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Wizard with magic ball“The problem with apprenticing children into humanity…is that much of the action we want them to understand takes place inside people’s heads” (Peter Johnston, Opening Minds).

Isn’t that the truth? Becoming a compassionate human being involves learning to understand how things seem from another’s point of view. Being empathic requires the ability to imagine how other people feel.

So the question is, how can we make this happen? What kind of experiences do children need to build their capacity to accurately perceive the thoughts and feelings of others?

Here are a few ideas:
Use your face to tell children what’s on your mind
The ability to read facial cues is an important part of understanding what’s on someone else’s mind. Children who don’t know how to do it tend to have more disruptive behaviors than those who can read a warning look, or an expression that draws their attention back to what another is saying.

So, ham it up! Make faces and ask children to tell you what you are thinking. Challenge them to use their face to express words like “wonderful”, “exciting”, or “outstanding”.

Draw attention to the facial features that cartoon figures use to express what they are feeling.

Play games like Charades and Pictionary that require the ability to read facial features and body language to win.

Nourish children’s social imagination
Social reasoning, representational thought, and perspective-taking are terms academics use to describe the ability to imagine more than one idea at the same time.

Remember the movie Babe? It used the “Greek chorus” of mice to articulate an alternative to Babe’s interpretation of what was going on. Netflix’s House of Cards uses a similar technique. Kevin Spacey’s sidebar comments lets viewers know that there is more than one way to construe his character’s behavior. Both are good examples of social imagination.

Social imagination is the basis for all inferential reasoning. It effects children’s ability to comprehend complex narratives. And it is related to many of the social skills needed to make friends and collaborate with others.

So, talk to children about things you observe together – a family taking a walk, an old woman sitting alone in the park, a child running on the beach. Ask what they think is going on in those people’s minds. Share what you think. Discuss similarities and differences in your perspectives.

Watch team sports together. Analyze the plays. Talk about the strategies each team uses to reach their goals.

Wonder out loud about what makes people do the things they do. Voice a variety of possibilities. Share your own feelings and motivations, and encourage them to do the same.

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