Do not be afraid of the dark
In a galaxy far, far away, two battle stations were at war.“Attack! Attack! My army, attack!!!”, shouted the young captain, while his brothers in arms charged the devastated battlefield towards the enemy gates, waving their laser weapons. They moved in random leaps, they laughed, shouted, growled, and looked through the enemy lines, rippled by panic, pushing and screams.
The female captain of the lines under siege was composed and wise. She knew that it was not the time for personal pride- lives needed saving. She lifted up the white flag above her head and waved it with resolve. For a brief moment, the white flag brought about hope that the opponents will stop before they get their hands on them, but that did not happen. They hurled down upon them with all their might through the invisible gate, down the hill, straight in the midst of her ranks they were already stumbling upon each other as they attempted to flee. One of the women warriors fell and covered her head.
The dust of dry land stirred around her as they trampled, fought and passed her.
˝Halt! Halt! “, I screamed running down the hill. They all stopped and as the swirling dust fell on the soil so did the imaginary vision of the sight in front of me. The determined commanding men and women, warrior men and women armed to the teeth – boys and girls with sticks in hands and at the moment with a slight discomfort on their faces.
I ripped the scarf of the wartime reporter from my head- which told them that I am not involved in the conflict despite the fact I am on a battlefield and gave them my telephone so that they can see the camera: ˝I call upon the war council.“ ˝But…“, few of them attempted to rebel.˝We have agreed “, I interrupted them, ˝I took a video of a worrisome event and I think that you should see it.“
There are some dark places in the world. Different dangerous and horrific things can come to life on cinema and television screens, as well as in small, seemingly insignificant words and actions of each and every one of us. We cannot turn a blind eye and pretend that these things do not exist and we also cannot expect from our children to do the same. We believe that the children are naive, that they do not understand things and that they need to be spared but the children see and breathe the same world as we adults do and wish to understand it equally and make something good out of it – regardless if it is pretty or a bit terrifying.
The great French philosopher Gilles Deleuze once said: ˝Something in the world compels us to think “. Our thoughts and desires are not just a matter of conscious choice. The world sometimes happens to you. You experience something, you see something, you come up with something, something completely unexpected and disturbing, something that is incomprehensible to you and horrific and no matter how much you try to ignore it, this thing haunts you and calls you until you have fully understood it.
The game is the most favorable media for a child to explore the world around it- to take it into its own hands and do something with it.
The game is particularly favorable media for children in case of dark subjects because it provides them with the possibility to comprehend something that they would not be able in real-life through experience and sensation, namely through imaginary worlds and own rules they can separate themselves from realistic consequences implied by these subjects. However, the fact that something is happing in the game does not make it safe and worry-free.
We all came together to the clearing. I squatted in the grass, setting up a video of the action that transpired just now, while all the ˝combatants“ gathered around me- some of them already with sad faces of impeding guilt. I played the video recording. The order, charge, white tissue rigidly being waved instead of the flag, a continuation of the charge and running away, a little girl falling down, the others running next to her.
The video was still rolling, and there was already commotion going on among them: ˝Sunčica waved the flag!, ˝Well, I did not see it!“, ˝Yes, she was waving!“; ˝Anđela fell down!“, ˝You were right next to her!“ ˝No, I was not!“. ˝O.K., O.K.“, I interrupted the commotion, ˝What did we say the rules of warfare were? “. They all responded as one: ˝You cannot hurt the civilians and they are the ones that are not playing any longer- both flowers and bugs! You have to help out those that get injured regardless which side they belong to! The white flag means pause!“.
˝Sunčica was waving the flag but they did not stop!“ protested one of the girls. ˝That is right and I can see here that Anđela fell down and that no one helped her“, I added, ˝We seem to have broken some rules. “˝It is not fair!“ the team captain facing the tribunal objected, ˝There were more of them! One has to join us so that we have the same number of team members!“
I was confused and counted them one more time. It seemed as if someone has crashed in during the game and caused an imbalance in the equal distribution we kicked off with. ˝Veljko is right, it seems as if we have broken rules on both sides“, I concluded. Let us first resolve this issue of who has to cross to another team “. The girls screamed and held their hands in utter desperation. ˝We will not allow it! I do not want to change teams!“, ˝Me neither, I will not play with them!“, ˝Let Ljubica switch sides, she came in last!“.
Ljubica looked at them with fear. She rarely took part in these games and now when she finally decided to join and began to have fun, she was being expelled to the team that does not even want her nor does she want to be a part of it.
I did not feel comfortable. I did not want to make the shot, but at the same time, I could not wait until it all escalates in an argument. I do not even know if Ljubica was the last to join, I did not see it. Honestly, I was biting my tongue for not saying anything– I would have resolved the entire thing fast by dividing the number of participants in two and it would have ended it all. The argument, yes… but probably the game as well. As I was deliberating my decisions, some of them started to open up a new battlefield by growling at each other and discussing who was right.
