Narrative Play as a way to learn empathy

I’ve noticed with my own kids that often, when they observe or I point out a small child who is sad, or a grumpy adult, they will ask why. Why is that baby crying?
Why is that dog barking?

And I will try to give a reason if I have one:
"Oh, that baby just dropped his ice cream."
"Maybe that dog is just trying to defend his yard."

And inevitably the kids will start acting out that scenario I just posed:

My child voicing the baby’s thoughts: "Oh no! I just got this sweet delicious treat that I never get to eat, and now it is gone! My mommy won’t even let me eat it off the floor! This is the worst day ever!"
My child as the dog: "Hey! This is my yard! Go away! Don’t even think about it!"

These are not meant as teasing or condescending. They are acts of empathy. They are trying to understand and mirror the child, dog, or adult’s thought process and reasoning.

These are examples of how narrative play, storytelling, and acting out scenarios, are acts of building empathy and taking a different perspective.

While this is not a new concept, I feel like it is often a forgotten aspect of play. We focus on the physical and cognitive benefits of play, and some of the mental health benefits, but not necessarily the interpersonal, empathy building aspects that are so critical to a society’s well-being and building better interpersonal understanding and skills.

In fact, narrative play is now being used as part of therapy practices.

As we face a mental health crisis in the US, and budget cuts are in progress or threatened across US school systems as well, it is a good reminder of the importance of narrative play, whether that is theater, literature classes, or open play during recess.

Let your kids tell stories, and explore others’ feelings.

Even if it’s the neighbor’s dog.

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