Empathy, being able to understand how someone else feels in a given situation, is a valuable life skill. Empathy strengthens relationships by building understanding between the parties. Beyond that, Paul Coleman, Psy.D., says the ability to empathize also helps children perform better in school. But empathy does not necessarily come naturally. Sometimes children need a little help to develop it.
I Know Just How You Feel
Write emotions on the top line of standard 3”-by-5” index cards. Distribute one card to each child. Then ask each to write about a time when he felt that way. When all of the children have finished, collect the cards. Read the stories aloud and ask the children to identify which emotion each story represents. If the group is old enough and has a supportive culture, you may wish to have children take turns drawing cards at random to read out, instead of reading them yourself.
Sculpt a Feeling
Knowing how to “read” how someone else is feeling constitutes a key skill for empathy. Help children develop this skill with a simple sculpting game. Write emotions on slips of paper and put them in a bucket. Have one child volunteer to be the first “statue.” This child does not move. Choose a “sculptor” from the remaining children. The sculptor will draw an emotion from the bucket and “sculpt” the “statue” to display that emotion. The other children will then try to guess what emotion the statue displays. The statue then becomes the sculptor and the game continues.
Wilderdom.com includes Zoom in a list of icebreaker activities. Listening well and seeing things from another person's perspective, which are crucial for empathy, feature prominently in this game. Randomly distribute a set of pictures that tell a story. Children must not let anyone else see their pictures. The goal is for the children to recreate the story, in order, by listening to the others to figure out where their parts of the story fit.
That Takes Me Back
Music is a powerful tool for expressing emotions. Use it to help build empathy with this game that is similar to a musical version of Red Light, Green Light. Line children up side by side (as if for a race) and play clips of music. If a child can identify a time when something happened that made him feel the same way the music did, he may take a step forward. Call on a child or two to identify the feeling in the music. (It is OK if children identify different emotions for the same music clip.) If the setting is emotionally safe, you may ask the child to share the story, but it is not necessary.