4 kindness-fuelled, empathy-boosting activities to try out
Much like mastering a new language, perfecting a recipe or learning to ride a bike without wobbling, research suggests that empathy – the ability to try on another’s shoes and walk around in them for a while - isn’t just a personality trait we’re born with or without. Instead, it’s a life skill that can be improved over time, and something we should all seek to value.
But what constitutes empathy, and how can it be developed? In her book Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed In Our All-About-Me World, psychotherapist Michele Borba identifies some of the key character skills needed to develop empathy. These are emotional literacy (recognising the feelings and needs of yourself and others), moral identity (adopting caring values that guide integrity), perspective taking (stepping into another’s shoes to understand their feelings, thoughts and views) and moral imagination (using literature, films and emotionally charged images as a source of inspiration to feel with others). She also outlines the habits we can cultivate if we want to make the world a kinder place – namely self-regulation (managing strong emotions and reducing personal distress so we can help others), practicing kindness (increasing our concern about the welfare and feelings of others) and collaboration (working with others to achieve shared goals for the benefit of all).
Scouts are already familiar with these skills because, week in and week out, empathy is something they practice as part of their programme. Whether they’re making memory boxes with elderly people in their local area, putting their first aid skills to life-saving practice, or distributing welfare packs for those affected by domestic violence, Scouts are forever striving to make a positive impact in their local communities and in the wider world, embracing other cultures, and learning to adapt to a wide range of different needs within a group.
If you’d like to help someone in your life to develop empathy, here are just five examples of the many kindness-boosting activities young people take part in throughout their Scouting journey.
1. Lip reading and listening
Step into the shoes of the hearing impaired with this simple activity.
Best for: Beavers (aged 6 to 8 years old)
Skills and habits developed: emotional literacy, perspective taking, self-regulation, practising kindness, collaboration
You will need
■ lists of pre-prepared questions (two different sets)
■ earplugs and ear defenders – one set of each per pair
■ stopwatch or clock
1. Gather your equipment. If you’re working as a group, divide everyone into pairs and give one person in each pair a set of earplugs and ear defenders, to cancel out as much noise as possible. If you’re working with just one young person, you can pair up and decide who will attempt to ask the other person questions (the speaker) and who will attempt to answer them (the listener).
2. Ask the listener from each pair to wear the earplugs and ear defenders. When they’re ready, the speaker should start a conversation with their partner, using the pre-prepared list of questions. Allow this to continue for 10 minutes or so before asking the pair to switch roles (you can use a stopwatch time yourselves as you go). This time, give the speaker a second set of questions so there can be no cheating.
3. After another 10 minutes has passed, stop the activity. If you’re working as a group, bring everyone back together. What did they learn from the experience? As the person asking questions, how difficult was it for the speaker to make themselves understood? What approach did they find worked best and what didn’t work at all? And how did it feel being unable to hear? What was it like when people shouted, over-enunciated or gesticulated? Was there anything that helped them to better understand what was being said?
4. Explain that around 11 million people in the UK are hearing impaired and that hearing loss affects people of all ages and backgrounds. What can be done to make life easier for the hearing impaired and how should we behave when we next encounter someone with hearing loss?
2. Pollution solution
Empathy isn’t limited to how we treat our fellow humans, but how we treat our environment and the many creatures and plants we share it with. This plastic pollution activity inspires a sense of duty and care for our precious planet, and encourages young people to consider how we might reduce the negative human impact on the natural world.
Best for: Cubs (aged 8 to 10 1/2 years old)
Skills and habits developed: emotional literacy, perspective taking, practising kindness
You will need
■ rubber bands
■ some small sweets
1. Discuss what kinds of plastics, such as bottles or carrier bags, might end up in our oceans, the potential damage this can cause, and what wildlife might be affected by it and how.
2. Ask a young person to volunteer so you can demonstrate. Put a rubber band across the back of their hand, using their thumb and little finger to hold it in place. Ask them to try and remove the rubber band, without using their other hand or teeth, or rubbing it against anything.
3. Hand out one rubber band to each young person. Tell them to imagine that their hand and arm are a bird, with the hand being the head and the forearm being its neck.
4. Ask them to place the rubber bands around their hands or arms. They have 30 seconds to try and free themselves without using their other hand (or anyone else’s – no helping!).
5. Have a discussion about how difficult it was to get free and what plastics the rubber bands might represent for birds and other marine life. How might birds get caught in the plastics? Perhaps by swimming into them? The young people might have rubbed their hand against a desk to try and get it off. What would a bird use? Explain that for birds and other wildlife, plastics can have dire consequences, such as suffocation or starvation.
