We often think of empathy as something one does or does not innately have. But did you know that empathy can be taught and cultivated from a young age?
Empathy, at its roots, is the ability to understand how another person might be feeling. This skill is at the foundation of making strong friendships and building a sense of community and connection in students.
Fortunately, teaching empathy doesn’t have to be overly complicated or serious. You can help your students by teaching empathy activities and games. Keep reading, and we’ll share a few ideas that might work in your classroom.
1. Character Role-Playing
Getting into character is one of the most fun and educational types of empathy games. It allows students to apply their understanding of the content in the real world. Whether it’s a character from a book or a historical figure, asking your students to step into another person’s shoes will help them develop a strong sense of empathy.
- Have the students write a short story from the perspective of a character.
- Ask a group of students to work together to act out a scene from a novel or play.
- Establish a “dress up as your favorite character” day, and have students share why they chose the person/character they did.
The point of role-playing is to imagine life from another person’s perspective. Make sure to ask thought-provoking questions like, “What makes this person happy?” or “What are their challenges?” Getting students to think more critically about the character can help them shift perspectives.
2. Empathy Scavenger Hunts
A classroom, grade level or school-wide scavenger hunt might be the perfect solution to empathy games for students. Working together with teammates will help them foster relationships. Additionally, you can create clues and activities that help them get to know their fellow students and school faculty on a more personal level.
To foster empathy, you might task the students with creating some of the clues and activities themselves. As an example, you might create clues that point to an individual within the school. Once they arrive at that person’s desk, locker, office, etc., they can ask questions to get to know the individual better. This is an especially great activity for the start of the school year.
3. Identifying Emotions
If your students are in elementary or middle school, it might help to start with something simple. Identifying and modeling different emotions can be a basic but fun introduction to empathy. Here are a few ideas for teaching young students about different emotions:
- Write out a list of emotions on the chalkboard, and ask students to model that emotion on their faces.
- Play a game of charades, wherein one person acts out emotion, and the others have to guess.
- Present students with a scene or scenario, and ask them to act out how they would feel in that situation.
Asking your students, “How would you feel if…,” can be a great introduction to emotions and empathy.
4. Student Check-Ins
Putting yourself in another person’s shoes is a great way to learn empathy. You can learn to appreciate another person’s feelings if you don’t yet understand your own. That’s why it’s a good idea to perform regular check-ins with your students. Be prepared to ask questions relevant to the student’s age and circumstances. We’ve listed some examples below:
Empathy questions for elementary students:
- What makes you feel happy, upset, angry, or sad?
- How do you know when someone is listening to you?
- What would you say to a classmate who was feeling sad?
- How does it feel when someone interrupts you or doesn’t listen to what you say?
Those questions might be a little too easy if you teach older kids. Consider these empathy questions for middle school students:
- What does it mean to put yourself in someone else’s shoes?
- Can you think of an experience where you wished someone understood how you felt?
- How can you show better empathy to other people?
By the time students move up from middle school, they might be ready for empathy questions for high school students:
- How is empathy different from sympathy?
- Why do you think some people have an easier time empathizing with others?
- How do you think social media affects our ability to feel empathy?
- Who is someone who shows empathy well? What makes you feel that way?
These are examples of questions that will help your students think more critically about empathy and how it can be developed naturally into as a skill.
Another outstanding example of a ready-made daily check-in is 180 Connections, created by Rachel’s Challenge. This interactive resource provides daily prompts for students in elementary through high school. It not only provides thought-provoking questions, but also allows students to connect more deeply with their teacher as well as other students. It’s a win-win!
5. Interview and Art Projects
If your students like to work with their hands, an interview/art project might be a great method of teaching empathy. Task the students with selecting a person in the classroom or school to get to know better.
Once they’ve performed a series of interviews, allow them to create a visual representation of the person they’ve gotten to know. It could be a sculpture, a portrait, a collage, or any other art medium. Thinking about that person’s life experience and transforming what they know into a work of art will help cultivate empathy.
6. Emotions Collage
If you are looking for teaching empathy activities that include artwork, here’s another idea: allow your students to create a “feelings collage” that represents the different emotions they feel from time to time.
Bring a stack of magazines and newspapers, along with other craft supplies, to the classroom. Let your students use their imaginations to choose images and text to include. Don’t forget to have each student explain to the class their choices for their “feelings collage” and method of thinking at the end of the activity.
Why Empathy Matters
Remember, empathy games are more than a teambuilding exercise or a way to kill time. When you build empathy within the classroom, you foster an environment of safety, community, and understanding. Ultimately, this will help every student and faculty member create more profound and meaningful relationships.
If you would like some help fostering empathy and connection at your school, feel free to get in touch. At Rachel’s Challenge, we have several helpful resources and programs designed with this purpose in mind.