Each week, my students would come in from their lunch break with complaints about playground shenanigans. Often times, complaints went something like this, “And then the 2nd graders wouldn’t…” or “This 2nd grade boy wasn’t…”

I couldn’t take it anymore. After a lunch recess tirade, this frazzled educator stopped the kids and asked one simple question: What do you want to do about it?

Hands flew up before I could even get the question out.

I asked them to wait and think if their idea includes complaining or a way to solve the problem.

All of the hands went down.

I reiterated. “Take a minute to really think about how YOU can solve this problem. What do you want to do about it?”

After a minute or so a few hands were waving enthusiastically.

I called on the first student and he said, “We need more toys that we can share out there.” The rest of the hands went down as the students grumbled, “That was my idea.”

My follow-up question: how do we get more toys?

It was as if I had turned the lights on in a dark room. By asking the right questions, my 6-year old students moved past their angry feelings and were able to change a tense situation in to a hopeful one. Frustration was replaced by empathy. And at that moment… the PTA Project was born.

A group of 10 boys (a few from each of our grade 1 classes) came together to request some funds from the PTA. Before getting to the “what we need” and “how much will it cost?” part of the request, I had the students think about why they needed new toys. The responses varied from: “There are not enough toys and then we sometimes get lonely [read: bored]” to “Because if there are not enough toys for kids to play they will fight and argue.” Other students noted, “If we bring our toys from home it could get lost and my mom will shout” and “We have to share with the grade 2s so they are not sad too” and “If the kids want to not play sports there are no things for them. We need a whiteboard and some markers for people to draw when they don’t want exercise.”

Did I have to teach empathy to get the kids to share their feelings? No. I just needed to get them to stop complaining long enough to think about their feelings and take action from that place. It was powerful to see the students think about themselves and then consider others’ needs (the grade 2s and people who don’t like sports).

It’s been over a month since the boys had their idea. They received a donation, items were purchased, and then what?

I showed them what was purchased and the students were: “happy,” “excited,” and reported that “it is my best day in my life.” But there were a few students whose faces looked a little tense. “What if someone takes my toy and doesn’t give it back?” one nervous girl asked.

Good question.

So, once again, I opened the floor to the students. I challenged them to think empathetically again: “Well, we should make some rules” said one child. Another student added, “We can teach the 2nd graders how to play with our toys” followed by another comment: “And we can tell them it was a gift.” At this point, a second team was formed to take all these ideas to fruition. They made a set of rules, created posters, organized a skit to show to others (about the rules), and then labeled and pumped up a bunch of toys.

After 5 weeks from the event that lead us down this path, we finally got there in the end. Had I done all the work myself, the students wouldn’t have buy-in. It is because of their empathy that action was born. Their involvement in every step of this project means they care deeply about these new toys. I don’t think I’ll have to work too hard to keep it that way.