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  • Writer's pictureBrian VanDongen

Play and Empathy: Thoughts from the 2019 Play Conference

Updated: Apr 11, 2019

It's been one week since the play world descended on Clemson University for the 10th Anniversary Conference on the Value of Play, fondly known as the Play Conference, hosted by the US Play Coalition. Between great keynotes (one of which included the two play pioneers Stuart Brown and Peter Gray), great professional development, sharing of ideas with friends, both new and old, one theme seemed to stick out from it all this year: Play gives us empathy.

In today's world, empathy is an important trait we all need. It seems that society and the world tries to divide us, tries to label us, and points out our differences. We are almost forced into categories based on how we look, how we act, how we talk, how good we are at certain tasks. This division and categorization is no way to share the human experience.

In his keynote, Dr. Stuart Brown talked about a study that he did examining murderers and their play history. His conclusions found that murderers lacked the "traditional" play childhoods that we tend to fondly - or ideally - remember or imagine. The control group had a more robust, more active, play history. I think it's safe to say that murderers are not really empathetic. They missed out on their chance to gain empathy through play.

This theme seemed to reoccur through out the conference: in presentations, in discussions about delegate's play work, and in general conversations with delegates. People who play are empathetic; people who play are respectful; people who play care.

Empathy is such a crucial life skill that cannot be taught in a classroom, on a worksheet, or even through adult-directed conversation. It comes only from organic play. Child-to-child conversations. Sharing of toys, props, loose parts, stories, ideas, imaginations. Children gain a respect of each other through play. Children don't see differences that adults see.

When I give presentations about play or talks to conferences, and in my upcoming book, Play to Live, a common theme is that there is no right or wrong way to play. You cannot play wrong. And maybe that is why play gives us empathy. Because when there is no wrong way to do something, you can gain an understanding of other people, other abilities, other ideas.

Of course, play is not just for children. Adults can - and need to - play, too. But better than that, we can all be playful. Playfulness takes no special ability, no appointment on your calendar, and no equipment or special space. By being playful, we can have and teach our children to have empathy.

It seems that we all agree that we want the world to be a more empathetic, sympathetic, understanding place. Play is one (major) step in the right direction toward achieving that skill and toward achieving that world.

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