Play Spaces Build Empathy & Fosters Kindness
by Victoria Babb, Play 4 ALL Campaign
“Unexpected Kindness is the most powerful, least costly, and most underrated agent of human change.” Bob Kerrey
How many of us have witnessed the exchange that happens on a playground between children who have never met before? A child asks another to push them on the swing, twirl them on a merry-go-round, or perhaps one helps lift the other up to grasp the overhead monkey bars. What prompts a child to step aside and allow a smaller child to go first down the slide or to help pick them up when they fall? Children engrossed in play are more likely to approach another child who may look, move, or talk differently than they do and simply ask, “do you want to play?” Barriers are broken down through play and the mind is primed to learn new lessons and skills.
Research again and again support the notion that more happens on a playground than what meets the eye. Play spaces are serving as a forum where children gather, learn, share and cultivate great empathy for each other. Empathy is the ability to relate to other people’s needs and enables them to genuinely respond to their suffering. The response is activated through the act of kindness.
As children play, they are given the opportunity to learn, receive and give kindness. Children are born to be givers but by fourth grade are often socialized to think about themselves. When Parents and caregivers model and facilitate kindness, it is a perfect way to engrain that attribute while children are young, providing strong roots so it will sustain through adulthood. The virtue of kindness towards others improves lives and reduces bullying and violence. It is stated that 1 in 5 children will experience bullying during their childhood that may lead to overwhelming affects into adulthood. Bullying is combated by acts of kindness harnessed by a strong sense of empathy. Both kindness and empathy can be taught and exercised on community and school playgrounds.
Why are playground an optimal place to teach empathy and practice kindness?
Because well designed playgrounds lay the groundwork for the essential learnings of cooperative play, turn-taking, problem solving, rehearsing, evaluation, negotiation, conflict resolution, positive communication and most importantly – compassion. Providing children with their first real experience to the inner workings of a functional, collaborative community such as on a public or school playground prepare them for later in life. Children are encouraged through play to develop the knowledge, skill, temperament and disposition to foster relationships with others and with their environment. The learning that happens is instrumental and allows a child to authentically relate to another child. The universal language of play extends beyond common dialect. Play is a globally understood language that forges connections between children regardless of culture, race or socio-economic status. That connection and similar interest significantly effects the child’s ability to empathize and evoke kindness. Aiding children to advance their understanding for others also teaches them how to identify and process negative feelings within themselves.
Take for example, a child who was waiting for a turn to swing when another child barges in line to take their turn. That scenario is a good time for children to examine their frustrations and impulsive response and to seek viable solutions to resolve the issue. A parent to the child waiting can say, “that child is very excited about the swings like you are, perhaps we can give them the swing first out of kindness.” Or the caregiver can say, “this is a good time to kindly let the child know that you have been waiting, perhaps he/she did not see you.”
More than likely, other children who witnessed the act serve as the child’s advocate and let the child grabbing the swing know that it was not their turn. They speak up for the child waiting if the child is unable to do it for themselves. Advocacy is yet another level of collective empathy and the promotion of a more just and kind world.
If anything, the world needs more kindness and we as parents/caregivers have a responsibility to raise empathetic children who will one day become productive, cooperative citizens. So, with each interaction, with each disagreement, and with each push, twirl, and lift of one another on a playground – children are preparing for the real world.