Empathy, Kids and Nature

Feeding Backyard Animals 2 by Jennifer Miller

We must widen… “our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”  – Albert Einstein

“Feed the birds, Mom. Don’t forget today,” E tells me with fervor on one of the last freezing cold days of Winter while the birds chirped longingly for Spring. He heard them on our short walk to our car before school and recognized their need for food. And I appreciated the prompting. Empathy, though crucial to our very survival, is not unique to human beings. Researchers have documented the origins of empathy in numerous animal species. 1 And if you have ever had a pet dog or cat, you likely have experienced this firsthand. When a family member is crying, a cat will come over, sit on the person’s lap, purr and generally, offer comfort. Empathy, our ability to feel another’s feelings and take another’s perspectives, is evidenced from our earliest days when infants cry at the sound of another’s crying. In primates, it’s true as well. But when outsiders pose a threat (in the primate and human worlds), the feeling changes to defense and sometimes aggression. The greatest challenge of our time, writes Frans de Waal an expert on primates, is the “globalization by a tribal species.”1 In other words, empathy, moral thinking and collaboration are more supportive of our global inter-dependence in contrast to competition, defense and us-and-them thinking.

Though we have a natural proclivity toward empathy in conducive circumstances, the skills and thought processes of empathy can be cultivated and honed throughout childhood. In fact, children who demonstrate empathy also show greater social skills, healthy friendships and academic achievement.2 There’s strong evidence to support parents’ significant role in the development of empathy. Parents who are responsive and non-punitive help children develop higher levels of prosocial behavior.3 In addition, there are numerous ways parents and schools can influence the development of empathy. Talking about feelings, exploring consequences to actions and facilitating caring behaviors all contribute.

Springtime is a perfect opportunity to connect to the natural world around you and involve your child in the practice of caring and empathy for other living creatures. My son has been gently moving an extended ladybug community in our bathroom to the outdoors. Even the smallest act can demonstrate the seeds of moral development. Get outside with your children. Explore and while doing so show your respect and care for other living beings. In addition, here are some other ideas to try.

Plant a seed.
E and I have been busy planning for the new vegetable garden we are putting in this year. He cannot wait to plant pumpkin seeds, tend to them and reap the harvest in the Fall. Simply planting one seed whether it’s in the yard or in a cup in your window will give children the experience of tending to a seedling, caring for it and watching it grow. Mom Dad caring for seedling by Jennifer MillerThough you may need to set aside time each day to water the plant and perhaps provide a gentle reminder, be certain to let your child do the watering and care to allow him the full experience of being responsible for a living thing. For more specific ideas and guidance, check out http://www.kidsgardening.org from the National Gardening Association.

Take a nature treasure walk.
Kids don’t have to be convinced to look for natural treasures on a walk. On our walks in central Ohio, we can easily find buckeyes, rocks – some with fossils, bird feathers and more. Along the way because of your careful observation, you might spy interesting creatures running up trees or under rocks. Create a box or other repository for your treasures and at season’s end, display your collection.

Care for your backyard animals.
We fed a resident bunny with carrots over the long, cold winter and delighted in watching the carrots disappear overnight. Putting out nuts for squirrels and chipmunks or birdseed to attract local birds can be a delight and a process of discovery for a child.

Pick up litter.
Doing any activity to clean up the environment will help show care. Wear gloves and go to your local park and pick up trash. Talk about the effects of litter on animals that might live there. Perhaps, take a picnic snack to enjoy at the end of your efforts to bask in the beautiful environment to which you’ve contributed (and of course, afterward, recycle that wrapper!).

Create your own species list.
Avid “birders” create a “life list” in which they note every type of bird they have the chance to view. Do this over the Spring and Summer. Take a notebook on your walks and note the different species you observe. If you find a creature you cannot identify, look it up together and learn more about it.

Photograph or draw beauty.
With a camera in hand or a drawing pad at the ready, you and your child may notice details you had not previously observed. Participating in nature as an artist helps enhance your own sensitivity to the environment. Your keen observation can also contribute to feelings of empathy.

In this season of rebirth and new life, being intentional about the experience of nature with your child can enrich your experiences and deepen your connection. It can also help widen your family’s circle of compassion.

I love this book by Scott D. Sampson:

How to Raise a Wild Child, The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Naturewild-child-book-150

1. Waal, F. D. (2010). The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. NYC, NY: Broadway Books.
2. Bonner, T. D., & Aspy, D. N. A Study of the Relationship Between Student Empathy and GPA. Humanistic Education and Development. 22/4 (1984): 149- 154.
3. Eisenberg, N. (ed.). Empathy and Related Emotional Responses. No. 44 in New Directions for Child Development series. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1989.

Originally published on April 2, 2015.

2 Comments on “Empathy, Kids and Nature”

  1. I love how you weave together nature and empathy so seamlessly. What great practices you and E have developed – makes me wish I was there to go along on a nature treasure hunt!

    It also reminded me of an article called Child of Nature that was in Lion’s Roar magazine. It is the story of a couple raising their little girl in Bolivia and how they want her to have a deep connection to the web of nature around her, not to feel separate from it. They talk about how hard it is to keep children in that felt sense of wonder as they get older and things become more intellectualized.

    • Thanks so much, Starla! Yes, wandering in the yard or on walks and checking under rocks for bugs have provided lots of entertainment for us. 🙂 It’s neat that he’s embraced the “nature detective” role. There is so much to be curious about right outside our doors – which is a topic I know that is near and dear to your heart! I am not familiar with the article you refer to but will look it up and read! Sounds great. It’s true that the novelty seems to wane over time. Those baby years contained so much of that. But there is still opportunity to experience wonder together and I think it’s important – as you wrote. I think it stirs a hope in us like nothing else. And a commitment to learning. Thanks friend for your insightful comment!

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