Children are not frightened by scary themes. In fact, they need it. They need stories of great danger and darkness because, possibly, it reassures them that they can survive.
It's like the way kittens and lion cubs play. We need to play danger because the world is a dangerous place.
—Playwright Liz Duffy Adams, Star Tribune
This week I showed up to preschool in a knee-immobilizing brace (don't ask!), which cut into my overall mobility but enhanced my zombie walk.
I've written glancingly about zombies and monster play and rock-a-bye-baby dropping from the tree tops, but not drawn out the inferences, so thanks to Adams for her observation. I think she's right about kids in general, and the love of scary play is certainly apparent every time I step on the playground with the kids from the shelter.
Whether a kid is being pummeled by the mother lion or chased by a playground monster, the scary behavior works because it is being enacted by someone the child trusts. The players understand there's an implicit off-switch that will be activated if things get too scary.
These games are initiated by the kids—"be a monster!"—and sometimes evolve in interesting ways through playground improvisation. For example, yesterday, one girl suggested we go to the "ugly store." At least, that's what I think she said.So I let her lead me and some of the other players to the store, where we purchased ugly faces, which they in turn could give to the monster. I applied each new face on demand and acted out a different wrinkle of ugly/scary.
This imaginative shifting of the game's terms shows how the kids employ various strategies that undercut the superior size and power of the monster. For example, negotiation, trickery, superior speed and agility, side-switching and plain old friendliness that appeals to the monster's better angel.
The play encourages developing these skills further by the monster never caving to pouting and crying or permitting them to fight back physically.
The school doesn't allow pretend gunplay, and it's not just political correctness. (Think about it: many of the kids are coming from or heading toward places where real gunfire is not unusual. Their chances of becoming victims of serious violent crimes as teens is about twice the rate for white teens, even before selecting for household income.)
There's a lot of child-initiated playing dead. Almost no day goes by without bodies piling up, being dragged around and, most important, coming back to life through magic, medical treatment or self-resurrection.
So, yes: They need stories of great danger and darkness because, possibly, it reassures them that they can survive. And when they don't get Brothers Grimm stuff as part of the curriculum, they find it necessary to invent their own stories.
Also this week, I learned a new game—Sound Bingo.
The way the game is designed, four kids are issued cards with a grid of images. One might show a tractor, a seashore, a kid eating potato chips, a lamb and a dolphin. Another could include pair of kids giggling, a car, a pair of scissors cutting paper, a firetruck and fireworks.
Instead of calling numbers, I play a tape that has these sounds. The kids are supposed to cover the square representing the sound until they have a Bingo.
In reality, more than four kids demanded to play. Everyone wanted to guess what the sound was and this proved more fun than the competitive aspect of being the first to fill in squares.
One boy didn't care when his card had other sounds that were played. All he wanted was to hear the fireworks sound represented on his card. In some cases, the visual cues weren't needed to identify the sounds, but the pictures helped us sort out the difference between an idling tractor, a motorcycle and a car starting.
From the sidelines, it was interesting to see (hear?) how nuanced was the kids' ability to distinguish sounds. Their auditory processing is reasonably advanced, considering they probably haven't actually heard a tractor or waves breaking on the shore in real life.
I was also struck how they enjoyed the game without actually playing it in the way the designers intended. The fullness of this observation arrived later on the playground when I found myself pocketing six of the colored plastic disks they had purloined during the post-game clean up.
Lozenges? Play money? I don't know. I also don't know if they surrendered them all.
They don't tell the monster everything.