By StefanieS

Walk a Mile in Someone’s Shoes

Empathy |ˈempəTHē|


the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

What the world needs now…is empathy. Information flies willy nilly every second of every day, tabloids scream the latest personal information speculated by celebrity reporters. A lack of empathy is something that is seemingly so apparent, we don’t even acknowledge its absence.

Empathy is one of the attributes that separates us from the wild. A lion doesn’t choose its prey based on whether or not the gazelle had a good day at work or is struggling in a relationship. Empathy is one skill that we’d like to think is natural, and while this is probably partly true, it is fair to say that empathy is something that also needs to be exercised; both actively, as in showing & receiving empathy, and passively, as in witnessing empathy.

Bullying, something constantly on the radar now, while stemming from many issues, can also be attributed to a lack of empathy, an inability to allow an awareness of how we would feel in the victim’s role to govern our actions.

How do children practice empathy? Passively it is something they witness, from parents and other adults in their various environments, or when one child in their class includes another child who may have been left out. Actively it is something they exercise  in conflict, guided by a parent perhaps or it is something that is openly talked about at home in times of crisis or whenever the opportunity arrives.

Performing arts, acting specifically, requires the building of empathy skills. Understanding a character’s choices based on their actions, reactions, their past, the events they cause, the events they are victim to and why is how we bring words on a page to life on a stage. Trying to create emotionally accurate and believable characters requires an ability to relate to the character’s situation, either by paralleling a similar experience in our own lives; or, by piecing together experiences that might be vastly different from our characters situation but still connects us emotionally to their plight.

When we ask our acting students to think about how they would feel if a confrontational action was inflicted upon them, or how they would react in a similar situation, we are exercising their empathy muscles. We hope that these practice sessions, during rehearsals, will be relevant in their every day lives when opportunities to exercise empathy present themselves. Equipping our future generations with this ability, is one of the only ways our families, communities, and ultimately our world, will ever experience harmonious living.

This link outlines further how even attending theatre can be an engaging opportunity to witness empathy.

*Side note* If you plan on taking your child to the theatre, I strongly urge you to engage them in conversation about the show during intermission and afterward. Too often the electronics are switched back on and potential moments for communication with your child are missed. Engage them in conversation about what they are witnessing!

This article outlines further benefits of exposing children to theatre early on.

By: Stefanie Swinnard for Kids New West

Find Stefanie at The Stage New West, a performing arts studio for children and youth.

This is Your Brain on Music

Music is a powerful force that has been within us since our ancestors roamed the earth and used instruments to channel the forces of nature. Now, whether it worked or not is a question for anthropologists, but the fact remains that sound and music was considered powerful enough to change the laws of nature.

And now we’re lucky if our public schools even have a regular music class taught by a trained music educator.

Music may be the only magic we have left in our world. We have all seen the quotes floating around Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.  It is what does us in emotionally when watching movies like “Up”, even though we fully recognize we are watching figments of someone’s imagination sketched in a computer, we cannot help but all of a sudden relate and feel as if we are intimately sharing these moments as they happen.

Do we feel that our musical needs are met with films, the radio, advertising, i(insert pods, pads, phones), elevators (although think of the last time you were in an elevator that had music) and concert attendance?  While all of these expose us to music, how do they actively engage us? Perhaps concert attendance, singing to the radio in the car, or dancing to your iPod at home are good examples of engagement with sound, but how often does that happen versus listening to the tinny shopping mall music, or having the radio on at work in the background while you go about your business, or not even realizing that a commercial for a product had a song until you find yourself humming something familiar in the shower one morning (Alarm Force anyone?)

By and large our exposure to music is passive. It happens because it’s become comfortable for us, we like music when we shop, and we like it on in the background at parties because it fills uncomfortable silences. Perhaps this is why we no longer revere music in the way our ancestors did. We are so constantly immersed in its presence that we feel if music was going to affect my life, wouldn’t I notice it doing so every day?

Active engagement in music is what is called for. You cannot reap the benefits of a fitness dvd by watching it, you cannot climb a mountain by looking at it, you cannot give your child the benefits of a music education by placing them in front of the latest Infant Inventor series. Active engagement is what is necessary; instrument lessons, dance classes (or jamming to something at home), music classes are methods of actively engaging your child in music development.