6. Encourage your young people to think about their daily plastic consumption and to upcycle some of the refuse they collect into a recycling bin. Which small changes could they make and encourage other to make? How might they encourage people to empahise with wildlife?
3. Refugee response
Encourage empathy and understanding with this simple role-play activity, designed to help Scouts better understand the refugee crisis from a personal perspective.
Best for: Scouts (aged 10 1/2 to 14 years old)
Skills and habits developed: emotional literacy, moral identity perspective taking, practising kindness, collaboration
You will need
1. Discuss what it means to be a refugee with your group or young person. What does the word refugee actually mean, and why might someone need to become one? What sorts of pressures and uncertainties might someone be facing if they decide to flee their home?
2. Ask the group or young person to draw a suitcase on their sheet of paper and to then draw their five favourite possessions inside it. Once everyone has done this, tell them that their suitcase is unfortunately too heavy. In order to take the suitcase with them on their journey, they’ll need to leave one item behind. Ask them to draw a line through the item they choose.
3. Now they have four objects remaining, ask the group or young person to remove/cross out an object from the suitcase of the person on their left. How does that make everyone feel?
4. Now they have three objects left, tell the group or young person that they have a rough journey on a bus and one of their objects breaks. Ask them to close their eyes and point to one object in their suitcase and cross it out. Did they find that hard?
5. Now they have two objects left, tell the group or young person that they have found a safe place to stay but it's very small so they can only keep one object. How do they decide?
6. Once everyone has just one object in their suitcase, gather together to discuss how it made them feel when they lost their objects during the journey, what kind of things they considered when they had to choose just one object and how we might treat refuges knowing that they have had to flee their home and experienced our simulation for real.
4. Mental health first aid kits
We all recognise the green boxes containing physical first aid kits. This activity allows us to talk about feelings with young people and create mental health first aid kits to help them when their mental wellbeing is low. As a result, they will have learned more about talking about how they feel, and will be aware of the importance of being able to identify how we feel.
Above: Scouts from 1st Healing in Grimsby lovingly craft their very own homemade gift bags, delivering some much-needed mental health first aid to victims of domestic violence
Best for: Explorers (aged 14 to 18 years old) and Network (aged 18 to 25 years old)
Skills and habits developed: perspective taking, self regulation
You will need
■ Jenga blocks with words written on them (alternatively, you can use anything which can have words written on it such as Lego bricks, milk bottle tops, plasters or pieces of paper)
■ anything that can act as a container for their ‘first aid’ kit
1. The Jenga icebreaker can be played as a large group or in smaller groups or pairs, and you can use regular or large Jenga pieces. You may also want to use other creative ways to get young people to pick words, for example, by writing them on slips of paper and putting them inside balloons for them to burst.
2. Prepare the Jenga blocks with feelings written on them. You could use words like ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘upset’, ‘angry’, etc.
3. Ask young people to take turns picking blocks, describing the feelings they've selected.
4. The group can then take turns writing down strategies they use whenever they feel stressed or low. Answers will vary but examples may include simple, everyday mood-bosters like ‘meeting up with friends’ ‘having a bath’, 'going for a walk', ‘talking to parents’ or ‘listening to music’.
Above: Simple, everyday self-care strategies like eating healthily, exercising and making time for relaxation can all contribute to good mental health and can act as useful coping mechanisms
5. Give each participant a box to create their own kit. To decorate it, they could use pictures of their most treasured things or people, cut-outs from magazines or their favourite colours.
6. Once the box is decorated, they can then add their own remedies to the kit. Remind them that whenever they are feeling sad, they can use the ideas in the box to help them cope. They should know that if they find themselves in a situation where they don’t think anything in the box can help, they can talk to someone for an extra hand. Just like a physical first aid kit can only be expected to help us with certain ailments (eg cuts and bruises) but not others (eg a broken arm), the same applies to the mental health kit. Remind the group that everyone has mental and physical health to care for, and that both should be considered equally important.
7. Discuss the equal value of physical and mental health by asking the following questions:
• What happens when someone is injured or hurt?
• What happens when you’re feeling sad or scared?
• Are they the same?
• Who is responsible for making sure there is someone to make sure you are OK and to help look after your mental health and physical health? Who helps them?
Note: This might be the first time that a young person has explored mental health or thought about going to the GP for that reason. Don’t worry if you don’t know the answers to one or all of these questions. They can be difficult to answer, and it's important not feel embarrassed if you're unsure. The aim of the exercise is simply to highlight that while we know what to do when someone is physically hurt and can usually describe our physical symptoms to a doctor, things aren’t always as straightforward when someone has a mental health problem.