Understanding the role of roleplay in building empathy

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As your little one hits that 18-24 month mark, you may notice that they begin to copy you or start pretending to be someone else during playtime. Whether it is pretending to pick up a phone call, pretending to leave for work or even pretending to drink a coffee in the morning… It can be pretty adorable. 

But on top of being downright cute – it also represents an important developmental milestone. Pretend play, or roleplay is an important stage of play as it represents when children begin to use play to figure out and explore the world around them. From social roles like going to work, taking care of others and being a parent, to more practical things, like taking out the rubbish, or constructing roads and buildings, to even fantastical things like being a fairy, or a superhero. 

In partnership with LEGO® DUPLO®, we’re taking a look at how roleplay can help our little ones to develop empathy and begin to understand how to put themselves in someone else’s shoes…

The relationship between roleplay and empathy 

As parents, encouraging this development is vital, because roleplay not only develops their creativity and imagination but is also helping them develop empathy for others. Empathy is a critical and complex skill for young children to develop – but it essentially boils down to being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to understand how they may be thinking and feeling. 

What does empathy look like in children?

Empathy is something many adults can even struggle with from time to time. We’ve all got a lot going in our lives and it can be hard to slow down, understand and feel something from someone else’s perspective. It’s a complex skill and is something we develop over time – so you can imagine our little ones aren’t exactly pros at it from the beginning. Especially when they seem to have no problem throwing the dinner you made on the floor. 

However, we know that children as young as two can begin to understand how other people feel, even when they don’t feel the same way themselves. This may appear as them trying to soothe an upset sibling, or even feeling sorry for (though they won’t use these terms) for a character in a storybook.

This skill won’t appear overnight and in those first few years, it can often feel like their empathy is an on/off switch, with their ability to be empathetic depending on their mood, the situation or it can simply feel random. 

Lego farm tractor and animal care set

How does roleplay develop empathy in children?

You can think about roleplay as essentially playing in someone else’s shoes. Our children use roleplay to pretend to be someone else, and in turn, gain some insights into how it must feel to be that person. Furthermore, we can use roleplay to help our little ones understand how their actions and behaviours can affect others, which will develop their social and emotional skills. 

While they may be happy to roleplay during independent playtime – it can be great to actually join in and encourage roleplay when you are playing with them. For example, if you see them playing with the LEGO DUPLO Farm Tractor and Animal Care set, ask them what sort of game they are playing and if you can join in too. If they were pretending to be a farmer, for example, you can pretend to be one of the animals on the farm and narrate some of the animal’s emotions through play. 

If your child is taking care of the animals you may say, “Yay! It makes me happy when you take good care of me.” Or, if your child says that it’s time for you to go to bed you could say, “It makes me sad because I want to keep playing.” 

By bringing up your own feelings during play, you are helping your child understand how someone may feel in a situation, as well as giving them a chance to use their empathy to respond and problem solve. 

Don’t be surprised if they may not really engage with these emotions you bring up in the beginning, especially if they are only around the age of two. Be careful not to take over playtime or try to turn it into a big lesson or story about empathy. Let them lead, if they get hooked into the problem or one of the feelings you mentioned, this is great. If not, just continue to follow their lead or alternatively ask them how they feel instead. For example, “Is it hard taking care of all the animals?” 

At this age, they have a very loose approach to play and don’t really construct narratives and stories the same way adults do. They may be happy to take care of the animals one minute, and the next they are wanting to play something completely different. Rest assured that just by bringing up your feelings or creating small problems for them to react to in playtime, they are developing their empathy and problem-solving skills, even if it isn’t apparent at first. 

As they continue to grow up, these scenarios they build out during roleplay will increasingly become useful for understanding how people in their lives may be feeling in certain situations. Whether it be how another kid at preschool may feel if they are left out, to how a sibling may feel if they don’t get a turn with a toy. These pretend scenarios are giving them the tools they need to put themselves in other people’s shoes and in turn helping them become good friends and caring people in the future. 

This is a paid partnership between Kiindred and LEGO® DUPLO®

LEGO, LEGO® DUPLO® and the Minifigure are trademarks of The LEGO Group. ©2022 The LEGO Group.

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