The science is there to support these arguments. I don’t think I’ve yet come across an article that notices measurable differences in brain development after watching 100 hours of classical music played by symphonies, if there is one out there, let me know.

I am not claiming that music lessons will teach your child to summon hurricanes. But, while it may not change the weather, science is now further exposing how music effects our entire being, not only is it enjoyable, it is incredibly beneficial, even if your child has no ambition of ever becoming a concert pianist.

Hearing is a natural function, listening is learned. This article discusses how active music making increases our ability for language.

How soon can my child begin benefitting from music? Early!

Weathering a storm? Music may help children with their emotional and behavioural regulation skills.

By: Stefanie Swinnard for Kids New West

You can find Stefanie at The Stage New West

The Stairs of Life: One Step at a Time is Just Fine

In this fast paced world of seemingly limitless technology at our fingertips, inundation of media and high stress living we’re all motivated by one thing: the urge to get it right. The urge to succeed so that we can get life ‘right’. What is newest, most advanced, and earns us the most attention keeps us on the cutting edge of getting it right and advances us in a way that will surely guarantee our success in the future.

We want to get it right.


We’ve adopted the belief that the further you can get ahead, and the sooner, the better. This is very apparent when working with parents as every parent’s desire to help their child succeed is paramount in their lives.  And in today’s day and age it’s not hard to find copious information and research on what’s “best” for your child’s development, and what will ultimately put them ahead.

Where we run into trouble is when children are “forced” or “pushed” into advancement rather than nurtured. It is no secret that every child develops at their own pace; but with the way our society is evolving, are they developing fast enough. That is to say, are they developing at a rate that as parents and educators we can feel is indicative of their future success.

After her son, age 8, handed in a written assignment for his drama program, a mother, out of the goodness of her heart, told me that “his writing is atrocious but because of his Tourette Syndrome it’s the best it will ever be”. I was new to teaching, and new to working with children with educational barriers but it struck me as being odd that this was something I needed to consider. This was a drama class, not an english class, and I was just excited that he had engaged in the material enough to actually do the assignment! If writing was involved I was prepared to take what I could get because I knew it was what he could give. I also thought, I’m sure most people with illegible handwriting still get drivers licenses and jobs and pay their taxes.

More often than ever we find ourselves in conversations with parents about moving their child ahead in our classes, asking why their advanced 3 year old, cannot be placed in the 5 year old program. I always meet this question with an understanding that every parent is looking to give their child the best opportunity possible. However, sometimes the best opportunity to give them is a chance to be the age they are, to meet the needs of their whole development at the stage they are at. Our star pupil may be able to tap two sticks together in time, but perhaps he needs development in his social skills. Every child has areas they are working on, some that we may not even notice.

The articles below talk about Developmentally Appropriate Practice which is an educational philosophy that strives to help children develop in a way that meets their current needs. It engages young learners in a meaningful way that encourages excitement and passion for learning, and if young children possess that, there will be no stopping their future success.

This article concisely parallels nurturing physical milestones and how we can apply the same ideas to other developmental milestones

This article outlines Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP)

And while this article will speak to some and not to others I felt it touched on the very important topics of body wisdom and building self confidence.

By: Stefanie Swinnard for Kids New West
Find Stefanie at The Stage New Westminster, a performing arts company for children and youth. 

Lighten’ Up!

Before we get into the nitty gritty of it, let’s play!

With someone near you try this. Countdown from 3 and after 1 both people say an animal. Then take a few minutes and discuss what a combination of these two animals would be called, and what it would look like.

Where are you? At work? At home? Of the office supplies on your desk, which one would you be and why? Or if you were a kitchen appliance which one most represents your personality?

Foolish, no?


The work of Dr. Stuart Brown in his book “Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul” has been one of the most influential reads of my career.

In it Dr. Brown discusses why we play, why it is a vital practice that need not be dropped after adolescence in favour of becoming a “grown up” (whatever that means). Alternatively this book promotes play at all ages for a myriad of health and social reasons. The work of play has become so highly regarded there are institutes dedicated to its study ( and therapy regimens in place for a number of difficulties from depression to relationship crises.

