Activities for Toddlers to Build Empathy

The ability to feel empathy is a critical trait. According to, empathy is something children learn, rather than something they're born with 2. Most of the time, children learn empathy by seeing adults around them model it in real-life settings, but you can also do specific activities to foster a sense of understanding about the feelings of others.

Pretend Play

Pretend play offers the perfect opportunity to model empathy in a safe environment for your child. Using dolls, animals, or another favorite toy, act out different scenarios. For example, you might show one stuffed animal comforting another stuffed animal who misses his mommy. Empathy isn't only important when dealing with negative emotions, though. Model feeling happy for others, such as a toy car feeling happy when his friend wins the race. As your toddler gains more skills, he might even be able to get into the action as well, creating his own scenarios. You can then ask, "How do you think Mr. Bear feels?"

Showing Emotions

Recognizing the facial expressions that go along with various emotions is one of the first steps to understanding others' feelings. Practice making these faces with your toddler. Together, you can make happy, sad, sleepy, scared, excited or bored faces, for example. Then, you can take turns making the faces, either directing the face that your child makes or -- if she's more verbal -- having her guess which face you are making.


Reading books about feelings offers you an opportunity to discuss the feelings of others. "Baby Happy Baby Sad," by Leslie Patricelli, is simple enough for younger toddlers to understand, and they often enjoy seeing pictures of other little ones. If your child prefers more complex stories, consider "Today I Feel Silly: And Other Moods That Make My Day," by Jamie Lee Curtis. This rhyming text with elaborate pictures covers a range of emotions your child might start to understand. As you read the book, show the emotions through your own facial expressions and tone of voice.

In-the-moment Empathy

Modeling empathy in the moment is perhaps the best way to teach it. When your child upsets another, such as by taking a toy away or accidentally bumping into her, your first reaction might be to make him say, "I'm sorry." According to the Zero to Three website, though, those words don't have much meaning for young children. The smarter move is to explain, "Jamal feels bad because you took the toy he was playing with" or "Annie got hurt when you bumped into her." Even if your child isn't involved in causing the other child's emotions, you can still help explain the feelings. "Rajbir feels sad because he misses his mommy," can go a long way toward building empathy.