(CNN)The first time they met, they talked about animals.
Six-year-old Zul-Kifl Issah, in Tamale, Ghana, and 7-year-old Jonah McMillan, in Coldstream, British Columbia, Canada, listed the creatures who lived near them: hippos, lions and elephants for Zul-Kifl; and dogs, cats and a gecko for Jonah.
"You give them a place to sleep in your house!" Zul-Kifl marveled about Jonah's pets, while Jonah gasped that the beautiful creatures that populated his books roamed free in parts of Ghana.
Their families — including their parents and siblings — were brought together via a nonprofit organization called Empatico. It's one of a number of organizations, including UNICEF's Voices of Youth and Global Nomads Group's Seat at the Table, that seek to "connect children across lines of difference," as George Khalaf, Empatico's executive director, said.
"We help children grow roots of lifelong empathy by exposing them to kids beyond their community or the four walls of their classroom," Khalaf said.
Much of the talk about structural racism has begun to focus on how implicit bias grows in and impacts children. Parents have to start early if they're going to cultivate a generation rooted in empathy and fairness, Khalaf and others have said, not just by exposing children to lives and worlds outside their own, but helping them grow deep connections to them.
Segregation fuels division
What makes such connection particularly challenging in the United States is what separate lives children lead. Less than 13% of White students attend schools where kids of color form the majority of the population, yet almost 70% of Black children attend such schools — and more than 70% of Black students are in high-poverty schools.
Such divisions create "a fertile breeding ground for misunderstanding, hatred and violence," Khalaf said. "So many of us have lost the ability to navigate difference, and it's become so easy to dehumanize the other."
To really live integrated lives, people need diverse and integrated schools and neighborhoods and activities, he said, but that will take some time. For now, there are ways for children to connect to peers from different backgrounds and to cultivate empathy.
Growing empathy as kids grow
Empatico's own research found an "empathy sweet spot" between the ages of 6 and 11, when children have a sense of their own identities and social categories but their prejudices against other groups haven't hardened. "They're open to influence in ways that start to close as they grow older," Khalaf said. But what happens as kids age?
"Often the question is, 'If they were interacting across racial lines in second and third grade, why aren't they doing it in the seventh and eighth?" said Beverly Daniel Tatum, former president of Spelman College and author of "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" "They were all mixing up and invited to other's birthday parties. At 12, 13, 14 they're not anymore."
There are many reasons for this, she said. Kids are often tracked into ability groups, and too often, kids of color are relegated to the lower academic rungs.
Meanwhile, older kids start to separate into "affinity groups," often sticking with kids who are like themselves. For Black kids, this often has to do with how differently they're treated as they grow up, and their encounters with racism.
"People start responding to them differently," Tatum said. "The Black boy who everybody thought was cute when he was seven — at 15, maybe now people think he's dangerous, and the feedback he's getting from the world is different."