Have we forgotten how to play? Can we remember? Can we help the future generation never lose this ability and create communities where our leaders have grown up with a sense of play and all the benefits it carries?

I believe the answer is yes to all of those questions. One of the most well known facets of performing arts has it right there in the name, a “play”! A dear friend and colleague of mine have found ourselves imparting this awareness to our performance students. At this point they have all heard us say “it’s called “a play”! Not “a work”, not “a suffer”, not “an insecurity”” Let’s play!

It is my firm belief that children who are exposed to performing arts and who choose to continue its study through adolescence, whether it be dance, music, or theatre, are more likely to retain the ability to play. Play, believe it or not, is practiced. Children, of course, don’t know they are doing it, but it’s practiced nonetheless. Myself and my staff are blessed to “work in play”.

It need not be complicated, something as simple as the games outlined above can provide a car ride’s worth of entertainment with hilarious discussion to further emphasize to your child the importance and delight of play. And when can it start! Early! Below is a link of ways to engage your infant in play, long before they are using monkey bars and scaling the slide in the “wrong” direction.

See Dr. Stuart Brown talk about his work in play here:

Engage your infant (and yourself) in play with ideas from here:

And find out a few surface scratch reasons to encourage and emphasize the importance of play in your home here:

Building Character: the Practice of an Actor, the Work of a Child

This may be my longest post of my time as guest curator for Kids New West but felt it was best to do a short introduction. My field is performing arts education. I am an experienced performer with a passion for sharing the benefits of arts education with young people.

Why young people? Because they are in the stage of their lives where the most self growth and exploration is occurring. They are the most receptive and open to fearless self discovery without yet feeling the self consciousness that we all develop over time, for various reasons; and which ultimately becomes a hurdle on our path to life fulfillment.

The time that I’ve spent working with children in the arts, over 10 years at this point, has taught me a lot about what it means to be a human. What makes us who we are, what helps us grow into the people we will become. I’ve witnessed many of my students grow up before my eyes (and yet I stay the same age…not quite sure how that works) and have seen them develop wonderful habits as hard working adults.  I’ve seen them grow out of the “mine phase”, “no phase” and the “run around until I physically cannot take another step and collapse into an exhausted hysterical pile of giggles phase” (although who isn’t still prone to these once in awhile ;); leaving behind character traits that no longer serve them, or transforming some traits into helpful, effective, and useable skills in their everyday lives.  I get to watch character develop in front of me and the process is nothing short of miraculous.

I teach drama, because of it’s innate need for the study of character. The exploration of a human form, the study of one’s past (real or fictional), what it means in the present, and how who we were carries great weight, but also great hope for who we will be in the future is a fascinating subject.

In his book “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character” Paul Tough explores how our character is ultimately what decides not only our success in life, but also our happiness.  What are the character traits we need to succeed, and do we possess them? If we don’t possess them how do we build awareness and courage to change them?

Drama, theatre, dance, music and art study from an early age promotes an awareness of self. Further to the point it promotes “practice of self”. To be involved in an environment where you must answer for yourself how you would feel in this particular situation, how you would feel if your experience was that of this characters, is cause to self-reflect, an exercise that many of us are not able (or willing) to participate in even if we understand its benefits to our lives.  The best part of this being, that we are doing very productive, positive self work, while we pretend. We can explore outcomes, no matter how dire, without the fear of real world repercussions.

This practice:

  • builds confidence in our decision making skills
  • promotes in us well rounded thinking where we can see the matter from many sides
  • encourages a think before you act mentality
  • fosters self awareness of our own character and why we think the way we do.

The article included in this post is not directly related to the study of the arts, and are not overly “deep”, but it does outline how development of different character traits begins very early on, and how that development can greatly effect the way in which our future generation thinks about problem solving and learning.

The second article is a list of books that help promote character growth. Stories are an engaging way to open up discussions with your child about how we feel about ourselves, how we feel about others and relating ones own experiences to another.

Stefanie Swinnard
The Stage New Westminster