Teaching Empathy on the Playground

By Matthew Harris, Principal, John F. Kennedy Elementary School

Dec 10, 2015 · 3 min read

Empathy is arguably the most important life skill our kids can learn. But with so much content to cover, it can be hard for teachers to give soft skills like empathy the class time they deserve. At John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Daly City, CA, instead of starting in the classroom, we started at recess.

Recess is where students have the most freedom to practice empathy . . . or not. As a principal, I’ve seen students fight over space on the blacktop, space in line, and even over friends.

At JFK, this was not the culture we wanted. So we partnered with an organization called Playworks to tackle empathy from the playground in, rather than from the classroom out.

A Playworks TeamUp site-coordinator trained our students to be leaders and worked with our staff to promote empathy on the playground and beyond. Now, instead of bringing conflict into the classroom, students return to class engaged and ready to learn. Students see each other as resources for fun, rather than competition for resources. Here’s what we’ve learned:

1. We can’t take empathy for granted, but it can be taught.

Kids often default to aggression and territoriality, especially if they have experienced trauma. Empathy requires practice, but it can be learned!

Coach Wayne, JFK’s Playworks site-coordinator, did a great job training recess staff and students to lead inclusive games, share space, and resolve conflicts with ro-sham-bo.

Now, a student who used to be in my office constantly for getting into fights is one of the most proactive in asking other kids to join in.

Kindness begets kindness; we’ve seen more students wanting to help out for the sake of being helpful.

2. Kids learn empathy best from peers.

The most successful approach was having kids see empathetic behavior as the norm among respected 4th and 5th graders.

If kids only hear about empathy from adults, they may dismiss it as something developmentally beyond them: Empathy becomes one more thing to figure out down the line. Instead, Coach Wayne trained Junior Coaches — 4th and 5th graders — to lead inclusive games.

When you take the most visible older students, have them model the behavior and expect it from the younger kids they are playing with, then you see real improvement.

3. Adults need to practice empathy, too.

In our previous playground environment, playground staff had each class start recess by sitting in line and listening to rules.

They did not realize how frustrating this was for the kids, who had a strong desire to run and play from the get-go. Playworks helped staff set clear expectations early in the year and then create fun, consistent transitions to and from the playground.

When kids saw adults empathizing with their desire to play and respecting their time, they became more willing to make class time a space where serious learning could occur.

4. Recess is the perfect place to check for understanding.

In the classroom, time is structured; it can be hard to gauge empathy or lack thereof in quieter kids.

During recess, all students have a voice and all students want to play, whether or not they speak up in class. They demonstrate social and emotional development by how they play together . . . or don’t.

By tackling empathy at recess, we aren’t just hoping that kids will practice it. We know they do, because we see the difference.

Kids are playing more inclusive games, listening to each other, and solving conflicts quickly so the group as a whole can get back to playing.

5. Empathy is an academic skill as well as a life skill.

Empathy is not a Common Core requirement, nor will it show up on a computer-based assessment.

But when students reflect on how their actions impact others, they learn about cause and effect. They learn to use evidence to make claims. These are the cognitive skills that underpin modern learning.

At the school level, promoting empathy creates an environment in which students feel safe, respected, and ready to learn. That environment isn’t the only thing that impacts academics; the cognitive skills involved in empathy make a difference as well.

I firmly believe that empathy is one of the most important life skills we can teach our children. Recess is a fantastic place to start.

Changemaker Education

A publication series on Changemaking by Ashoka’s Start Empathy initiative


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Creating a place FOR EVERY KID on the playground -- a place where every kid belongs, has fun and is part of the game. #playworksforeverykid

Changemaker Education

A publication series on Changemaking by Ashoka’s Start Empathy initiative

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