Whatever we adults think, for children, playing is often more real than reality itself, more vibrant than life itself – everything you feel is more intense, everything that happens to you affects you at a more profound level.
When we indulge in the game, we are all exposed and vulnerable – the risk of being hurt or doing something bad unconsciously multiplies. Even more so when you play the role of a villain in the game, or when you bring to life a situation like warfare.
When the issues of good and evil are involved, then we are all equally lost.
If it was always clear what was good and if it was easy to decide what to do, maybe there would be no need to even discuss darkness. However, here we are-big and small, blinking at shadows so as to disperse them, using one match after another and wondering how and where to go through life. How can you direct your child if you do not know the path yourself?
Captains of the belligerents – now truly alienated teams looked at each other silently. Suddenly he whispered softly: “We want Sunčica” Before a sigh of a group of girls turned into objecting, Sunčica, the captain, turned to them with a calmness that surprised me, and she said: “It’s ok. I will join them.” With no further delay, he gave each girl from her team a hug, preparing to switch to her opponents’ team. Saying goodbye to the girls in front of me, although truly naïve, and even surreal was moving.
There was a sense of true sacrifice in this scene and all of us, girls and boys, no matter what team we belong to and which role we took, remained silent paying respect. “No!”, Mina shouted out all of a sudden: “No, I’m coming with her! I will join them! I give up!” She took Sunčica’s hand and decisively, with a defiant face, they stepped into the ranks of the opposing team together. Boys stood apart to make some room for them.
“The two of them changed teams, now your team is bigger”, I said slowly – and quietly as if I would to disrupt the ceremoniousness of the moment, “Now one of you will have to join the girls”. This time, the boys started panicking. They were grabbing their captain’s hands. “Don’t send me, I will be useful!”, “I’m fast!”, “I’m strong!”, Aleksa immediately gave way to despair furiously kicking the ground: “They’ll send me, they always do, why does it have to be me all the time, I won’t!”.
Tension grew, but I didn’t say anything else, convincing myself that I do have faith in them. A moment ago, I saw myself that my trust wasn’t in vain. Veljko first had a look at his companions, frowning as if he was thinking intensively, and then he looked down indecisively. They were dragging him and talking over each other around him, he remained silent. I was counting the seconds out silently prolonging the thread of my patience so as not to snap. Fear that everything was about to escalate into a quarrel and that someone would get hurt was growing inside me.
At that moment, Veljko smiled and slowly, not paying attention to the boys who were still grabbing their hands and shouting over each other, lifted the “battle sticks” above his head and stepped towards me. “I will go”, he said peacefully, looking at me. It wasn’t defiance in his look, nor arrogance, nor spite. Whatever it was, it was dignified and courageous, so much that I felt a chill down my spine.
The bickering of the boys behind his back and the excitement of the girls behind mine stopped. Carried away by the moment and some sense of pride and astonishment, I stepped away to clear the way and I said seriously: “Welcome, soldier.”
Maybe we cannot be instructors who will pinpoint clearly what is good and what’s bad, but the child does not need that anyway. The child needs a friend to stand by them, no matter how dark and terrifying it is, and to support them in making wise choices when they face adversities, whether real or imaginary. And we can do this already.
Children are capable of doing great things, courageous deeds, heroic decisions; they can turn villains into heroes, wars into agreements, fear into strength.
They can imagine a happy ending for a catastrophe, even to give up on their needs and wishes for a happy ending. They are capable of staring the dark in the eyes and do something good with it. This is no capability you will encounter on the list of most wanted competencies for the future, but I believe that no capability is more important and more needed for us and our children.
It is important to indulge ourselves in the game together with children and not to withdraw when we encounter dark themes in reality – not in order to teach a child what’s good and what’s bad but to raise a question and discover together what good deed can we do here and now. This way we will give strength to our children, and to ourselves, to deal with ethical dilemmas in everyday life and to act responsibly, conscientiously and purposefully.
If we are to save the world, we will not be able to do it alone. The world doesn’t need individuals with solutions and a collection of right answers. The world needs us to wonder – to truly, deeply wonder, to openly and honestly talk to each other and believe in each other.
*The sample situation on which this article was based on was recorded by the author during her research in kindergarten Zemunski Biser. The names of the children were altered in accordance with research ethical codices.
About the author: Nevena Mitranic is a third-year doctoral student of Preschool Pedagogy at the Department of Pedagogy and Andragogy of the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade. She is also one of the Djokovic Scholars. At the same faculty, she defended her Master’s thesis Child’s Play in the context of Education Policy and Practice. Since September 2016, she has been working as a demonstrator for the courses Child’s Play and Creativity and Developing Early Childhood Education Practice and she also assists in the program Curriculum Development and Evaluation.