The Browne Center

Building Empathy and Connectivity Through Play

Building Empathy and Connectivity Through Play

by Jeff Frigon, Youth & Student Programs Coordinator

In our work, we are often tasked with helping groups build healthy community.  Boiled down to its most basic form, the distillate for you science folks, a healthy community is made up of individuals who are connected enough to one another to behave well; to treat each other with kindness, caring, compassion; even in the face of challenge, sadness, joy, pain.

Creating and leveraging these connections is one of the cornerstones of my work here at The Browne Center; whether it be in Antibullying workshops or teambuilding with 6th graders, and has led me to focus on the concept of empathy. By definition, empathy is both an emotional and physiological identification that happens automatically in humans when we see another person having an experience.  Recent brain research has shown us that there is  a part of our brain (the inferior parietal cortex, among others) that “lights’ up when we perform any given action as well as when we witness another performing the same action.  These “light bulbs” have been coined by some as “mirror neurons.”

Now that is a lot of science to talk about play and connection, but it sheds light on why what we do works.  Most of us have settled into our patterns when working with groups; we have our favorite icebreakers and name games and tone setting activities.  What do these do?  What does “breaking the ice” and “setting tone” mean?  When one looks through the lens of Antibullying research that has found that the higher the levels of empathy an individual has, the more likely they will be to stand up for others and themselves and be less likely to bully, one can see at least one corner of the answer.

Through play, we see each other laugh and we laugh ourselves, firing off those mirror neurons and having an empathic or empathetic response on the biological level.  Through play we see each other engage in being vulnerable, say, getting “out” in a game of tag, and not being chastised or derided for it and are thus more likely to engage in being vulnerable ourselves (and in the process validating others’ vulnerability).  Through the guided practice of a well facilitated activity, we engage in risky behavior and support each other through spotting, belaying, rule enforcement; and through empathy build trust.  All these things drive connection, build history of shared story and experience, and if we play our games right, healthier communities.

Go on, make someone laugh, not only is it literally contagious, it will start the kind of connection we are looking for in our communities!


The Browne Center has been providing innovative experiential learning programs since the early 1980s. We provide a wide range of programming from comprehensive trainings to shorter one-day sessions. Our learning programs evolve to meet the needs of our clients and our diverse client base allows us to draw upon best practices from a variety of disciplines and remain sensitive to specific needs and outcomes.

Creating a dynamic program based on your group's specific goals is our approach with every single client. We can provide an action-packed program to meet your needs – whether you are coming together as a new group, integrating new members, building positive group relationships, addressing specific behaviors, or striving for performance excellence.