How Does Empathy Develop through Play?

Young girl learning empathy through play with puppets

Empathy is a critical and complex skill for young children to develop. Find out how you can support that growth with relaxing, engaging playful experiences.

What is Empathy?

According to early childhood development experts at Zero to Three, “being able to empathize with another person means that a child” can:

  • Understand the distinction between oneself and others, and that other people may have different feelings and perspectives.
  • Recognize one’s own feelings, and others’ feelings, and name them.
  • Self-regulate emotional responses.
  • Identify with the feelings others or imagine how someone might be feeling.
  • Come up with ideas for actions or responses that might help a person feel better.

Empathy development begins in early childhood and continues through adolescence and beyond. The list above follows in sequence, with the later competencies building upon the earlier ones. 

As your child moves through these stages, you can help teach empathy through something that is at the core of what your child does each and every day: play.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children.” 

Through play, your child uses creativity to come to an understanding of how the world works. Your child may take on roles to master a myriad of competencies and overcome fears, and imagination creates a world where it is safe to step out of a comfort zone and try out different solutions to various situations in life.

By engaging in relaxed play with your child, you can naturally weave in opportunities to grow the seeds of empathy. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Using Play to Help Children Develop Empathy

Play House or Family: Around the age of three, children begin to engage in more robust pretend play with others. Playing family and assigning roles is a popular scenario children create. The negotiation of roles is an important part of the process where children learn how to work with others to come to agreement. Let your child lead, but ask questions like, “Who should I be? The baby or the big brother?” “Do you want to be the little sister?” Sometimes children like to be the family pet

By playing another character, your child will naturally take the perspective of that person and act accordingly. Once in character, you can pose simple problems, “Pretend I’m the baby and I’m crying and you help me feel better.” Let your child drive the next steps. Stay in the play scenario as long as your child shows interest. Don’t be afraid to take your role as a crying baby seriously — your child will enjoy it thoroughly. 

Animate Stuffed Animals or Dolls: Children use stuffed animals and dolls in dramatic play. Join in with an animal of your own and ask, “Can we play too?” Most likely, your child will say yes and tell you what your animal should do. Look for natural ways to have your character encounter a problem and pose it in context. Perhaps your animal lost a favorite toy, or couldn’t find anyone for a game of fetch. You might say, “I’m so sad today because no one wants to chase my ball with me.” And then see where it goes. 

On a final note, be mindful of not taking over the play and turning it into a lecture or pushing a strong agenda. Let your child drive the play, but join in, take on roles yourself, and pose some thought provoking and open-ended questions into the scenario to boost your child’s development of empathy.

Bright Horizons Parenting Webinar: Sparking Empathy in Your Child 

How can you help your child develop into an empathetic person? The Bright Horizons Foundation for Children® discusses simple, everyday practices and activities that will spark empathy and encourage your child to be compassionate and caring.


More on Building Empathy Skills

Written by: Bright Horizons Education Team

June 15, 2021

About the Author

Teacher reading to a toddler boy and girl

Whether you’re looking for parenting advice, or trying to figure out how to bring learning from the classroom to the family room, let Bright Horizons early education experts be your trusted, knowledgeable resource. Get our weekly newsletter for all things early child development—from the benefits of pretend play to at-home STEM activities, and teaching kindness—along with encouragement for every stage of your parenting journey.