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Spreading Smiles

Age: 3 to 8 Time: <30 min
Materials: permanent marker; small nature treasures
Skills: Imagination, Empathy

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.

The Guide

  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.
  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.”
  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.
  4. Prompt some thought: Talk about what you are doing with kids as you sprinkle them. 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, he or she learns 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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