The goal of this funding proposal is to develop a new and innovative means of fostering empathy and compassion in young children. Teaching empathy and compassion is critical to social and societal success, and the younger the age these skills can be targeted, the more likely prosocial behaviors will develop. There have been numerous previous attempts to strengthen empathy and compassion, but these attempts have ignored the most potentially potent route: through role playing in a fictional world. Children are natural and prolific pretenders. Role play could increase empathy and compassion by exposing children to taking on multiple perspectives in a first person and playful manner.
The three main activities that constitute the proposed project are: 1) the development of an intervention that increases empathy and compassion by inviting children to adopt multiple perspectives in the course of pretend play, 2) a test of the intervention’s effectiveness against other interventions, and 3) the convening of a lecture series and small conference to engage scholars working in empathy and compassion research.
Concrete outputs include at least two peer-reviewed articles on the development of the intervention and its effectiveness, a script and video guide for a guided pretend play engagement that increases empathy and compassion, and an edited special issue of a journal arising from a small conference.
Through this project we hope not only to develop the intervention but also to engage the community of scholars and their students currently working on issues surrounding increasing empathy, compassion, and prosocial behaviors. This research will lead to a new way to develop empathy and compassion in young children, a new way to think about using children’s role play and pretend play, and has the potential to provide a play-based intervention that parents, teachers or anyone who works with children can use regularly to strengthen children's prosocial skills.