How do you encourage children to be globally empathetic?

Last week I retweeted a friend’s intention to “Live Below The Line” in aid of the charity International Service. She hopes to raise £800 by living on just £5.74 a week – calculated using poverty baseline of $1.25 a day – including all of her food, drink and travelling costs. You can read about her experiences and inspiration here; if you’re feeling particularly altruistic today, you can support this worthy cause here.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Frederick Douglass

But what does this have to do with early years education, aside from the obvious concern that children in developing countries have yet to access quality early years education universally? Within the foundation stage, practitioners are encouraging children to empathise with and to give consideration to others’ feelings, needs and wishes. Usually this is an informal process, using everyday events as “learning opportunities”; occasionally fraught with tears (“but I WANT that fire engine!”) it can be an emotionally exhausting process as you filter and reflect the behaviour you want children to replicate independently (“he’s sad because I hit him… That wasn’t kind, was it? Sorry.”)

However, outside the realms of everyday events are what I believe to be the situations for which we most require emotional intelligence. Things like abject poverty, war and injustice. We want our children to grow up to be resourceful, resilient and knowledgable adults; who will do a better job of taking care of the world and the people in it than previous generations. In the grand scheme of things, that’s what we do as practitioners: we’re trying to create a better world.

In the next few months, I will be introducing the tricky topic of poverty through philosophical discussions with children and encouraging them to consider the difference a donation of chickens to a poverty-stricken family across the world would make. This will be timed to coincide with a delivery of “live” chicken eggs which will hopefully hatch successfully and provide a talking point for children, parents, carers and staff. Already the foundations of such discussions have already been laid; for example we discussed why the bears in Goldilocks and the Three Bears were so cross upon finding their porridge had been scoffed by the cheeky girl who broke their chair and had a sleep in one of their beds. We talked about whether the bears had any more porridge, whether the chair was fixable and as one child thoughtfully stated “what if they don’t have any pennies for chairs? Chairs are a lot of pennies and they can’t share two…” We also talked about whether Goldilocks had any food at her house, or whether she even had a house to begin with! One child noted that they had seen a homeless person on a recent trip to the shops “…and Daddy gave him a sandwich” which extended the conversation from the story world to the local community. We even touched upon the concept of finite money when visiting our local farmers shop; each child was given some pennies to take care of to help pay for the shopping and “when all the pennies are gone, that’s it.” Even the smallest children understand that the amount of pennies directly relates to the amount of fruit or vegetables we can buy – to date there has never been an upset over “but I want ….!” which we attribute to the honesty and transparency we approach the concept of money with.
These familiar stories and scenarios will lay the groundwork for lateral thinking and empathetic understanding as the children grow up. As adults, our job is to explain the world in a developmentally appropriate manner. At some recent training, I noted that a contributing factor in the development of children’s fears or upsets is the unknown. Of course, there is a need for sensitivity and understanding – some horrific things do not belong in the childhood conscious – but for the most part, with a carefully worded explanation or appropriate reassurance most topics can be conveyed and understood. An example of this could be Remembrance Day. In the town where my setting is situated, there is a prominent memorial and services are held to mark the day. It is inevitable that at some stage students will see wreaths, people paying respects or ceremonies and it is their right as a child to question “what?”, “who?”, “where?” and “why?”


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