Ignite Empathy in Children: The Answer is the Arts

By Chris Rooney
Chris Rooney is a musician and educator at Dabbledoo, an education company that works with primary schools across Ireland to provide music, art and drama resources for teachers.
David Bowie at the Berlin Wall in 1987
David Bowie at the Berlin Wall in 1987

In 1987, David Bowie performed as part of the “Concert for Berlin” near the Berlin Wall in West Germany. During the concert, he performed his song “Heroes”, which he’d penned about the city while he lived there in the 1970’s. Before singing it, Bowie called out to the crowd, “We send our best wishes to all of our friends who are on the other side of the Wall.”

Heroes became an anthem for peace and Bowie’s performance was seen as helping to contribute to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall two years later.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the collapse of the Wall and yet Europe still faces many of the same challenges which divided it during that period. None perhaps are bigger than the integration of people from different backgrounds. 


Ireland’s challenge of building empathy

In Ireland, this challenge is at its extreme in the growing anti-immigration sentiment which led to the Dublin riots last November. While much has been discussed as to how we can create a more welcoming society, an increased focus has been placed on the role of schools and how they can help build empathy for our young people. 

Already some fantastic initiatives are operating in schools. Barnardos’ Roots of Empathy programme invites a parent and baby from the school community to come into a classroom to interact with the children. Through the observations of the baby, the aim is to help the class raise their emotional competencies. 

Another example is the Activating Social Empathy programme. This 12-week programme, aimed at Junior Cycle in secondary schools, teaches “children the value of connecting emotionally to the experience of others.” The programme was developed following research by NUIG and is supported by actor Cillian Murphy.

These initiatives are great and should continue to be championed, however, the commentary on empathy overlooks an important area already present in school life: the arts. 


Supporting Diversity and Inclusion

The music, art and drama curricula for primary schools have many examples of learning objectives which help children implicitly build empathy. Here’s an example from the drama curriculum for 1st + 2nd class:

The child should be enabled to use his/her emerging awareness of the differences in people…..to develop an understanding of the relationship between role and character

The example scenarios that are given to help explain this include:

  • increase audibility and volume when talking to the man at the toll bridge who is hard of hearing 
  • take a role in a ‘presentation’ for people from China who want to see what life is like here in Ireland

Through these role-play-based activities, children can use drama to simulate real-life scenarios in their classrooms which allows them to explore the need for empathy within different situations.

Similarly, through music and art, children have the opportunity to indirectly develop skills of empathy. This could be by learning a song or creating a piece of visual art from a different culture.


New Curriculum Framework

With the new primary framework being introduced in September 2025, there will be a renewed focus on the arts. Children will now be learning ‘arts education’ as a whole subject area in Junior Infants to 2nd Class which will then be split into the three core arts subjects of music, art and drama from 3rd to 6th Class. 

While there is some very encouraging language about the impact arts education can have on children, the document misses the mark on emphasising how the arts can build empathy and help create a more tolerant society. 

As David Bowie demonstrated, the arts can always provide us with a means to empathise with people different to ourselves and, for Ireland, it is the teachers who can be the heroes in making this a reality. 

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