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Using Play to Teach Your Kids about Social Justice

It’s undeniable that the current sociopolitical environment is incredibly heavy. It seems as though not a day goes by when we don’t hear about a story of social injustice or violence. While there have always been injustices and violence throughout our history, social media plays a big role in us learning about them much quicker than before.

If you’re like me, you often feel a sense of helplessness, anger, and frustration when hearing stories like this. Engaging in conversations about what’s going on can seem exhausting and hopeless, especially when arguing with those who hold different views than us. But, we mustn’t let that stop us from creating a conversation about these very important issues. Especially, conversations with young children and teenagers.

Why should you talk to your kids about social justice?

Madeline L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time once said: “you have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” The meaning behind this quote is that we often underestimate children’s understanding of the world. Not only do they crave to know more about the reality they live in, but the more they know the more capable they are of building their own system of beliefs. It fosters critical thinking and helps raise a generation of powerful minds who will, undoubtedly, make an impact in history.

Speaking to children about topics like equality, race, discrimination, human rights, and how to use their voices as agents of change is never easy. But, it’s not impossible either. It’s all about making it accessible to each child based on their differences. In fact, a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin not only states it’s important to talk to children about these issues early and often, but it should also be adapted to the age of the child.

An article published in The Atlantic explains that until children turn 7 years old, most of their beliefs are formed from what they hear from the significant adults in their lives. But, starting at 10, they learn to incorporate their personal experiences into these beliefs. As a study backed by Harvard University mentions, prejudice can form an early age. So, the earlier we tackle these conversations with our children, the better are our chances to develop a more-conscious generation.

Play different scenarios

Play is a wonderful medium through which so many complex situations and emotions can be explored. It’s distant and safe enough for the child to project their own fears and anxieties, but close enough to make the playing themes as personal as the child allows them to be. It is through play that children can fully portray their imagination and inner world. And, the way parents (and other significant adults) interact, can support children in this understanding of their outer world.

When it comes to social justice, it’s important to have a variety of ethnicities, and culture-representative toys and materials to use. The more diverse, the more accurate the playing scenario. This also gives the parent and the child, the opportunity to re-enact different situations that might be taken from movies or news or TV shows, to further explore how to handle situations appropriately.

Playing different scenarios helps to develop a variety of strategies on how to deal with situations of injustice. Children need to know all the different roles and stories that take part in perpetuating injustice and violence. When you play it out, you are accompanying the child in a process that will, hopefully, help her/him change the course of the story and give it a more vindicated ending. Making their story their own.

Seize teachable moments

Drawing inspiration from the media is what we like to call maximizing “teachable moments”. Using stories and characters (both fictional and non-fictional) can help parents and children to start the playing scenario. For instance, if there was a recent news article that depicts a situation of discrimination, use that as the foundation to foster a conversation about this. Some questions that you can ask throughout play:

  • How does the character who is discriminated feel?
  • What will other characters do? (Use this question to introduce terms like bystander and upstander)
  • Why is this happening in this world?
  • What can be done to prevent these situations from happening again?

As always, make sure that the questions that are asked stay within the playing realm. The beauty of play is that the child works through their emotional anxieties WITHOUT it being something personal. So, the way the child responds to the characters in the playing scenario is actually a reflection of how they feel or how they would handle a similar event.

Speaking about social justice is not easy, but it’s incredibly necessary – and much more in this time. But, I truly believe that it’s in the early and frequent exposure that we can create a kinder, more empathetic generation. And, like I’ve written before: when in doubt, play it out!

Using Play to Teach Your Kids about Social Justice

Mariana Plata

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APA Reference
, . (2018). Using Play to Teach Your Kids about Social Justice. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 10 Aug 2018
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