Being Mindful of ‘Kindfull’ Play: Empathy-Building Play Therapy

It is not a surprise that we have heard much stirring in the last several years about the importance of empathy and its role in everything from attachment, to neural development, to world positivity. There is an empathy shortage in the world, and we are seeing the far-reaching effects. Bullying. Violence. Insensitivity. Selfishness. In practice, we often see the damage done with children who are traumatized because of early life experiences characterized by a lack of empathy. Abuse, neglect, emotional bankruptcy, painful attachments and a violation of trust all contribute to a child’s ability or disruption in naturally cultivating this inherent trait.

As play therapists, we are placed in a critical position to help do something about this. But how do we teach empathy to traumatized children? Because of the unique link between trust and empathy, how do we help them develop a sense of empathy for others without worry that trust will be broken? Aside from the basic child-centered approach that demands an empathic approach from the therapist, we can further this in tangible ways to make it come alive.

First, remember the important points about emotional intelligence, moral development, and capacity for empathy:

  • All beings are capable of empathy, it is a matter of nurturing it to its inherent potential.
  • It is on a continuum of emotional and cognitive development/ability.
  • The number of developmental assets a child has often influences moral development

Beyond that,  I call my approach “Kindfull” Play, and it looks something like this:

Modeling – It sounds basic, but remember that not only are we as therapists modeling empathy toward the child, but also toward the world in general. Seize opportunities to show kindness – from the stray bug that wanders into the room, to the dolls they are playing with, to a character in a sandtray. Point out feelings and ask children to recognize them in others. You are demonstrating that others can be trusted.

Sensory words and Practices – Remember that empathy is not only a thought or feeling alone; it is an Experience. It is the ability to not only think, but feel kindness, compassion, and concern for another’s situation or being. With that in mind, help the child FEEL this by using sensory words and language to engage that part of their brains. Use poetry and storytelling to enhance this play. Favorite tip:  Present your client with a list of feeling words and ask them to create a poem or write a story based on the words. For older children/teens, ask them to pick a song that instills an empathic feeling. Review the lyrics together and how they are affected by it.

Dolls, Puppets and Faces! – Empathy can be demonstrated most easily through facial expressions. Play facial expression games, faces flash cards, and ask them to create a show for others to guess Feeling Faces. Favorite tip:  Face Focus x 3 – Ask a child to choose a feeling, draw the face of the feeling, and list three possible reasons the face feels that way. Then ask them to list three ways to helpfully respond with kindness and compassion.

Bibliotherapy – Stock your playroom with terrific books on empathy and caring. Use these frequently and strengthen this activity by then engaging your client in creative crafts related to each story. Favorite tip:  Add the titles ‘Understand and Care,’ and ‘Don’t Laugh At Me’ to your collections. Also, see http://booksthathealkids.blogspot.com/ for one of the most comprehensive bibliotherapy resources available for working with children.

Nature Niceness – Bring nature play into your sessions, as it is a resource rich in opportunities for practicing kindness. Introduce them to every form of life and teach respect for it. Engage their senses on an instinctual level with kind words. Let them marvel over a blade of grass, and delight in the ant walking busily over the dirt. Touch the tree bark and notice how hard, rough, or smooth it is. Do not pick flowers, but let the growing petals brush over their skin. How soft is it? What does it smell like?  Favorite tip:  One of my favorite activities is to go on a nature walk with a child and find a special rock. Create a pet rock and design a Care List outlining what the rock needs and how it will feel if it doesn’t receive this.

Caregiver Compassion – Incorporate caregivers as empathy teachers! This is a critical point in order to help empathy grow outside of your sessions. Here, you will want to incorporate elements of filial play within your sessions and also teach parents how to continue this at home so that empathy forms where it will be most important – with their caregivers. Teach parents how to be emotionally in tune by practicing the same kinds of empathy building play you do in your sessions. Favorite tip: Have them plant a seed of any sort together, and nurture it to life. Keep a diary of how the plant feels when it receives water, when its leaves unfurl, or when sunshine warms the soil.

Share Your Self – End every session with your experience and expression of empathy toward what they have completed and accomplished. Favorite tip:  Also ask them to summarize and share, choosing one way they will apply this until the next time they see you.

My experience has taught me that there is a clear link between empathy, resilience,  and post traumatic growth. Higher levels of empathy for self and others appear to strengthen a child’s ability to heal and find trust in the world again. When we cultivate empathy in the play therapy room, not only is a child then more able to experience empathy for others, but he can experience it for himself and translate it into self-compassion and gentleness. Because empathy itself is an experience, play and play therapy are the perfect places to integrate this important healing step. In so doing, we will help set their personal stages for a lifetime of resilience, aid in moral development and values clarification, and strengthen the cycle of kindness for generations ahead. Wishing you Kindness in all things!

Related Articles:
Play is Important for Children & Their Parents
The Spirit of a Play Therapist
Moving Out From the Shadow of Trauma

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Cherie L. Spehar, LCSW, CTC-S, RPT-S, therapist in Apex, North Carolina

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Bella

    January 12th, 2012 at 5:19 PM

    As a play therapist one must find it awfully hard to give small kids empathy if they have had this taken away from them via violence in the home and who knows what else they have had to experience! The sad thing is that most innocent young kids are the most empathetic- they care about others without thought of what it means for them, they just want everyone to be safe and happy. As an adult, how could I ever feel good about myself knowing that I took this away from them? It must take a whole lot of hard work with both the therapist and the family to give this back.

  • Cherie L. Spehar, LCSW, CTS - Smiling Spirit Pathways

    Cherie L. Spehar, LCSW, CTS - Smiling Spirit Pathways

    January 12th, 2012 at 7:24 PM

    Hi Bella! Thanks so much for your comment! Yes, it can be quite challenging at times, because the children have to learn to trust adults and the world that “hurt them”. The best news is that since the capacity for empathy is present, it can be nurtured to life even if it was part of the wounding experience. I love your compassion that is evident in your response – thank you again for connecting!!! Cherie

  • Zac

    January 13th, 2012 at 5:40 AM

    It is the same things that all of us need to do when we are interacting with children. We have to model the kind of behaviors that we want them to exhibit. Kids are like little sponges and we all know that. Whatever they see and hear they are going to emulate. And yes some of that may even be bad from a bad upbringing or what not. But they are malleable, they are able to overcome. That is such a cool thing abut kids. With the right leadership they can get on the right track. That is not going to happen with unhealthy parents and a bad home environment but take most of them out of that and with the right help they are gonna thrive again.

  • ARNOLD

    January 13th, 2012 at 11:58 PM

    Empathy is something that is quickly vanishing. The lack of empathy is visible in everyday life too, be it in community or even in peer groups.People need to realize empathy is something that provides support for everyone and that practicing it really does help us grow and help others and ourselves.

  • isha

    April 11th, 2013 at 2:19 AM

    why dont you put up some plays

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