Building Empathy Through Youth Recreation

A group of children stand together outside and smile at the camera

Empathy is the human trait of understanding the feelings of someone else and experiencing those emotions on some level as your own. Empathy is critical to our collective hopes for creating a more just and sustainable world. We cannot address environmental injustice, poverty, violence, or other systemic issues if we cannot empathize with the burdens and experiences of others. Therefore, it is essential to instill empathy as a core value among young people. Fortunately, learning empathy can be fun. In fact, empathy-building is a core component of many youth recreation programs.   

Young people raise their arms up and hold hands

Recreation programs tend to focus on communal activities that require cooperation. Whether kids are learning outdoors skills, playing on a sports team, or attending summer camp, recreational spaces offer an opportunity to join a community of other kids that are all having a new experience together. Feeling connected to others through shared experience and identity is an important building block for understanding and caring about the feelings of people outside oneself. Building those shared experiences and promoting a sense of community through play is a great avenue for empathy-building, because kids will be caught up in having fun while gaining life skills along the way.

A child stands between two adults on a hiking trail

In addition to fostering community among peers, recreation programs are a common space for developing mentorship relationships between adults and kids. The ways that adults interact with youth influence the process of empathy building. For example, creating opportunities for kids to express their feelings and taking the time to explain why some behaviors are harmful or inappropriate because of their impacts on others are both positive ways to help youth develop empathy. Even the way that youth receive praise can be an opportunity for empathy-building. Compliments that focus on being a helpful or caring person go a long way towards encouraging kids to incorporate empathy into their sense of self.

kids run across a field with a soccer ball

In general, programs that center relationships as a core component of recreation have a positive impact on youth development, including the development of empathy. This is true across many different types of recreation programming, even recreation based in competition such as sports. There are lots of ways for youth to compete with empathy and build compassion and care into their athletic practices. Empathy can even help athletes perform better through increased cooperation and communication.

An older adult plays on the ground with two small children

Whatever form of recreation youth are engaging in, it’s important to consider the larger life lessons they’re gaining from the program. Empathy fits naturally into so many aspects of youth recreation programming, but it’s helpful to name empathy as a core value and be intentional about the ways empathy-building is structured. Ultimately, it comes back to the idea that kids can gain the skills to create stronger, kinder communities all while having fun!