Empathy Day was established with the intention of using stories to encourage empathy among children. To me, this makes perfect sense. At a time when social media allows us to live in bubbles that reinforce our own certainties, the ability to empathise with experiences that are different from our own is essential. Perhaps more than ever we need to understand other perspectives. Stories are a wonderful way to do this.
My experience running workshops in schools has shown me that children are keen to explore how it feels to be someone else and to understand other perspectives. For example, they may not have experienced the loss of a parent but they know what it is to be sad and can imagine the devastation such a loss might bring.
For the most part though, these children (Years 5 and 6) still want to believe in magic solutions. They write stories about protagonists who battle through extraordinary difficulties and emerge as sporting champions or winners of huge fortunes. Everything is fixed. Unfortunately, life isn’t so simple, which is why building and sustaining empathy is so important.
My own writing is concerned with unseen heroes who press on through difficult lives unnoticed, the sort of children who can no doubt be found in every classroom. They don’t become superstars or win the lottery but neither are they flattened by their circumstances. I’ve found that children root for these characters because their hopes and dreams are recognisable.
A big thank you to S.E. Durrant for writing this special blog. Her book, Running On Empty, is shortlisted for the UKLA Book Awards.
Empathy Day is on 11 June and offers schools a wonderful opportunity to harness the power of stories to build empathy and reading for pleasure. Its founders, EmpathyLab @EmpathyLabUK, base their strategy on scientific evidence that identifying with book characters and their feelings expands our real-life empathy skills. It’s exciting that any of us can improve our ability to empathise, at any time in our lives, and that stories are a powerful tool.