Dinosaurs, Empathy & Boundary-Setting

Creating characters and imagining new worlds comes naturally to your preschooler. It can be a rich piece in your parenting. Follow along a recent preschool play day to learn what dinosaurs have to do with empathy and setting boundaries.

1. We planned to sled first thing after the kids arrived. The teachers invited the dinosaurs to try it with us. (Note: We talked directly to the dinosaurs asking them if they wanted to come. This gave space for the children to decide if they wanted to play along, and it gave the dinosaurs volition, which made the dinosaurs-are-with-us world all-the-more interesting.)

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2. The children carried their dinosaurs to our sledding hill. While we sledded we talked to the dinosaurs and gave them some rides. Many of the children kept their dinosaur friends with them throughout our sledding excursion. Why is this significant? They are taking care of something other than themselves, they are thinking of an 'other'. This is at the heart of learning empathy and perspective-taking.

3. Once inside the teachers talked to the dinosaurs and asked them if they were cold (one of our children had talked about having cold hands). We continued the storyline with small moments like this, ready to engage with our dinosaur friends but not necessarily pushing a particular agenda. Just keeping them in the mix of the day.

4. After snack we opened up tables for art and loose parts projects. The children at one table decided that their dinosaurs were going to construct a robot dinosaur. There was collaboration (among the children and the dinosaurs) and there were opportunities to talk about how a dinosaur problem-solves (perspective-taking).  

Meanwhile, at the art table one of our teachers constructed a dinosaur from paper. Named Huey. Unprompted by the adults one little girl drew a bathtub for Huey and one little boy drew food. Huey (in the hands of the teacher) began nibbling on people because it was SO hungry. This drew fits of giggles. 

5. Finally, Huey (in the hands of some of the kids) was nibbling on other kids so much that a teacher decided to set a boundary. The result is in the video below. It's a great example of how introducing characters can provide a way to shape behavior and set boundaries with less emotional tension and a more constructive interaction. Together we are giving feedback to Huey. What emerged was surprising and novel.

Being imaginative and introducing characters does a lot of powerful parenting 'work'. You are enter and respect your child's imaginative world, you help them see from other perspectives, you respect and value individual personalities and perspectives, and you introduce a vehicle for passing on your values and boundaries. And it's fun! 

Keren Gudeman

Minneapolis, Minnesota