Teaching Children Empathy Through Nature
The last time I let my boys play with my childhood dolls, they literally turned them into boomerangs (there goes quiet playtime). Dolls and imaginative play are great ways to teach empathy to children, but clearly it isn't working well at my house. Luckily, we spend a lot of time outside, and the natural environment is a fantastic place for kids to learn to be more empathetic.
Ways to Encourage Empathy Through Nature:
1. Learning about Lifecycles: Watching a plant or animal pass through its lifecycle is an amazing experience that draws children in. When my own child watched a caterpillar turn into a chrysalis, we were thrilled at the thought of the butterfly that would eventually emerge. Unfortunately, the chrysalis broke free, fell, and burst open. I waited with held breath; we had checked the chrysalis daily for a week!
“How do you feel, knowing he won’t be a butterfly?” I asked.
“Sad…” My heart cracked… “But he will turn into dirt now, and be food for plants, so it is okay. Maybe we will find another chrysalis.” Not bad for a six-year old! My heart nearly exploded with pride.
2. Catching Bugs: Roly-polys, worms, spiders, and beetles. We catch them all at our house, and guess what? The same type of play my boys used to do with dolls, they now do with bugs. They set up elaborate homes for the bugs, and we talk about what the bugs might need. What kind of shelter? What do they eat? Do they like it hot or cold? The discussion about needs of others (even bugs) can start at any age. I knew we were doing well, when one of my sons picked up his bug house, kissed it, and said “you are my best friend, and I shall call you Squirmy”.
3. Saving Bugs: I used to hate spiders, and any poor spider that found its way into my house used to meet an untimely death… Until I realized I was literally killing something in front of my children. How could I preach kindness to others if I was squishing every bug I came across? We have been “saving” bugs by releasing them outside for awhile now. I think it is working, because the other day, my son randomly started telling me about how bugs are more afraid of us than we are them, and they deserve to live, too, so we shouldn’t kill any bug. (I wonder where he learned that?)
Through following my boys’ curiosity for insects, we have learned about how others (bugs) may feel, what their needs may be, and how they would like to be treated. We have also learned about our own feelings, in relation to life and death.
4. Other Ideas for Practicing Empathy in Nature:
Maybe your family doesn’t love bugs as much as we do, but nature provides plenty of opportunities to practice empathy:
- Feeding the birds
- Watching a bird’s nest, as the babies hatch then learn to fly
- Not scaring or chasing animals (how do you think the animal feels?)
- Taking care of your own pets
- Talk about how they feel while outside (How do you feel at the beach? On a hike?)
What would you add to the list?
More Reading on Teaching Children Empathy:
Teaching Children Empathy from the New York Times
How Parents Can Cultivate Empathy in Children from The Harvard Graduate School for Education
13 Children's Books to Spark Conversations about Empathy from Tiny Bop