Any chance to step into another person’s shoes builds character and is an opportunity to practice empathy.

By using dramatic play as a teaching tool, we can encourage our students to see the world through another person’s eyes.  Beyond asking them to get into costume, I ask them to get into “character”.

Here’s some ways into empathy-building and deepening our students’ awareness of “other”.  When we scaffold our children’s dramatic imaginings – by using the prompts below, we are helping them reap the benefits of play. We can sharpen executive functioning skills and social-emotional intelligence of our students.

The following is a sampling of exercises we do in Child’s Play NY.  For the elementary school classrooms, chose “characters” from history or literature to make the academic curriculum come to life.  For preschool students, use these games as a launching off point to heighten the children’s natural work of dramatic play.

Getting into Character with “A Day in the Life”

Here is a sampling of how I use a moving meditation to help kids get into character before a show.  Some tips if you are leading this in a classroom:

  • Start lying down breathing in character
  • Ask them about their character’s bed
  • Have them wake up and do a morning routine specific to their character
  • Play a variation of red-light-green-light so you can control their movements but get them to a destination
  • Keep it dramatic and important (why do they need to get where they are going today for their character’s journey?)
  • Limit the interactions they have with each other while doing the exercise, rather let them get courage from the collective energy of the group


Get Specific: The devil (or queen or construction worker) is in the details.

Small moments – not just drama – define us. Getting into costume is one thing, getting into character is another. Start by connecting to simple things like morning routines, favorite foods and family units. How is your character the same or (more likely) different than you? What are their dreams like?

Your Character Through the Ages: a Moving Meditation

In these exercises you are asking students to give over to their character, without any judgement.  They can have an opportunity to debrief at the end.

While you are guiding them with these prompts, encourage your students to surrender to the process.   Use open-ended and rhetorical questions to get your students thinking about their character.  You can aid their shift from thinking “about” their character to thinking “as” their character by speaking to them in the second person (ex: “What kind of bed are you sleeping on?”).

Talk your kids through important stages of life.  If you have a high degree of focus and attention in your group, you can have them move as you pose these questions and working to answer them from a kinesthetic place rather than a cerebral place.  For example, when you talk about their toddler years, or older-age, it will be from their own body that they find the answers to your questions.  You can also pose these questions to them, while they are lying down or resting.

Questions to Ask Your Kids

  • Begin as a baby:  How does your character cry?  Coo?  Who do they look to for love?
  • As a toddler, what are your character’s first words?  How do you crawl/stumble/walk?
  • At your age, do you go to school?  What is your school like?
  • As a teenager, how do you behave, talk and walk?  What are you proudest of?  What do you yearn for?
  • As an adult, what is your job?  Do you have a family?
  • What is your life like as an elderly person/creature. How do you spend your “golden years”, what does it look like when you slow down?

Beyond the life-cycle of your character, they can examine a day in much the same way.  Start with waking up in the morning and end with going to bed.

Art show

Kids who may not be as comfortable diving right into dramatic play, can find a way into empathetically thinking about their character’s story through visual arts.
Here are some ideas to get the creative juices flowing

Visual Art Prompts

  • Draw a self-portrait
  • Draw your character’s family portrait.
  • What does place have to do with it? Draw the house/tree/cave/castle etc where your character lives. If you have butcher paper, create a mural. For younger students make a template for them of the iconic locations in their character’s world and ask them to fill in the rest.
  • Illustrate the most dramatic, high-stakes, exciting moment in your character’s life?

Asking students to define, and illustrate the game-changing times in their characters’ lives get them thinking outside of themselves. How are lives shaped by big decisions, triumphs, outside forces, bravery, stamina?They get closer to the center of their character – and out of their own lives – thinking about the big moments.

From Page to Stage

Once these illustrations are completed, students can present them as an art show. Have them speak in character in the “first person”, reflecting on these self-portraits and other works.  Students can take turns presenting the art – as if they are at a show – and being interviewed by you as the teacher, or by each other about who they are and the art that they created.

Your Best Dream

Neuroscientists are finding that just 15 minutes of game-playing with a stranger, boosts your empathy toward them* (1). Explore “dreams” with your class as an entry-point for dramatic play, rich imaginings and uninhibited creative movement work. As they lie down ask them to imagine their character’s sleeping state is (What is their bed like? Their pillow? Their nightclothes?). Have them imagine that they are experiencing their character’s favorite dream. Who is in it? What are they accomplishing? How does it end?  If you like you can turn this into a movement exercise. Tap some children on the head to transition to standing and act the dream out as if they are sleepwalking. If space allows, have the whole class do this simultaneously with some music underscoring their dream.  In this way they will come closer to understanding the inner life of their character.

Teachers, if you play any of these empathy-boosters in your classroom, add another twist, or want to share your own discoveries, please chime in below.  Feel free to contact me directly with your questions.  I look forward to hearing from you and helping you bring even more playful positivity to your classroom.

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References: Stuart Brown, M.D., with Christopher Vaughan. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, New York: Avery, 2009.
TED Radio (2015, March 27) How Can Playing a Game Make You More Empathic [Interview]. Retreived from

Banner Photo by Aubrey Hardwick