I note the obvious differences between each sort and type, but we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.
-Maya Angelou, Human Family
Empathy, the ability to understand others, is a building block of our society. It focuses on the process of deliberately engaging with the thoughts and feelings of others. It is a skill that can be fostered as part of social emotional development, including emotional literacy and perspective taking, as well as through values learning, with a goal for children to understand others and to act in their interests (Gaastra, 2010). Empathy development might not seem like one of the major aspects of science learning. However, research strongly suggests that the opportunity for young children to explore natural environments and learn about animals through media, books and other resources leads to empathy for all organisms and a love of nature.
Empathy means recalling something from one’s own experience and then using it to relate and understand the experience of another—even an animal. This kind of thinking can be fostered in a child by starting with questions like these when observing or learning about an animal:
Notice there is an absence of one particular question in the list: How would you feel if…? That question relies heavily on hypothetical situations and, while it may be effective and appropriate at times, it should not be one of the default questions when attempting to make connections. Empathy means drawing on one’s own experience to connect, so your questions should refer to these direct memories as often as possible.
While understanding animals, empathizing with them and reacting with kindness is within itself an accomplishment, the next step of this process is to transfer these skills for empathizing with fellow humans. As noted by Kehret (2001), “If we can teach children at a young age to treat animals humanely, we will have taken a huge step toward creating a better world. Compassion for animals leads to empathy for people” (p.44). Connecting to another friend, schoolmate or family member is much less of a stretch for a child if they can already make a connection to a multi-legged insect or a worm.
Michelle Byron, MS. Env.Ed. is an Environmental Educator in New York City. She works with young children and helps develop urban outdoor experiences.
Gaastra, A. (2010). Animals and babies: how the vulnerable teach us empathy and compassion. Available at SSRN 1801534.
Kehret, P. (2001). Encouraging Empathy An author makes a case for teaching interpersonal skills. School Library Journal, 47(8), 44-45.