Why teaching empathy at a young age is important and how picture books can help – an #EmpathyDay post by author @Karlwheel

We all need a little guidance at times, don’t we? Especially when we’re brand new here; when we’re learning to walk, holding our first spoon, learning how to spell our name… Learning how to do these things is a given for us all – no one would expect a child to know how to tie their laces unless they had been shown how. Learning about empathy at a young age is just as important for the very same reason. To be able to understand and share the feelings of another isn’t an animal quality, it’s a human quality – it’s nurture.

Within our own lives we have our world of experiences to pull from: our family, our friends, our home, our street, our town… but in books that world is limitless. Endless people and places, feelings and faces. Endless opportunities to find out what it might be like in someone else’s shoes and wonder and question and discover. Books can set scenes we’re unfamiliar with, paint pictures we’ve never seen before, and share feelings we’ve never felt. Picture books can do all this in a story about a boy who is sent to his bed for making mischief of one kind… and another, or a girl who makes paper dolls with her mum. We remember these stories and we remember how they made us feel. And so do our little ones.

I’ll bet everyone reading this can remember a story from when they were young. Mine is The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson. The title is a giveaway. What isn’t is why Plop the little barn owl is actually afraid of the dark… and as it turns out there are a number of reasons. I’m sure you know the story. The cleverly titled chapters deliver the take-away message before we’ve even read the text of the chapter itself – they gives us comfort before we know why. It’s powerful stuff. Plop didn’t fall out of a picture book of course (he has since!), but picture books have that magic kind of storytelling too, don’t they? That blend of words and pictures is magic after all. The hints of text that an illustration completes and the gaps that they leave for the reader to fill in… those gaps are what makes a story special for the reader, I think. Those bits of us that we use to fill the gaps create gaps in us that the book in turn fills. And then it stays with us, if we’re lucky, for the rest of our lives. It gifts us with its thoughts and feelings and it gives us a guiding light in times where we might otherwise be lost.

When I’m home alone and it’s dark outside I still sometimes get the creeps (too many ghost stories will do that to a wild imagination!) but I’m saved by a little barn owl called Plop who once shared with me many, many moons ago that ‘dark is wonderful’ because in the dark you can see the stars… and I open a door and I step outside and I look up and Wow. Every time. Some stories stay with us way beyond the last page. And it all begins with the first stories we are told. And that’s when we need them most, isn’t it? When we’re little, when the world is big, when we need a little help to tie our laces.

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