. This is good for kids aged 5 and up.
7. Differences and similarities
This simple activity can help children learn how to be more accepting and understanding of people who are different from them. Explain to your kids that no two people are exactly the same. Some may be taller or shorter, while others may be better at outdoor games than indoor ones. Tell them how these differences make each person unique and that we still share important similarities, such as how we feel about one another. This activity is good for children aged 6 and up.
Teaching empathy to kids can also be done with roleplaying. Give children a specific situation and ask them to think about how they would feel. Then, instruct them to act it out as though they were really in that situation. Some good examples would be if their classmate broke their toy, yelled at them, or if they found a puppy. Praise good reactions and patiently teach them other ways to respond if they show aggression or anger. This can be done with children who are 6 years old and older.
9. Emotion worksheets
Worksheets are a great way to engage kids and teach them more about emotions. You can use a worksheet for exploring emotions so that kids can learn how to recognize feelings and how they act as a result.
10. Mood charts and trackers
Another great way to understand emotions is to teach your kids how to track their moods. Using a mood tracker or a feelings chart, have your child write down how they feel every day throughout the week. Then, look back on their chart and allow them to explain how and why they may have felt. This allows your kids to reflect and understand their feelings more deeply. This type of worksheet is great for kids aged 7 or older.
11. Stories and movies
Children love movies, so choosing ones that teach empathy can really make an impression on them. Try films such as E.T., Inside Out, or Zootopia. You can also narrate or read stories from books that show the importance of being kind and empathetic. When doing so, try pausing and asking them to identify the feelings of the characters. This activity is suitable for children aged 4 and up.
12. Paper chain of kindness
This is a fun and creative way of emphasizing the importance of acts of kindness. Have your kids cut out paper strips and write down acts of kindness they offered or received that day. Help them glue, tape, or staple the strips of paper to form a chain and hang them up on the wall. They can keep adding to the chain every time they give or receive an act of kindness. This is perfect for children aged 4 years old and up.
13. Board games
Board games are a fun way to have children learn! You can choose games like My Feelings or Happy or Not to talk about feelings while having fun at the same time. These games are good for kids 4 years old and up.
14. Empathy display
This activity is excellent for teachers who have students that are getting to know each other a little better. Using paper cutouts in the shape of shoes, have the children choose a shoe and color it in. Tack it up on a board with the statement “You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” Then have the children share their colored shoe along with a few facts about them. This is suitable for kids aged 5 and up.
Journaling is one method that can promote empathy in children. By further understanding their own thoughts and feelings, it is easier for kids to learn about the thoughts and feelings of others. Simple journaling prompts can be used for younger children, so this activity can start as early as age 4.
16. Kindness to animals
Teaching kids to be kind and gentle to animals can teach them how to be more empathetic in general. Your child can help take care of your pets by playing with them or tending to their needs. If you don’t have a pet, then your child could offer to walk the neighbor’s pet. Other examples of activities you can do are creating a bird feeder or reading a book about being kind to animals. Kids aged 4 and up can do these activities.
17. Sentence completion
Sentence completion is a great way for children to understand their emotions even more. Write down sentences for them to complete, such as “I feel excited when…” or “When I see my friend is sad, I…” This is great for kids who are 5 years old or older.
18. Emotion wheel activities
Create an emotion wheel and hang it up in your home or classroom. This will help kids identify emotional states, explore their emotions in everyday situations, start conversations about emotions, and even express the intensity of their emotions. Kids 4 years old and up can use emotion wheels.
Perspective-taking is an activity that can be quite enlightening for kids. Sometimes what is obvious to others may not be clear to us until we see it from their perspective. Have a set of scenarios that your kids or students might encounter and have them answer questions on how people in that situation might feel. You can also ask your kids how they feel about the situation. This is great for kids aged 5 and up.
20. Conversation cubes
Conversation cubes are a fun way to start discussions on different topics, especially those related to prosocial behaviors such as friendship and gratitude. Create cubes out of paper with statements on each side. They can be questions like “What would you say to a friend who is sad?” and other similar statements. This is suitable for children aged 4 and up.
21. Different interests
Teach your child that people have different interests and preferences. You can start by asking questions about who does what in your family and their classroom. For example, ask questions about what people do for fun: Who likes to play basketball? Who enjoys video games? Who likes Legos? It sounds simple, but even older kids will benefit from remembering their friends’ preferences as it helps them show that they care. This activity can be done by kids aged 4 and up.
22. Emotion collage
Get some old magazines and search for pictures of faces feeling different things. Cut them up and make a collage. You and your child can have fun hypothesizing why these people feel this way. This can be done by kids aged 4 and up.
23. Help a friend
Putting an emphasis on helping others shows children that they have connections and interpersonal relationships with other people. Organize activities and opportunities that will allow your kids to help others, such as volunteering. This will allow them to be more caring and empathetic toward others in their community. Helping others can be done as early as 4 years of age.
24. Say something nice
One way to be empathetic is to say something nice to a friend. Encourage your kids to say something nice to someone everyday until it becomes a habit. Kids aged 4 and up can do this simple but kind act.
It is true that sharing is caring. Teaching your kids how to share their belongings with friends can help them observe how it makes another person feel. Encourage them to share their toys, food, and other things with friends. Sharing can be taught to children as young as 4 years of age.
Tips for Incorporating Empathy Activities Into Kids’ Daily Life
Incorporating empathy activities into kids’ daily life can be fun and easy.
One of the things parents can do is model empathetic behavior. It also helps to label emotions so that your kids can understand exactly what they are feeling. More importantly, validating children’s emotions is important as it shows that you care.
Lastly, parents, teachers, and other adults can work on expressing their own feelings in a healthy way. When kids understand why others feel a certain way, they learn to be more empathetic themselves.
The Bottom Line
With the help of these activities to teach empathy, you can let your kids learn how to tune into the feelings of others. While many show sympathy, few actually understand and empathize with other people. If you instill in children the quality of empathy from an early age, they will grow up to be understanding, polite, and compassionate. Make sure that every day is educational and meaningful for your kids now that you have this list.
- Martin G & Clark R. Distress crying in neonates: Species and peer specificity. 1982.
- Knafo-Noam A, Zahn-Waxler C, van Hulle C. The Developmental Origins of a Disposition Toward Empathy: Genetic and Environmental Contributions. January 2009.