Archive for March 12th, 2013

March 12, 2013

The Secret Garden: Using Fiction to Increase Empathy in Children

by Melissa Harding

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“I am sure there is Magic in everything, only we have not sense enough to get hold of it and make it do things for us.”
–  The Secret Garden

The spring show at Phipps this season is themed after The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s story of two hurting children and the garden that heals them both. Mary Lennox, a troubled orphan, and Colin Craven, a boy so weak that he can hardly walk, learn compassion and joy through tending a secret garden. While this is a children’s story, it is still a riveting tale of transformation. It speaks of loss and loneliness, as well as love and hope. This book is a work of fiction, but it easy to get lost in its pages as if they were really happening before you. This is called emotional transportation, when readers become emotionally involved in a story; it is a convergent process, where all the reader’s mental systems become focused on events occurring in the narrative. People lose track of time, not realizing that they have been reading for hours. A recent research paper from Erasmus University Rotterdam explores this theory of emotional transportation and whether fiction has other effects on the human mind. Specifically, it asks the question: Does reading fiction influence empathy? The answer, like all good works of fiction, is complicated.

In two separate studies, researchers looked at fiction versus nonfiction and whether readers had an increase in empathy after reading; those readers who became emotionally transported into the story showed such an an increase. There are many theories on why this is so. Transported readers identify with characters in the story and even experience it as if the events in the narrative were happening to them. Fiction provides a safe place for readers to experience these emotions; the reader can allow himself to freely become emotionally involved  without actually transferring these feelings to real life. This emotional involvement causes readers to sympathize with the characters, consequently practicing empathy.

Another theory is that fictional narratives provoke personal insights, perhaps because the simulation of real life experiences in fiction can be associated with the processes that people use to navigate their daily lives. Readers learn about human psychology and social norms through character interaction. They also learn to predict social responses, inferring how characters are thinking, feeling and what they are intending to do. Additionally, fiction helps people to “make sense of the senseless”, helping them to put a face on human tragedy, and offers the chance to interact with characters from times and places that readers may not know in real life. All of this ultimately helps readers to understand the perspectives of others, increasing their empathic abilities.

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This is one of the reasons that it is so important to engage children in reading. Fiction helps them to understand the world that they are growing into; besides increasing their ability to empathize with others, it also helps them to better navigate the social waters and their interactions with peers. Children with good empathic skills are more pro-social and are kinder to others; this is linked to success in the workplace, school and social groups. Pro-social children are more well-liked and show greater creativity and productivity than their less empathetic peers. It doesn’t matter what kind of fiction a child is reading, as long as the narrative is so good that he becomes lost in the story. That is when fiction begins to work its magic.

While some children devour books unprompted, many others are reluctant readers. Some may be reluctant because of difficulty reading, disinterest, peer pressure, or any number of issues. Others may be avid readers during the elementary years and then taper off as they grow older. Whatever the reason, here are some ways to help all young readers gain the advantages of fiction reading in their development.

1. Figure out the root of reluctance: Until you know the reason for a child’s dislike of reading, it can be difficult to address the root of the problem. It may be that your child needs specialized reading services or more individualized reading instruction; it also could be that he just need to find a book that he actually likes.
2. Provide interesting reading material: If traditional novels are not appealing, try graphic novels, magazines, fantasy, or science fiction.
3. Model reading at home: Children with parents who love and value reading are much more likely to become avid readers.
4. Make reading fun: For young children, reading with voices, acting out scenes together and just generally being enthusiastic make reading more fun.
5. Read more: Analyzing a text can take all of the enjoyment out of it; while this can be unavoidable with school reading, try to encourage you child to read at home just for himself.
6. Promote good books: Share your favorite books and why you love them so much. Leave them lying around for your child to find.
7. Read outside: Reading outside is soothing and can help children better imagine what they are reading.

Reading fiction not only increases your child’s empathic skills, it also takes him to new worlds. Much like the Secret Garden transports the children in the novel away from their troubles, so too can falling into a book. “The Secret Garden was what Mary called it when she was thinking of it. She liked the name, and she liked still more the feeling that when its beautiful old walls shut her in no one knew where she was. It seemed almost like being shut out of the world in some fairy place.” Encouraging fiction reading will help your child grow in wonderful ways; find a good book today and read it together. Even better, pick one up just for yourself as well.

For more strategies to increase your child’s love of reading, check out this article by Reading is Fundamental. To help engage your students, check out edrethink’s article on reading in the classroom.

To learn more about the effects of fiction on empathy, read the original article on PLOSone.

The above photos were taken by Christie Lawry.

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