Educators know that young children imitate what they see and experience; unfortunately these experiences may include evidence that our world is sometimes violent. Frequent exposure to violence may even suggest to young children that violence is the norm and is to be accepted.
One way to counteract this message is to help children witness caring behaviors and to become involved in caring activities of their own. While caring activities aren’t a cure-all for combating violence, they can be used as a vehicle for promoting empathy in young children. Once developed, these dispositions and behaviors can become life-long patterns benefiting both the children and the communities in which they live.
Fostering empathy—the ability to understand how others feel—is perhaps the most effective way to inhibit aggression and bullying behaviors. Empathy helps us become more inclusive and tolerant of differences.
Some people may think that young children aren’t cognitively or emotionally ready to be concerned about anyone but themselves. This isn’t true. Caring behavior is evident during the first year of life. Infants show signs of distress when another baby cries, and toddlers get anxious when another child gets hurt or is punished. But while young children may feel empathy, they often need help learning how to express empathy.
As in most other areas of social emotional development, empathy and caring need to be nurtured through direct involvement in meaningful activities. Involving children in the care of plants and animals is an excellent example of how to do this.
Tending to the needs of other living things requires children to give thought and attention to something outside of themselves. As children interact with plants and animals, they learn that other living things have basic needs which must be met for them to survive. These experiences help children make the connection between caring behaviors and good outcomes, such as growth or affection.
Following are some specific ways in which you can foster empathy and caring in the classroom through involvement with plants and animals.
- Introduce animals in the classroom. You may choose to have a classroom pet, such as a hamster or guinea pig. Even less hands-on creatures—such as fish, snails or earthworms—can become a regular part of the classroom environment. The important thing is to make sure the animal’s needs can be met through appropriate habitat, food and water. It’s also important to see that the animal is always handled gently and treated with respect. If you collect an animal from outdoors for closer observation, you should keep it only for a short period of time and then return it to its natural habitat, explaining to the children why this is important.
- Involve children in some gardening activities. A garden—whether in a window pot or plot of land—can help children empathize with the fragility of the environment through plants. As children learn about the wonder of seeds, the growth of tender new roots, and the need plants have for uncontaminated water, they will also learn about ecological perspective taking. Perspective taking is the cognitive aspect of empathy, while caring is the affective or emotional side. We sometimes use the term “perspective taking” in reference to the ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions and the situations they’re experiencing. When we speak of “ecological perspective taking,” we apply this concept to our relationship with the natural world.
- Help children discover and care for wildlife in the school yard. Through careful observation, children can become more aware of birds, snails, spiders, lady bugs, bees, butterflies, ants, squirrels and worms living right outside the classroom door. Caring for these backyard creatures can be as simple as setting up bird feeders and bird baths, providing yarn for birds during their nesting season, planting a butterfly garden—or even avoiding stepping on ants and spiders or disturbing a spider’s web.
- Encourage playful identification with animals. Provide simple animal costumes or puppets. Have children crawl like a snake, fly like a bird or bury nuts like a squirrel.
- Provide a variety of animal replicas and encourage children to construct habitats for their animals.
- Identify and share pro-nature books with children. Pro-nature books give positive messages about animals and plants and suggest caring ways to relate to other living things. (A listing of some pro-nature books for young children can be found here.)
Helping children develop empathy for other living things means more than saving some lady bugs and spiders. As children develop empathy for plants and animals, they are also developing perspective-taking skills which are critical aspects of social emotional competence. As children develop perspective-taking skills with plants and animals, they’ll be developing a sense of empathy for people as well.
Wilson is an educational consultant and curriculum writer.