The Power of Child’s Play: Fostering Empathy and Connection

by Dr. Amy Sosa

Children play. That is a fact of life. Have you ever waited in a line while your little ones find something to occupy their minds? They may play peekaboo with a neighbor, smile at a stranger, or grab the closest object to them and explore it with unbounding curiosity. Play is critical to child development because it teaches children how to navigate the world.  Specifically, child’s play centers around one of two themes: power and connection.  

When people think of power, they often think of authority over someone or something else. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, power is defined as“the ability to act or produce an effect” or “the possession of control, authority, or influence over others.” When children engage in imaginative play of power, they often possess “superpowers” to destroy bad people or get rid of scary creatures. Ironically, they use violence to feel safe. This egocentric activity fulfills children’s needs to feel invincible and powerful; however, it negates the experience of the other person.  

When people think of connection, they think of forming strong bonds with one another. Merriam-Webster defines connection as“a relationship in which a person, thing, or idea is linked or associated with something else.” Children want to connect with one another because all human beings have an innate need to feel like they belong and that they are loved and valued. Oftentimes, however, children’s toys centered on connection elicit only nurturance and negate feelings of value and importance.  

Moreover, children’s toys are often gender split, with girls’ toys providing lessons in nurturance and boys’ toys providing lessons in destruction. This is dangerous because power becomes equated with destruction/boys and nurturance becomes equated with connection/girls. Luckily, children give us many opportunities to provide teachable moments.  

Below are three steps you can take to provide teachable moments to your children and the children in your community:   

    1. Teach children empathy when they are engaging in play that exhibits destructive power. For example, if a child is pretending to be Spiderman through shooting webs to catch the “bad guys,” guide your child’s play through asking, “What do you want to teach the people you are catching?” By asking this simple question, you are showing your child that (s)he has influence through teaching others. This also fosters problem-solving skills and connection/understanding, which is the foundation of empathy.
    2. Teach children emotional identification and expression through the use of a Feelings Chart. A page depicting expressions of several emotions (such as angry, sad, happy, embarrassed, worried, scared, hurt) provides as easy tool for children to identify their emotional states. Create the chart together and discuss examples of ways you express various emotions. Then, throughout the day, show children the chart and ask them to point to how they are feeling. You can then provide two to three options of ways to express such emotions (such as screaming into a pillow, crying, drawing, laughing, etc.) based on the emotion they identified. Up the empathy ante by asking your children how they think you are feeling in certain situations. Try the same with characters in movies and books.
    3. Read inclusive children’s books. Children love getting lost in stories. Thus, it is important for children to recognize similarities and differences in order to cultivate connection, empathy, and influence. Have a diverse collection of books that include same-sex couples, biracial couples, as well as children of all skin tones, languages, and nationalities. This teaches recognition of similarities and acceptance of differences, laying the seeds for empathic understanding.

Gatewell Therapy Center offers individual, family, and group therapy to children, adolescents, and adults.

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