There’s a reason empathy is a buzzword these days, and it isn’t just because the world needs more kindness and understanding. For critics of the memorize-and-regurgitate style of learning, empathy offers a path toward critical thinking and social learning. It’s an aspect of self-awareness that allows kids to make deeper connections with academic material as well as with their peers. And it all starts with the social emotional learning (SEL) skills that encourage emotional literacy.
In an editorial for The Guardian, author George Monbiot argues that collaborative learning is the antidote to the school-as-factory. And this social approach to learning, as developmental psychologist Roberta Golinkoff of the University of Delaware explains, is facilitated by empathy. “So, if you’re going to have a kid who engages in critical thinking, you’re not going to shut them down when they ask a question,” Golinkoff said in an interview for NPR, “You’re going to encourage them to ask more. And you want them to understand how other people think.”
Kids who are able to identify and understand their own feelings and those of others aren’t just nicer human beings who get along better with their peers, psychologists believe they also tend to be smarter and more resilient, and therefore more successful in the long run. Emotional literacy can even give adolescents, arguably the most difficult age group to teach, a toolkit for understanding what motivates them and how they learn best. But in this digital age, where adults and children alike are averaging 9 hours per day in front of screens, are we getting the kind of real-world face time with our kids that helps them practice social interaction and self-assessment and build a diverse emotional vocabulary?
Of course, taking measures to pry your family members away from their screens is a major step toward finding that real-world face time, and you can find tips and strategies for unplugged family time here. But an equally important job for digital-age parents is to validate our children by meeting them on their level, engaging them in play and supporting their hobbies and interests — even if that involves screen time.
Here are a few games and apps that help build emotional literacy. Familiarize yourself with them, introduce your child to them (if they don’t already use, play, or know about them), and be ready to talk about them. Even if the conversations don’t always center around the skills these apps and games call upon, you’ll be spending time together and opening the door to deeper conversations in the future.
Toca Life: City is a “digital toy” from popular app studio Toca Boca, designed for children as young as 2. Featuring a variety of characters, settings, and props, Toca Life: City is a digital game of pretend. The traditional play that kids learn so much from — dress-up, store, house, dolls — are all present in the app, and can spark children’s imaginations and give parents opportunities to talk about feelings and points of view.
Toca TV The second app on this list also comes from Toca Boca. Don’t be fooled by the TV part, because this is passive entertainment unlike any other. Toca TV features carefully curated content designed to get kids 5 and older thinking, questioning, and creating. Plus, the video creation tool allows kids to shoot their own shows, meaning your child will be exposed to new and different points of view and encouraged to share their own.
Cove (Music Journal) Kids as young as 8 will enjoy a completely different tool for expressing their feelings and creativity. Cove is a water-themed digital journal that allows users to capture their moods and emotions through instrumental music. For kids who have trouble expressing themselves, Cove takes away the pressure of verbalization while still prompting users to recognize and label how they are feeling. Entries can then be stored and shared with others, giving kids a solid starting point for understanding what they are feeling and why.
Ori and the Blind Forest is a puzzle platformer that puts players in control of Ori, a “guardian spirit” whose home and community have been destroyed. Ori’s personal journey from devastation to healing will give your and your child the opportunity to talk about important and complex topics like empathy, resilience, and what it means to be a good citizen and friend.
Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa) Players of this challenging puzzle platformer will embark on a harrowing and emotional adventure based on the lore of the indigenous people of Alaska. Never Alone is the story of Nuna, a young Iñupiaq girl, who bravely faces the dangers posed by nature as well as humanity. Gameplay is interspersed with opportunities to learn more about the Iñupiaqs through videos and pictures — their history and beliefs as well as their modern day existence — with story and history alike presenting numerous opportunities to talk about emotions.
Gone Home is a unique first-person exploration game appropriate for kids 13+ that centers around issues of social acceptance, self-image, and personal and familial relationships. Main character Kate must dive into the personal belongings of her family members to find out what has happened while she was away for a semester abroad. Though the content is dense and dark at times, the game emphasizes the importance of sharing, listening, empathy, reflection, depression, anxiety, resilience, and hope — offering kids and parents the chance to have deep conversations about emotional literacy as an aspect of self- and social awareness.