Inspiring empathy in others is something that most humane educators regularly strive to do. As part of a presentation I give to adults about the lives and deaths of farmed animals, I ask for a couple of volunteers to stand on milk crates with their shoes off for a few minutes. In addition to sparking curiosity and critical thinking (part of the 4 elements of humane education), that brief activity helps inspire empathy for hens who live their lives in battery cages and/or pigs who must endure six months standing on hard concrete floors. Another part of the same presentation involves giving participants each a card with a type of farmed animal listed on it (male battery chick, female dairy cow, "broiler" chicken, and so on) and asking them to tap into their empathy and imagination as we take a journey that outlines their lives and deaths as these farmed animals. Between the horrific but factual information, the minimally graphic images and the use of the second person (This is what happens to you - this is your life.), I've discovered that the experience is extremely visceral and powerful for participants. Few, if any, leave the presentation unaffected. They've just spent the last 40 minutes in touch with their empathy, and it stays with them.
As part of the coursework for our students at IHE, they're asked to interview people who have been victims of human rights violations (for our course on human rights). And, for our course focused on animal protection issues, students take a field trip exploring some sort of institutional use of animals (whether a factory farm, slaughterhouse, circus, research facility, etc.). Both opportunities connect students with their empathy for others and help them cultivate a deeper understanding of how their choices affect other people, other animals, and the earth.
We have numerous humane education activities in our Resource Center that can help you nurture and inspire empathy in your students and/or children, from Circle of Compassion (pdf) to A Moment in Your Shoes (pdf).
One activity I want to highlight for building empathy is Council of All Beings (pdf).
In this activity, appropriate for grades 4 and up (and modifiable to younger grades), students "become" another being (a certain animal, a part of the natural world, or another human) and ask themselves questions, such as
- What is happening to me as this being?
- How do I feel?
- What is my life like? My days? My nights?
- What are my interactions with other beings like? With my environment?
- What do I do? What do I have to say?
- What would I like to tell people?
- What wisdom do I have as this being?
If done in a sincere, respectful way, the Council can be incredibly powerful and transforming and really help participants access their empathy.
If you have/know of any great activities for nurturing empathy, let us know.
Like our blog? Please share it with others, comment, and/or subscribe to our RSS feed.