Helping children develop the skills and values needed for our changing world

Nurturing empathy and wellbeing through digital human stories

Educating young people about mental and emotional wellbeing has always been important, but the topic has, understandably, come into sharper focus over the last year.

With children having spent significantly more time at home due to lockdown restrictions and school closures, many have not had the same level of social interaction and access to pastoral support that they might have received at school.

Enrichment activities, such as school trips and external speakers, have also been off the cards for much of the last 12 months. This shrinking of opportunities to strengthen students’ social-emotional skills and to experience the world outside their regular horizons could have damaging effects on their health, emotional wellbeing, and learning. A recent study conducted during the pandemic suggests probable mental health conditions increased by 50% over three years, from 10.8% in 2017 to 16% in July 2020 across all age, sex, and ethnic groups.

“This shrinking of opportunities to strengthen students’ social-emotional skills and to experience the world outside their regular horizons could have damaging effects on their health, emotional wellbeing, and learning”

It’s critical that we support students to develop key resilience and emotional wellbeing skills. This will better equip children to cope with challenging and sensitive emotions, such as anxiety and grief, which many will have experienced over the last year.

Exploring values and developing empathy through digital human stories

Incorporating real human stories into the curriculum can be a powerful tool to spark thinking and discussion on a range of topics, and provides an excellent way to explore and consider values like resilience, empathy and global citizenship. It can also be an effective way to introduce and discuss topics that can sometimes be challenging, such as diversity, culture, identity and relationships. Using the Lyfta platform, teachers and students can explore the lives and experiences of people from around the world through interactive 360° spaces and soundscapes known as storyworlds, unlocking rich media content and watching powerful short films as they move around each real life space.

“Incorporating real human stories into the curriculum can be a powerful tool to spark thinking and discussion on a range of topics, and provides an excellent way to explore and consider values like resilience, empathy and global citizenship”

For example, children can travel to Tura in Hungary to meet ‘The Strudel Sisters’, Ilona and Erzsébet (both in their 80s). They make huge strudels on their small kitchen table in much the same way the older generation did, but their traditional way of life is gradually disappearing. Their story examines the themes of tradition, sisterhood, the role of mothers, and freedom, and looks at how relationships are developed over time. Contrast this with Erkan from Ankara in Turkey who lives alone, with few human friends, but has found a place and purpose in life by looking after stray dogs and cats. Or the story of Tomi at the Finnish National Opera and Ballet, who loved being a ballet dancer but was forced to retire when he was still young and then found his passion for the ballet again in his new career as a make-up artist.

The University of Tampere in Finland found that immersive human stories can help people develop empathy and understanding towards others (people who they see as culturally different to themselves). Bringing learning to life in this way, using immersive technology, and introducing students to different cultures, values and lived experiences, encourages self-reflection, and can help children develop empathy and confidence as their awareness and horizons expand. People with high levels of empathy are better at understanding the needs and differing points of view of others and have more friends; a network they can turn to for support and encouragement, in good times and bad.

Allen Tsui is computing and science lead, and class teacher at Willow Brook Primary School Academy in East London. During Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 (1–7 February), children in school, as well as those learning from home, were encouraged to use any genre of writing or art form to illustrate this year’s theme ‘Expressing Yourself’.

For children at Willow Brook, ‘Dinner at Habiba’s House’, in which students are invited to join Habiba and her family for dinner and hear about some of the challenges she has faced and overcome, was a wonderful example of celebrating identity and diversity. “Many of our children have parents who have undertaken journeys across the world,” said Allen. “When they see a reflection of their personal history on video it is life affirming. Many of the children who made use of the assembly resources discovered their own voice and were able to speak proudly of their lifestyles.”

Allen believes that immersive technology has given his pupils a chance to see their heritage reflected to a wider audience. This has helped their classmates and teachers feel closer to them and have a better understanding of how to support them. In other words, these digital human stories supported the building of empathy both within and outside of the school.

In a time when there’s a lot of disruption and isolation, we have a responsibility to support children and help them to not only recognise and express their own feelings, but to empathise with others and build a sense of global citizenship or global connection. Technology has been a saviour during the pandemic, and while virtual experiences cannot replace the real experience of travelling and meeting others face-to-face, it does provide a simple and accessible way to transport learners from their everyday lives into the lives and homes of people across the globe. This brings about an increased awareness of the wider world and their place within it.


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