Silent Story, Loud Empathy: Investigating Children's Empathy on Deforestation

Abstract:The present multiple-embedded case study aims to investigate how young children raised in an urban area respond by categorizing their empathic reactions to deforestation using an eco-friendly silent picture book. In this respect, two five-year-old children who resided in an urban setting and had not experienced any non-urban life participated in the study. The data was collected using an eco-friendly silent picture book with a semi-structured interview. Besides, a play observation with the story characters as toys and a book-like playground was provided with the co-player role of the researchers.The data collected from the transcriptions of the story and play sessions' video recordings was analyzed with the content analysis. The study revealed that the two urban-dwelling children exhibit insufficient empathy towards deforestation and natural life. Mostly indicated empathy category was "attention to others' emotions" and children only noticed the situation of deforestation, but insufficiently exhibited "prosocial behaviors", "sympathy", and "personal distress". This situation was discussed due to children's lack of experience in unfamiliar situation regarding nature which might cause anthropocentric views. Since there might be a possibility of anthropocentric and apathetic behaviors in children towards nature and natural problems in the future, engaging students in nature-based activities and outdoors was suggested to enhance children’s empathy towards nature.Extended Summary:Introduction & Conceptual Background:Empathy is a fundamental feature of human response and develops through various stages during early childhood years (Hoffman, 1987). These help children to understand that others have their inner states, characterized by empathic responses towards others, situations, and needs (Eisenberg et al., 1987). In that, stimulating empathic feelings can influence the likelihood of subsequent prosocial behavior (Hoffman, 1982).Emotional and cognitive empathy contribute to developing empathy towards nature, a powerful agent for prosocial behaviors (Ernst et al., 2022). However, children’s access to nature is limited. In this regard, picture books play a role in establishing a relationship with nature (Echterling, 2016) and emerged as a powerful tool for empathy. Thus, the aim is to investigate the children’s empathy categories regarding deforestation through an eco-friendly silent picture book.RQ: What are the categories of empathy toward deforestation in five-year-old children’s expressions?Method:Multiple-embedded design was employed (Yin, 2018). The units of analysis were "empathy categories of children". Two children were purposefully selected according to the following criteria: (1)they should be five-year-old to show empathic responses (Kimonis et al., 2023), (2)the place of residence is an urban area, and (3)lack of experience with non-urban places.Consents were obtained from both children and parents. Semi-structured interviews were used to understand children’s empathy categories for deforestation via a silent book (Where is This Elephant?). Children were asked to interpret the book presenting a deforestation scenario where a settlement is built. Then, the animal characters and a playground were presented to the children, and a free-play observation was recorded via a video camera. The researcher took the co-player role. Empathic responses evaluated whether children's reported feelings align with those likely experienced by the characters (Strayer, 1987).Data analysis was performed using MAXQDA. Empathy categories were derived deductively considering the rubric prepared by the researchers that was adopted from Kimonis et al. (2023). Two coders independently coded the data to enhance confirmability and ensure intercoder-reliability (Miles et al., 2014).Findings:Considering categories of empathy, the least coded one wassympathy. While Jade did not indicate any expression of sympathy towards the distortion of the animals' habitats, Ean only showed joy towards the animals' escape from the zoo without any reason:"[Ean laughs]Interviewer:Did you like that animals are escaping?Ean:Yeah, ?(…). It is good that they are escaping."Personal distresswas the second least coded category. Ean showed his sadness regarding the animals trapped in the zoo.Also, Jade showed surprise as she thinks people cannot live in wild forests:"More trees are broken here(…) Cars? Why is there so much going wrong?(…) This place is turning into cities(…) But there should not be home in forests."Inthe prosocial behavior category, Jade only once put herself in the parrot's place and said,"I would feel lonely if I were the parrot."Ean also once said, "I would take all the trees if I were elephant [for where elephant carries a tree]."Jade provided specific examples regarding humans, "I think... people throw much garbage. Moreover, the animals were disturbed by this."Ean provided no reason and indicated,"Animals are hiding from humans".The main empathy category wasattention to others’ emotions.Although both children paid attention to the story, Jade generally ignored what animals experience and did not provide a rationale for humans' actions. For example, she ignored that humans cut trees and said,"Trees started to fall(…) because of the wind".Besides, where animals are trapped in the zoo, she indicated: "I think we saw it wrong,."Ean did not provide any negative emotions, yet he did not establish empathy. He just reacted,"Houses? Come on! [with a surprised face]”Discussion:Two children living in an urban area showed lower levels of empathy towards deforestation, which might cause apathetic behaviors in the future (Lithoxoidou et al., 2017). According to Hoffman (1987), empathy develops over time, reaching the point of displaying prosocial behavior at the specified age. The study, however, revealed that empathy towards nature may not progress uniformly. The children comprehend the situation, yet their response might be indifferent due to lack of experience. This may lead them to adopt an anthropocentric perspective due to human-centered experiences.To foster empathy towards nature, enhancing nature-centric experiences could be beneficial such as engaging in outdoor and nature-based activities, designing art activities inspired by nature, and conducting science activities involving observation of nature. In this way, parents and educators can help raise their children to be more empathic towards nature, helping establish sustainable future.References:Echterling, C. (2016). How to save the world and other lessons from children’s environmental literature.Children’s Literature in Education, 47, 283–299.Eisenberg, N. & Strayer, J. (1987). Critical issues in the study of empathy. In N. Eisenberg & J. Strayer (Eds.),Empathy and its development(pp. 3–13). Cambridge University Press.Ernst, J., Curran, C., Budnik, L. (2022). Investigating the Impact of Preschool Type on Young Children’s Empathy. Sustainability, 14, 9320., M. L. (1982). Development of prosocial motivation: Empathy and guilt. In N. Eisenberg (Ed.),The development of prosocial behavior(pp. 218-231). New York: Academic Press.Hoffman, M. L. (1987). The contribution of empathy to justice and moral judgment. In N. Eisenberg & J. Strayer (Eds.),Empathy and its development(pp. 47–80). Cambridge University Press.Kimonis, E. R., Jain, N., Neo, B., Fleming, G. E., & Briggs, N. (2023). Development of an Empathy Rating Scale for Young Children.Assessment, 30(1), 37-50.Lithoxoidou, L., Georgopoulos, A., Dimitriou, A., & Xenitidou, S. (2017). "Trees have a soul too!": Developing empathy and environmental values in early childhood.The International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 5(1), 68-88.Miles, M. B., Huberman, A. M., & Saldana, J. (2014)Qualitative data analysis. A method sourcebook.Sage Publications, Inc.Strayer, J. (1987). Picture-story indices of empathy.In N. Eisenberg & J. Strayer (Eds.),Empathy and its development(pp. 351–355). Cambridge University Press.Yin, R. K. (2018). Case study research and applications: Design and methods (6th Ed.). SAGE.
Joint Conference of the EARLI Special Interest Groups: Learning and Development in Early Childhood (SIG 5) and Play, Learning and Development (SIG 28)
Citation Formats
S. Üzüm, C. Başer, and M. Tanrısevdi, “Silent Story, Loud Empathy: Investigating Children’s Empathy on Deforestation,” presented at the Joint Conference of the EARLI Special Interest Groups: Learning and Development in Early Childhood (SIG 5) and Play, Learning and Development (SIG 28), Warszawa, Polonya, 2024, Accessed: 00, 2024. [Online]. Available: