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How Theater can teach children to learn empathy


Last weekend, our family had the pleasure of attending the Dutch Apple Children’s Theater in Lancaster for “How I Became a Pirate,” by Melinda Long- a lunchtime production where the main character receives some special training on the requirements of pirate life and the manners necessary for the job.

This outing is really a no-brainer decision for us, as we’re grateful to our friends for inviting us along with their family. Our children—ages 8, 5 and 3—spend about 80 percent of their play time engaging in imaginary roles. They love playing house, school and mock camping or sleepover parties. I often wonder why we have a house filled with toys and games, yet they often use them as accessories in these well-imagined scenarios. Many of which are derived from their real-life experiences. A theater visit makes perfect sense for them- possible fodder for later creative play.Photo: Bill Fritsch- overturecenter.com

We’re not exactly sailing on unchartered waters. Many parents are eager for their children’s participation in drama programs, either as budding thespians or as spectators. Theater has been lauded for teaching young people many skills, including creativity, vocabulary and even empathy. So while a visit to a local production can help children get an education and have fun, there may be greater long-term benefits. Could it possibly give this next generation more compassion for others, maybe even preventing behaviors such as bullying?

Lauren Gunderson, a dramatist and theater essayist who writes for the Huffington Post, believes that many of our world’s problems stem from the simple fact that we don’t understand each other and we don’t care to. Gunderson calls it a “collective draining of empathy,” one that may be combated by theater, where the audience is almost forced to empathize.

Bill English of the San Francisco’s SF Playhouse (via Gunderson) believes that “theater is like a gym for empathy. It’s where we can go to build up the muscles of compassion, to practice listening and understanding and engaging with people that are not just like ourselves. We practice sitting down, paying attention and learning from other people’s actions. We practice caring.”

Perhaps a little empathy training, presented within a fun scenario on a stage, could truly help children learn more desirable behaviors. As parents, we’re often on a mission to correct our children’s poor decisions, especially when it comes to sharing or disagreeing with friends or siblings. Emotions and empathy may be inextricably linked, but it’s not always easy for young people to learn empathy. But for those who master that skill earlier in life, they may find it easier to form greater bonds with others as they get older.

Today, there is even a growing body of research on empathy.  Marc Brackett, Ph.D. is the Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Senior Research Scientist in Psychology, Faculty Fellow in the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University. Brackett developed the RULER approach to social and emotional learning for nearly 500,000 students in schools throughout the world. The RULER being an acronym for 1) Recognizing emotions; 2) Understanding emotions; 3) Labeling/describing emotions; 4) Expressing strategies for coping with certain emotions; and 5) Regulating those emotions/developing strategies to prevent uncomfortable emotions.

“I learned to put myself in another person’s place. I think I learned the most from the word accepting because I rarely used to accept people,” says a 6th grade student from Brooklyn, whose testimonial regarding the RULER approach is visible on Brackett’s website: www.therulerapproach.org

And although learning to put themselves in another’s shoes can take some time, I’m hopeful that my girls will recognize their wrongdoing before leaving out their little brother in a game of Barbies. Or, likewise, my son will learn that messing up his sister’s Lego masterpiece is heartbreaking for her. With time, maybe they will understand that having compassion and sympathy for others can be a win-win situation.

Julia Sherwin is a freelance writer and mother of three who lives in Chester County. She is a former college journalism instructor who enjoys running, biking, swimming, traveling and cooking.

Email her at jsherwin73@gmail.com  or follow her other parenting articles at juliasherwin.wordpress.com.


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Photo: Bill Fritsch- overturecenter.com