Turn small nature treasures into happy faced friends, then sprinkle them around your favorite park or woods for other people to find. Have fun looking for new, silly or sneaky spots to hide them. As you do, prompt kids and get them wondering about who will discover these smiley treasures and what those people will think and feel when they do. Nearly all kids will get swept up in the whimsical pursuit. And, without telling your child anything, you model the basics of compassion—one of the hardest, and yet most important, character qualities to teach kids.
This activity is featured in our February Activity Calendar in celebration of Random Acts of Kindness Day on February 17th. Need your free copy? Visit tinkergarten.com/calendar today!
Step 1: Gather a whole bunch of nature treasures.
Gather at least 10 per person. You can use acorns, rocks, wood chips, pine cones, etc. The idea remains the same.
Step 2: Turn them into "friends."
Use a permanent marker to draw a smiley face on each (kids help too!). Hand young kids a washable marker to make their “faces.”
Step 3: Sprinkle and hide the friends.
Go to your backyard, favorite park, or woods. Suggest to kids that you each leave some in spots where other people may find them. We called it "spreading smiles." Then, sprinkle the treasures around, looking for fun spots to tuck the little friends, particularly where they won’t roll or get trampled but where other folks can still spot them.
Step 4: Prompt some thought.
Talk about what you are doing with kids as you continue to “spread smiles.” Ask the kids, "Who do you think will find these? What do you think they will think when they see them? How do you think they will feel when they see them? What do you think they will do with them?"
Why is this activity great for kids?
How do you teach social skills, let alone empathy? It sounds daunting, especially on days when your kids struggle simply to share, take turns or be nice to a sibling who is on their nerves.
When we feel love and kindness toward others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace.—The 14th Dalai Lama (1935)
Challenging as the teaching may seem, we want more than anything to raise our kids to become loving, caring and compassionate people. So, we are trying to take a long view and remember that no one lesson or chat will do it. Instead, with the help of activities like this one, we can give them the chance to experience how fun it can be to share and think about the feelings of others. And, when a little kid relinquishes a little acorn friend and finds joy in giving something to someone else, they learn a bit more about giving. If we make such small gestures a part of our family's culture, then giving and sharing happiness should, hopefully, become habit.
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Imagination is defined in many ways, but one we like is, "the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality." This is no small task to little kids, and yet young childhood is a time in which imagination is developed more than any other. How does imagination develop in childhood? Through an increasingly sophisticated life of make believe.
We all likely have a sense of what we mean by make believe or good old "pretend play." How do experts define it, though? To some, there are different types of make believe that vary in sophistication and make pretend play different than other types of play. For example, kids may use objects to represent something else (e.g. a block becomes a cell phone). Or, they may start to give an object certain properties (e.g. a doll is asleep or a tree is on fire!). Still yet, they may themselves take on the properties of someone or something else.
From there, pretend play evolves into acting out scenarios or stories, those getting increasingly intricate as imagination develops. As kids' pretend play grows more sophisticated, these stories come to involve not only the creative use of objects, but multiple perspectives (e.g. good and bad guys in the same story), and/or the playful manipulation of ideas and emotions (e.g. I am sad, but then become happy after I save the village from certain doom).
Why does it matter?
An ever growing body of research substantiates the many benefits of pretend play including the enhanced development of: language and communication skills; self-control and empathy; flexible and abstract thinking; and creativity. These are the skills that will help kids balance emotions, form healthy relationships, work effectively on teams, stay focused in school, be successful at various jobs and solve the problems of an increasingly complicated world. An individual's creativity in particular, both requires and is limited by her imagination.
What is Empathy?
Simply put, empathy is the ability to think and care about the feelings and needs of others. The good news is, the more we study, it appears that children are empathetic by nature. All we need to do is nurture it in them—that of course is now always easy. Even though young children are simply working on gaining control over their emotions and won’t learn to really think about their emotions and the cause and effect of their behavior on others until their school years, they can start to develop the foundation for empathy much earlier. Taking actions (and watching adults take actions) that benefit other people, caring for animals and their environment and even just wondering how other people or creatures are feeling helps build both positive habits and a strong base for the development of empathy.
Why does it matter?
Empathy is at the root of what psychologists call “pro-social” behavior—behavior that people must develop in order to develop a conscience, build close relationships, maintain friendships, and develop strong communities. Empathy also helps kids avoid bullying, one of the most worrisome social challenges young kids face. Being able to think and feel for others can keep kids from becoming either bully or victim and equip them to stand up for others who are bullied. Imagine if all kids had such tools!