For months the children have invented games of good vs. evil in the outdoor classroom. The "evil" may emerge as witches or pirates; it matters not, as the characters seem to exist in order to facilitate dialogue in this highly symbolic play. The play is impassioned, repetitive, and contagious…all signs that there is some big idea behind the play, some question yet unanswered for the children.
Recently, in hopes that representing the idea in a different language might help the children deepen their search for the answers they seek, we invited them into dialogue about good and evil. In conversation, the children wrestled with the nature of good and evil. They agreed that bad guys chase, shoot, and trap or capture good guys. They thought about what bad guys want: to be the only ones in the world or to get something for themselves that good guys have. Or to have someplace to live. Or, maybe, to punish good guys for being mean to them by killing them all (which is one point that seemed to blur the boundaries between good and evil). G. clarified, saying that good and evil are opposites. The children seemed to justify good guys killing bad guys, because they (the children, who are good) are nice and bad guys aren’t. Ultimately, though, compassion ruled and the children thought it would be good to just send the bad guys to another world…though they immediately thought of many places, homes of loved ones, to which they wouldn’t want to send the bad guys .
The other day you said that the evil ones were catching the good ones. But I wondered what evil and good are? How do you know if something is evil or if it’s good?
LM: There’s not such thing as evil, but there is such thing as good, because we’re good.
Teacher: What is good?
J: It means that you’re nice. The evil ones try to trap people, and the good guys try to run away.
MM: And the good guys try to trap the bad guys.
Teacher: Why do the good guys try to trap the bad guys?
J: Because the bad guys are chasing them, and they want to capture the bad guys so they’ll stop chasing them.
LM: I think that the bad guys don’t chase. They just try to shoot in the real world.
J: Bad guys shoot and chase people.
EK: That’s not fair if they shoot and chase people, because [the good guys will] be sad. And what if it’s someone like parents or something? That wouldn’t be good, because they would be able to go to Heaven or something, and [we] wouldn’t be able to see them till a long long time.
LM: Yeah. I think that bad guys just shoot, because my daddy went to Boston, and they just shooted at people.
Teacher: What else do you know about good guys and bad guys?
LT: I think they shoot people because they want to be the only ones [in the world].
J: I think that they shoot people, because they want something from the people that the people have and they don’t have.
Teacher: So you’re telling me that bad guys chase and shoot and trap?
LW: And capture.
Teacher: Why do you think they do that?
J: Because they want something from the people!
LM: I think they do it because they just want to, because all the good people are being mean to them. They want all the good people to be dead. Because the good guys have a lot more stuff that they could shoot the bad guys with.
Teacher: Oh, so do good guys shoot, too?
Children: Yes! No!
Teacher: So if bad guys shoot and good guys shoot, what’s the difference?
Teacher: Good guys are the same as bad buys?
J: No! Good guys are nice and bad guys are not nice.
G: They’re opposites.
EK: They have a different matter about theirselves. 'Cause some people shoot and some people don’t. So they’re different.
Teacher: But you all said that good guys shoot and the bad guys shoot.
EK: Because the bad guys aren’t good. They don’t want [the good guys] to live, because they’re being bad. The good guys shoot, because they want the bad guys to be killed, so they can be. Because the bad guys are bugging them.
LW: But, if they like to shoot, the mean guys would have to go someplace else. So the nice guys could live and have their own life.
Teacher: So what should the good guys do about the bad guys?
MM: Run away! Shoot guns!
LM: I think that bad guys are looking for somewhere to live.
EK: Because they don’t have a home. They just want to get a home.
LM: The bad guys are at Richmond, and they wanted this to be their home, and we like it here, so the bad guys have to go somewhere else.
MF: I agree.
Teacher: OK, so what should the good guys do?
LM: They’ll tell them to go shoot people somewhere else, in a different world.
J: But what if they go where LW lives?
Teacher: Because LW lives far away?
J: Yeah. LW doesn’t live in Richmond. What if they choose where LW lives?
Teacher: Maybe that’s not such a good idea, right? Then what should the good guys do?
MM: Or the [bad] guys could shoot far, far away.
EK: Where no people live.
MM: Like in Washington, DC. That’s the next state next to my state. 'Cause it goes Richmond, and then Washington DC, and then I don’t know.
LW: Maybe in England. There’s nobody there. Nobody lives in England.
J: They could shoot in Antarctica.
AM: Not in Antarctica! That’s where my mom’s mom lives!
MM: And don’t say Tennessee or Massachusetts.
EK: Well, they would shoot the animals if the bad guys went to Antarctica. Like a polar bear.
J: And don’t say Virginia Beach, because my mom’s mom and dad live in Virginia Beach.
AM: And don’t do it in South Carolina, because that’s where three grandmothers live.
LT: Don’t say New Jersey!
Teacher: We’re running out of world!
LM: We could just shoot the bad guys, because if the good guys are taking up all of the world, that means the bad guys don’t have anyplace to live. So we should just shoot them.
AM: Yeah. That’ll work.
Teacher: What happens if the bad guys get shot?
LM: They fall down like this.
J: And they die.
Teacher: Do you want the bad guys to die?
Children: Yes! No!
J: No. I just want them to find another world and not attack us. I don’t want them to die.
From this conversation I came to realize that the children are struggling with a dichotomy: to identify evil as violent while feeling powerful enough to imagine themselves vanquishing evil, through violence if necessary. Though it no longer surprises me that young children wrestle with enormous philosophical questions, it still amazes me. Will they find answers for themselves through their play? Will they place a cognitive overlay on these highly emotional questions through conversation or graphic representation? How will the questions evolve?