Storytelling and empathy

Building empathy through immersive digital storytelling

Serdar Ferit and  Harriet Marshall look at the power of digital storytelling to build empathy and widen student horizons.

 The power of a good story

Stories have long been part of human tradition – from paintings on cave walls to blockbusters on our screens. Great storytelling can spark empathy, making distant others feel closer, and caring for them less difficult. We also know that human stories that are multi-sensory, emotionally strong and based on real-life situations are remembered for longer and in more detail[1].

Immersive digital storytelling and human connection

Evidence is emerging that shows how effective ‘immersive’ digital storytelling can be for building a sense of connection with others and how this, in turn, has the potential to reduce social anxiety and increase confidence around meeting new people. This includes people with different country or cultural backgrounds (Kuuluvainen et al 2021, Lyfta Research-Informed Case Studies 2021).

Building empathy

Immersive storytelling for attitude change

An example of this in action is from a school in Essex where a teacher was concerned about her students’ limited opportunities to meet people from diverse backgrounds, or beyond their local area. She worked with Lyfta, an immersive storytelling platform, to assess their attitudes towards others, and to see if anything might change after accessing digital stories.

Children were shown six faces of different ages, genders and ethnicities and asked if they felt they could find common ground with each of the people (their answers were weighted from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”). Initially, the children felt that they could find more common ground with the people who looked most similar to themselves.

The children then learned about these people’s lives and experiences through digital stories. Afterwards the children felt they shared more in common with all of the people, with the biggest positive changes towards people 2, 3 and 5. Most notable was the shift in affinity with person number 5. A taxi driver who lives on the outskirts of Helsinki became the person they felt the greatest connection with.

Similar studies were conducted using a different set of Lyfta storyworlds at Braunstone Community Primary School in Leicester and St Laurence CofE Primary in Nottingham.  Learners aged 5-11 showed comparable shifts in their sense of connection and an increased ‘interest’ and/or ‘confidence’ in meeting new people.

Forming connections

A 2020-2021 study by the University of Tampere Finland found that immersive digital stories based on real-life human experiences helped people to develop empathy and understanding towards those who they saw as different from themselves. Findings revealed a reduction of ‘intergroup anxiety’ with particular benefits for those who had high levels of anxiety. Interestingly, the multi-sensory, participatory and immersive nature of the interaction was found to be of particular significance in helping learners form more empathetic connections.

Digital storytelling to support independent learning, SEL and motivation

Thanks to studies that have demonstrated how inherently social and emotional cognitive development is[2], we increasingly understand how bringing an emotional dimension to the learning process is vital. Neurobiological evidence suggests that ‘the aspects of cognition that we recruit most heavily in schools, namely learning, attention, memory, decision making, and social functioning, are both profoundly affected by and subsumed within the processes of emotion’[3].

Researchers have found that experiencing inspiring human stories motivated learners to take action based on their new understanding[4]. This is especially important when we are teaching complex global issues such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The increased level of empathy for the lives and perspectives of those experiencing the impact of climate change, deforestation or rising sea levels can help make seemingly remote issues relevant and understandable.

Storytelling and special education

Building a sense of our ‘common humanity’ through immersive storytelling has been successful across several special education providers. Rivermead EPR (part of Rivermead Inclusive Trust, Medway) and The Courtyard (St Mary Magdalene Academy, London) have shared with the SEND community the benefits of a platform like Lyfta. They found it especially effective with learners with autism who enjoyed learning about new people and places within a safe space. Staff at Rivermead also discovered how engaging with films in different languages with subtitles could support vocabulary acquisition and inference skills[5].

Challenging gender stereotypes

At Cheam Park Farm Primary Academy, part of LEO Academy Trust Emma, a year 6 teacher, used a Lyfta storyworld featuring a male ballet dancer to look at stereotyping with her pupils:

“We spoke to the children about their aspirations and gave them a chance to talk about what they wanted to be when they grew up. We then explored the storyworld, watched the film and discussed whether anyone can do anything they want or if they have to do certain jobs if they were a boy or a girl.”

Emma shared how the resources had facilitated a rich discussion amongst her pupils. Of the impact, she said:

“I think it has made them more outward thinking . . . more thoughtful about themselves and encouraging each other.”

Broadening horizons

In a time of continued global disruption and isolation, we have a responsibility to help children build a meaningful sense of global connection. Digital storytelling using real-life human stories can help children empathise with those who have different lived experiences, it can also act as a powerful motivator for students to broaden their horizons and actively engage as global citizens. Sharing stories of resilience and belonging in the face of huge global challenges and opportunities can be empowering and eye-opening for both young people and educators.

Building empathy, connection and motivation through the power of immersive digital storytelling – by

Serdar Ferit is Co-CEO at LYFTA






Harriet Marshall is the Head of Educational Research at Lyfta, an award-winnning immersive digital story-telling platfom.

For more about Lyfta, see



All images with kind permission from LYFTA

[1] Ginnis, P. (2007) The Teacher’s Toolkit: Raise Classroom Achievement with Strategies for Every Learner, Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing

[2] Immordino-Yang, M., Darling-Hammond, L., Krone, C. (2019) Nurturing Nature: How Brain Development is Inherently Social and Emotional, and What This Means for Education, in Educational Psychologist 54:3

[3] Immordino-Yang, M., Damasio, A. (2007) We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education, in Mind Brain, and Education 1:1

[4] Immordino-Yang, M., Darling-Hammond, L., Krone, C. (2019) Nurturing Nature: How Brain Development is Inherently Social and Emotional, and What This Means for Education, in Educational Psychologist 54:3

[5] Marshall, H. (2021) Eight Learning Opportunities for SEND Settings, in Special Educational Needs Magazine 112