Learning To Play – A Unique Perspective of Empathy

This week, the JLM Advocacy blog features a post by two guest bloggers from the Junior League of Minneapolis’ Project Development Committee: Kelly Chaffee & Amy Spiehler.

We all want to consider ourselves as empathetic people, but what exactly is empathy?

This is a question that the Project Development (PD) committee focused on at the beginning of the League year.  Working with direction from the book Creative Confidence, our team was encouraged to be on a mission to approach problems from the perspective of the people we serve, rather than the creation of a solution to “fix” a perceived problem.  So together, we attempted to figure out how to hear the voices in our community.

In our second committee meeting, the group welcomed speaker Merri Lynn Jono, a former 4th grade teacher of Green Central Park Elementary School in Minneapolis.  Merri Lynn was introduced to the Junior League when her daughter was invited to attend the American Girl Fashion Show, an annual Junior League fundraiser.   Merri Lynn loved the show and wanted to find a way to extend the great experience her daughter had to her 4th graders at Green Central.  The next year, she contacted the Junior League of Minneapolis (JLM) and asked to bring some of her students to watch the show.

Back at school, Merri Lynn leveraged the American Girl curriculum in her after-school programming and her girls loved it.  Merri Lynn found ways to make the stories come alive.  When they were reading about Victorian-age character Samantha, Merri Lynn even took her students to the Victorian-age Alexander Ramsey House in order for the girls to learn about local history.

Merri Lynn shared the story of one of her students who loved the Josefina character so much that her father was determined to get her the doll. On the last day of school the girl was so excited about her new treasure that she asked Merri Lynn to come to her house that summer to play American Girl dolls.  As Merri Lynn sat down to play dolls, making little voices and creating stories of what the dolls were doing, the little girl was taken aback, giggling and shy that Ms. Jono was making play voices!  Merri Lynn realized that this little girl, like many of the students she had seen before, had never learned to play and to use her imagination to create story lines around her playroom.

It really struck the PD group that a little girl might not understand how to interact and play with a doll.  Project Development realized that part of teaching kids to read requires the inclusion of the softer skills of learning: having  fun while you’re in a lesson so that it really sticks with you, being a kid and being awed by something that you’ll keep going back to learn more.  Merri Lynn’s story really struck our hearts as she showed us the perspective of her students.  Project Development continues to find way to integrate empathy in all of our community conversations and we really appreciated Merri Lynn joining us to show us the value of it.

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