Johnny and Katya were playing in the preschool's play yard. Katya picked up a toy dump truck and started filling it with sand. Johnny grabbed it from her, shouting, "Hey, that's mine. And it's just for boys!" When Katya burst into tears, the teacher approached them, put one arm around Katya, and took Johnny's hand. Patiently, she listened while the children each told their side of the story. She helped them resolve the conflict by talking about their feelings, and gained new insights in the process.

Developing kindness and compassion for others is a critical part of young children's development. The ability to accept others — even if they are different — and feel compassion for them is an essential component of social competency. This is just as important as any academic training. Socially competent children are more successful in life. The ability to relate to and accept people who are different is not just a desired trait — it's a necessity for living in today's diverse society.

Teaching acceptance and compassion through play can be great fun. You'll have the opportunity to explore a wide range of children's interests, traditions, and cultures. Once children begin to understand the basic principle of compassion, which is kindness, and once they are introduced to the joy of differences, they can begin to teach themselves through experience and relationships.

Looking at Play

The formation of reciprocal relationships and the discovery of uniqueness in others begin with play. As children grow, they advance beyond the solitary play of infants to the parallel play of toddlers, in which a child and a friend may play in the same area, sharing materials and physical proximity, without attempting to coordinate play.

In preschool, children engage in associative play, sharing and coordinating materials, but not always truly cooperating. For example, children might direct classmates in what should happen next. By kindergarten, children are engaging in collaborative play, which includes planning, negotiation, and cooperation. As children's play progresses and becomes more sophisticated, opportunities for kind and compassionate interactions increase.

Watch how children play. Appreciate their creativity as they use their imaginations and try on different roles. Listen carefully to children as they engage one another. When they take on the roles of adults in their community, or even when they talk about others, children give insights into their culture and expectations of others.

Developing Social Skills

As children's social skills ripen, they develop "people skills" that will aid them in shaping positive encounters, working in groups, and inspiring others. Kindness, tolerance, and empathy are qualities that children develop over time through observation and practice. The loving relationship a parent shares with a newborn starts the process. By age 2, a toddler might not understand why her friend is crying, but she may try to comfort her by offering her own blankie or teddy. By age 3, children are more aware of others as individuals, but they still have trouble relating to how others actually feel. Older children can begin to understand that other people have feelings separate from their own and often realize when they've hurt someone else. By the time a child is 5 or 6, they can discuss kindness and recognize its value in their relationships with others.

Because children learn by watching what you do and say when you interact with others, the warmth and understanding you show toward children is key. To teach kindness, you must first help children understand that they are capable of being kind and tolerant, and that how they treat other people matters greatly.

Expanding Children's Awareness

There are many ways you can expand children's knowledge of others. You might begin by introducing different cultures into your dramatic-play area. Supply creative and unique props. See if you can find distinctive clothing to include in the center. Look for interesting hats and vests. Contact cultural groups in your community for donations of clothing that are representative of a variety of other countries and cultures.

If possible, stop by Spanish, African, Indian, or Chinese grocery stores for small product boxes for your dramatic play center. The people and the print on them may be different from what your children are accustomed to seeing. This can provide an opportunity for more conversation about people from different places. Decorate play areas with photographs and pictures of many lands.

Take advantage of outdoor play opportunities to help children learn to accept our differences. Some children are more outdoor oriented or sports oriented than others. For the first months of the year, stay close to children so you can see how each one fares outside. Position yourself where you can hear their conversations. If needed, introduce new outdoor activities that are better suited to each child's abilities. Consider discussing outdoor play at group time. What kinds of games and activities can everyone enjoy outside? Encourage children to give during play (as in the case of sharing a prized ball) and also to receive. Being able to receive a kind thought or deed is important for children learning about compassion.

Listening and Learning

Accepting what children say is also an obvious but often overlooked way to teach acceptance. When a child announces that her favorite food is olives and a friend proclaims "Yuck!" a teacher's interested questions will show acceptance of and appreciation for the child's choices. Yet accepting what children say is not always easy. Children often have thorny questions about gender roles, differences, and identity. You might hear some surprising debates. Is it OK for boys to wear bathing suits with flowers on them? For the girl to be the doctor and the boy to be the nurse? For the daddy to set the rules in the family, and for the mommy and children to listen?

In addition, we may be uncomfortable with certain differences we hear about, whether it's a girl with two mommies or a boy from a household where spanking is frequent. It is not our job to impose our entire set of values and beliefs on the children we teach. At the same time, we cannot ignore such universal virtues as concern for others. If certain issues come up repeatedly, such as one child bullying another, address the incident as it happens, and later, during group or story time, reiterate appropriate ways to treat others.

Intervening in Play

During disputes, it may be tempting to step into the children's imaginary play to inject a moral lesson. I encourage you to resist the impulse to intervene in every dispute. You are apt to find out more about what children think or feel if they are left to their own negotiating skills. However, there are times when it is important to step in and become more actively involved. Here are some examples of those situations:

  • If one child is consistently ostracized, you might say during group time, "Let's talk about being kind to one another." Use books, music, or even puppets to talk about and demonstrate kind behavior and the importance of including others.
  • Given our situation in Iraq, children are likely to experiment with war play. If you feel the pretend violence is getting excessive, suggest other ways of playing war. We send food and letters to our soldiers and community helpers in Iraq. We help people who get hurt. Ask children, "What can you say when someone gets hurt? What can we do for them? What songs can you sing to help them feel better?"
  • Children may act out serious scenarios, such as homelessness or an apartment fire. You might ask gentle questions during or after playtime to determine if the family needs help.
  • Some children might introduce racial stereotypes in their play. If, for example, an Hispanic child announces, "I won't play with you. You're black!" to an African-American child, it may be necessary to respond immediately. But it might not. The African-American child might simply go off and find another playmate. In that case, you might wait to address it later, when the children can better absorb what you have to say. The additional time might also allow you to give a more measured and appropriate response. By knowing children well, you will have a sense of what works best.

If showing respect and concern for others were easy, our world would be a different place. We must model for children the values of kindness and compassion that we continue to learn as adults.

For information about development at specific ages, view the How Children Perceive Differences at Each Age and Stage Developmental Chart.