An article I linked up to recently on the Literacy Launchpad Facebook page talked about ten things that happen to our brains when we read. One of those things is that when we read about an experience, it makes our brains think we have actually experienced it:
Reading about experiences is almost the same as living it:
"Have you ever felt so connected to a story that it's as if you experienced it in real life? There's a good reason why: your brain actually believes that you have experienced it. When we read, the brain does not make a real distinction between reading about an experience and actually living it. Whether reading or experiencing it, the same neurological regions are stimulates. Novels are able to enter into our thoughts and feelings. While you can certainly hop into a VR game at the mall and have a great time, it seems that reading is the original virtual experience, at least for your brain." (Open Education Database)
Another article on Oregon Live talks specifically about the genre of fiction and how effectively it fosters empathy:
"Reading fiction... attunes us to the complex, unpredictable activity going on behind the names and faces that we meet. It trains us to recognize the individuality that makes everyone irreplacably unique. Reading fiction leads us to understand that each individual perceives, like me, a world -- but the world they perceive may be quite different from mine. Indeed, as a form of expression, creative writing -- like music, dance and the visual arts -- gives us a chance to convey our worlds to others." (Oregon Live)
So by simply reading to your children every day, you are helping them to become a better person, not just academically and intellectually, but by their character! Reading to your child helps them to imagine themselves in someone else's shoes, and builds up compassion within them.
All it takes is reading books, but there are some extra little things you can do to help your child think a little deeper on what is being read to them.1. Ask questions at a few key points in the book, like, "I wonder how this character feels right now," or "Do you think these characters can ever forgive one another? How?"
2. Point out facial expressions and body language of the characters. Talk about how these are clues that tell others how we're feeling on the inside.
3. Relate the story to your child, their own life, things they have personally experienced. "Remember when your friend forgot your birthday like happened to the little girl in this book? Did you feel the same way she did?"
Questions like these help your child understand other people, and also helps them see how other people might understand them.
These are some great book lists floating around (check Pinterest) that give tons of suggestions for picture books that might particularly help foster empathy and compassion in kids. At least for today I am going to shy away from trying to put any picture books into that box, or to even suggest that there is a box that would include or exclude certain books from fostering empathy and compassion. The truth is, any fiction book can serve this purpose, whether it's a book about death, or a book about going grocery shopping with mom. There is value in a child "experiencing" the world of another, no matter how greatly significant or horribly mundane of an experience it might be.