15 Activities and Games to Help Develop Empathy in Children

Do you want to encourage empathy in your children? We suggest some activities and games that can be done at school or at home.
15 Activities and Games to Help Develop Empathy in Children
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Written and verified by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Last update: 08 July, 2022

Empathy is one of the most important prosocial skills. It can be described as the ability to understand what others feel, view the situation from their perspective, and swap places with them. It’s a mediator in any type of social interaction.

Empathy begins to develop during childhood. Therefore, we’ve put together a list of activities and games to help develop this quality.

It’s important for children to develop empathy

Empathy is a skill that’s related to kindness, otherness, camaraderie, solidarity, teamwork, and support. Experts agree that it’s an essential skill in social development, one that allows human beings to strengthen ties, build and maintain relationships, and relate to others on a wider scale.

According to research, empathy is mediated by social constructs. This means that the degree of empathy that a person develops depends on their cultural environment. It’s an ability that’s not only anchored in ethics, but also in morals, religion, customs and other variables.

A study published in 2020 in European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry claimed that children with disruptive behaviors have problems developing empathy. Furthermore, the less they’re encouraged, the more they’re likely to manifest attitudes of this type.

Researchers have also found that the degree of empathy predicts the predisposition to lie. Children who are more empathetic lie less and, when they do, the lies don’t tend to last for so long.

Here are some other reasons to use games to help develop empathy in children:

  • Empathetic feelings decrease the tendency to bullying.
  • They promote kindness, collaborative work, and the will to help others.
  • They’re useful for teaching children how to express their feelings and emotions and connect with those of others.
  • They teach guidelines for responding to different social situations. For example, mourning, accidents, etc.
  • They’re a means of learning how to recognize, control and regulate their own emotions.
  • They help improve their communication skills in general, not just with regard to the ability to listen to others.

Now that you know the importance of children developing empathy, take a look at the suggested activities below.

Games to help develop empathy in children

Broadly speaking, there are two types of empathy: cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. The first refers to the ability to rationally interpret or predict emotions in others. The second is the ability to tune in to those emotions so that a similar reaction is generated in our state of mind.

The games we list here to help develop empathy in children are useful in encouraging both types. We recommend you try a few of them to achieve benefits in the two different kinds.

1. Guessing the emotions of others

Being an empath means understanding and distinguishing the emotions of others. The first of the games to help develop empathy in children involves guessing others’ emotions.

There are many ways to do this. In this case, we suggest you select several illustrated books in which they must try to guess and describe the emotions of the characters.

Choose books that include both people and animals. Don’t pay any heed to the written story, only the illustrations. You can write on a separate sheet which emotions correspond to each character, why they may feel that way, and even what could be done to help them.

2. Listening to music

A study published in 2013 in Psychology of Music found that group musical interaction has a positive influence on children’s empathy. Further evidence suggests that physical exercise and drawing to music also have a beneficial impact on the development of empathy in young children.

We suggest you include music sessions in various aspects of everyday life. For example, when cooking, drawing, or going to sleep. You can either choose instrumental pieces or those in which the lyrics revolve around a feeling or an idea from which empathic teaching can be extracted. You can discuss it together if you want more positive reinforcement.

3. Reading children’s literature

Experts agree that children’s literature is a great tool for fostering empathy. Carry out reading sessions of this type, and stop at passages from which you can extract empathetic learning.

In addition, this will help encourage children to read, something that, in the long run, will help boost their cognitive and critical skills.

Girl reading in a library
Reading encourages empathy in children because they put themselves in the place of the characters.

4. Interacting with animals

Researchers have found that interacting with animals fosters children’s empathy and prosocial behavior.

Interacting face to face with animals is an excellent way to connect with our own and others’ emotions, so it’s useful for developing empathy in children. Adopting a pet, going to the zoo, or to farms is one way of doing this.

5. Playing video games

Often, you tend to think of video games as being violent. However, studies have found that prosocial video games are a useful tool for working on empathy.

As a matter of fact, some experts consider gamification as an essential method in teaching empathic attitudes in a playful way.

6. Implementing creative writing programs

There’s some evidence that links the implementation of written skills with the development of empathy in children. There are many ways of improving their writing skills, but we suggest you implement creative writing programs. Writing stories, short stories, and poems will help them develop empathy.

7. Developing stage skills

Studies suggest that different types of artistic participation are related to a greater development of empathy. For example, the visual and the performing arts.

Painting, sculpture, and theater, among others, are ideal channels to enhance children’s empathetic spirit. Try and make them a habit that they continue into their adult life.

8. Sharing optical illusions

Many optical illusions have the ability to elicit different responses from the viewer. The impossible trident by DH Schuster, the triangle by Kanizsa, the drawing of the duck or the rabbit (by an anonymous author, although documented for the first time in 1892), the impossible cube by MC Escher or the well-known Rubin vase are just a few examples that you can use.

9. Developing role-play

These are games in which, for a few minutes, children play a certain role. It’s an experience similar to theater, but without a specific script.

Through role-play, they can connect with other people’s emotions and thoughts, which will promote the principle of otherness. As far as possible, the recreated scenes should revolve around empathic situations.

10. Writing a journal of emotions

We’re more empathetic when we know we can control our own feelings. Therefore, keeping a diary of emotions is an excellent strategy for developing empathy.

In it, the child should write down the emotions and feelings that they experience in their day-to-day routine. They can then share them with you.

11. Playing guessing games

Experts have found that a game of emotional charades is useful for teaching empathy in a playful way. The rules are the same as in the classic game, except cards with emotions are used.

The participants have to try and describe the emotions on the cards without referring directly to them, initially through gestures and mimicry.

Parents playing riddles with children
Playing guessing games involves recognizing the main characteristics of emotion.

12. Brainstorming how to be kind

You put forward a hypothetical situation involving morals, ethics, values, or citizen commitment and ask how they’d solve the problem. For example, what would they do if they saw a well-known person crying on the street, an older adult in distress, an animal suffering, and so on.

13. Posing humorous situations

A study published in 2020 in Europe’s Journal of Psychology, found that a sense of humor is related to an individual’s empathy. Aggressive humor is related to lower emotional empathy and affective sympathy scores. Teaching the limits between humor and ridicule is another game that helps develop empathy in children.

14. Playing board games

Both traditional and modern board games are a tool for fostering teamwork, camaraderie, and collaboration. In fact, these playful activities can become a space for children to develop their empathetic skills. They can be included both at school and at home.

15. Identifying emotions in photographs

Finally, another game to help develop empathy in children consists of identifying emotions in photographs of both the child and their social circle (friends, family, etc). This encourages them to be empathic with those who are immediately close to them, as well as to learn to identify the particular gestures and attitudes of each one of them.

Finally, don’t stick to just one of these activities. Try to include several. You can even try all of them and find out which one gives the best results. If it’s possible, you should carry out the activities in a group setting, so empathy is worked on in a context where it can manifest itself.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.