Nourishing a child’s sense of empathy and emotional intelligence is one of the most important things we can do as a parents. Empathy is a very complex skill to develop, but luckily we’re not alone in helping our children strengthen this uniquely human trait.
I’ve written before about nature acting as a third parent to my children, and I especially call on Mother Nature to support the emergence of my daughters’ sense of empathy and compassion. In my experience, there is no better place than in nature for children to hone this transformative emotion.
Here are 5 ways nature manifests the perfect conditions and circumstances for our children to practice empathy (and what we as parents and educators can do):
1. Nature Calms
Stress can inhibit proper mental and emotional functioning in all of us. Studies have proven that nature is a tonic for our senses and nervous system. The calm that nature inspires is a prerequisite for attending to the deeper, more emotional lessons of life. We often think to teach empathy after an incident occurs, and at that point the lesson can sound a lot like discipline. But the world outside invites us to take a much slower, gentle pace and engage in nature’s stories as they emerge before our very eyes.
What we can do: Provide lots of unstructured play time in nature in a place where our children feel safe and enough comfortable to enter a flow state.
2. We’re Hard Wired to Nature
Biologically speaking, we’re so wired to nature that children are going to be much more receptive (and naturally responsive) to lessons born out of that context. Children are still learning and integrating social norms and are often closer to the wilder world than adults are. And many kids find it easier to relate, identify and bond with animals. This makes nature the perfect companion and environment for doing this delicate work.
What we can do: When encouraging empathy, don’t limit the conversation to the human experience. When in nature, allow your children to lead while you encourage those things and relationships they show an interest in.
3. Nature Inspires
In nature there are an infinite number of animals and organisms for children to observe and pretend to be. They can be predator or prey, plant or fungi. They can fly through the air or duck below the surface, be nearly invisible or as bright and bold as a tiger’s stripes. This role playing allows them to “try on” other personalities, relationships, characteristics and perspectives.
What we can do: Encourage imaginative play by pretending to be different animals yourself. Anthropomorphize the natural world by wondering aloud and telling stories about an animal’s family, struggle, motivations or purpose.
4. Nature Integrates Death
Where else but in nature can children encounter death without the overwhelming grief and stress that accompanies the loss of human life? Here children can wonder, explore, integrate and eventually honor an animal or plant’s journey. These experience can create a strong foundation, cueing our kids into the brevity and preciousness of life.
What we can do: When encountering a death in nature, try not to react with disgust. Wonder aloud at what could have happened to the animal. If it feels right, bury the animal together. Or, revisit the animal talking about stages of decomposition, the food web and circle of life.
5. Nature Accepts Help
Worms that are trapped on the sidewalk after a heavy rain, insects trying to get out of the house – nature provides countless opportunities for children to help another living beings. Not only are children cultivating kindness through these seemingly small acts, but they are practicing problem solving, resourcefulness and creativity.
What we can do: Stay aware of opportunities to help animals or plants in need. Organize a clean up of your children’s favorite nature spot in their community. Have fun constructing little houses and shelters for frogs, slugs or even magical creatures of the forest.
Here are some of my favorite nature-inspired children’s books that inspire empathy and kindness. Click on each one to learn more.
I would love to hear about your experiences nurturing empathy with your kids in the wild!
Your Woman Gone Wild,