Children are born to categorize, searching for patterns to cue appropriate responses. Two eyes, walks on two legs, smiles, talks to me? Human. Four legs and barking? Not a human. Humans will try to meet my needs when I cry. Non-humans will not.
The early stages of language development are filled with such categories. My son connected immediately with the loud siren of a fire truck. After that, he pointed to all moving vehicles and made the sound of a siren. Categorizing is necessary for learning, and all children are desperate for identifiers that signal membership to one category or another; this object belongs to “Vehicle”, this object belongs to “Animal”, this object belongs to “Family.”
As children grow, they move from categorizing objects to categorizing behaviors. Our authentic feedback aids this process. “Thank you for putting away the block. That was helpful,” confirms for children that assisting with clean up belongs in a category called “helpful.” Likewise, when a toddler pulls her sister’s hair, we say, “Ouch. Pulling hair hurts,” to help the toddler learns the definition of a category called “hurt.” As she grows to understand the limitations of the “hurt” category, and the different behaviors that have membership in it, she will have to test and retest to form her conclusions.
Categories grow more complex over time. Not all vehicles get a siren sound anymore – my son has learned the sound of a train and the whir of a car engine.
Enter: Good Guys and Bad Guys
Good guy/bad guy play is tricky. On one one hand, GG/BG play offers children a chance to feel powerful, work out fears, practice self-regulation and communication skills, develop perspective taking, make important decisions, take risks, nurture a sense of agency and competence, and the list goes on. But GG/BG play can present some challenges for early childhood educators and parents.
Who is the bad guy? Children like to test out what it means to be the bad guy – fearsome, mean, and scary. But sometimes, children are coerced into the role of the bad guy when they have less experienced play skills or lack a voice to advocate for their position in the drama. The “good guys” might relegate an incoming player to the role of “bad guy” because they really don’t want their script to change in order to accommodate an extra player. Unwilling “bad guys” need help finding a voice to advocate for themselves.
Defining the bad guy. One of the struggles with good guy/bad guy play is that it can follow an inflexible, narrow script established by mainstream media: good guys are all good, bad guys are all bad, villains are beyond redemption, and conquest (often physical) is the only solution to a difficult problem. This understanding permeates children’s experiences, and solidifies as they rehearse the script over and over in their play.
This static understanding of behavior has consequences outside dramatic play. When one child is mean or aggressive, peers understand these actions to be the acts of “bad guys” and they respond in line with the script. Bad guys don’t deserve friends. Bad guys need to be conquered. Bad guys have no redeeming qualities. Bad guys are scary. Children repeating a simple script over and over need help complicating the storyline.
We all have the capacity for good and bad. Behind every behavior is a met or an unmet need. Raising children who are empowered to stand up for others and creative in their problem solving requires a complex view of human nature. We nurture this complex view when we support powerful play and extend its depth. Flat, rigid categories of good and bad resist this nuanced, full view of human beings.
So, what to do?
As with most things in early childhood, banning play that might result in a negative outcome will certainly backfire. Instead of constructing rigid rules about bad guy play, we keep a pulse on what unfolds, and support its sustained and child-directed nature while offering helpful feedback that encourages children to deepen their understanding of humanity.
1. Watch for children who consistently play the “bad guy.” Are they there by choice? If so, not to worry! If not, support their attempt to change roles.
2. Is the same script unfolding day after day? Suggest new scripts by changing the environment, or enter the play to help it grow.
3. Avoid media with young children. Children’s media tends to simplify characters into boxy, rigid categories of good and bad.
4. Show children “needs behind behavior” in daily life. Demonstrate assertiveness in the face of aggressive behavior, always mindful of the perspective of the aggressor.
Below are three scripts taken (almost word-for-word) from the young children I work with. In each example, my goal is to keep the play going.
A young three-year-old wants to play with a cluster of older preschool children. Lacking the skills to successful enter play, his actions are aggressive. I sense that his desire is to enter play with his peers. Through observation, I notice there isn’t an existing script to tag into, so I generate a new script that remains powerful and provides a role for any interested players.
George: (scratching at the legs of one of the other players) “Argh! Grrr. I am a fierce cheetah!”
Aylah: (displeased at the aggressive paws of her cheetah peer) “Get away from me!”
George: (snarling, pawing, growling) “I’m going to get you!”
Aylah: (beginning to cry) “NO! Bad cheetah!”
Me: (entering the play at George’s level and pawing at George) “Grrr. Hi, Cheetah.”
George: “Grrr. Hi.”
Me: “I’m hungry. Do you want to hunt for some prey?”
George: “Yes! Grrr.”
Me: “We might need the help to get over this mountain. I wonder if any other animals around here know the way.”
Aylah: (transforming into a donkey, curious at my transformation from adult to cheetah) “I know the way. Follow me.”
To enter existing play and create a whole new script is unhelpful and disrespectful of the play that is already happening. Instead, helping children on the outside look for clues and find a gentle way to enter supports the existing script.
George: “You’re my prey!” (George is a T-Rex today, and pounces on another child playing house with her friends)
Ella: “No, George! Stop! Go away!”
Me: (coming alongside George, in a character to match his T-Rex) “Hello, neighbor T-Rex. It looks like you’re hunting prey.”
George: “Yes! I’m hungry.”
Me: “I see these humans are in their home. Let’s watch for a moment to see if we can join what they’re doing.”
After a few moments of watching, I attempt to enter their play.
Me: “We are two starving T-Rexes. Do you have any prey?”
Ella: “Oh, yes. We just hunted this snake. Would you like to have some with us?”
Me: “We would be so grateful.”
Ella: “Let’s make you a place to eat in our back yard.”
Or, sometimes something like this:
A group of children suddenly turns on one of their co-players. Clare has inadvertently toppled a tower, and the other children, sensing her destruction as purposeful, label her the “bad guy” and begin to attack by throwing soft balls. Clare is clearly bothered by this, and tries several times – unsuccessfully – to redirect the attack. I try extending the play through a moment of perspective-taking to see if I can get it back on track. If not, I can interrupt the play in order to problem solve before allowing the children to continue with their adventures.
Clare: “I’m not the bad guy! Stop!”
Others: “Shoot! Get away! You destroyed our home. You’re bad!”
Me: (entering with the others) “Why do you suppose Clare is bad?”
Others: “Because she kicked our tower over!”
Me: “She looks worried about the balls you are throwing, and she doesn’t look excited to be the bad guy. Maybe the tower fell on accident.”
Clare: (from across the room) “Yes! It was on accident!”
Others: “She’s going to knock our tower over again!”
Me: (to Clare) “Clare – we’re worried you might knock over our tower again.”
Clare: “I won’t. I just want to play Mommy and Baby with them.”
Me: (to the others) “Clare wants to play Mommy and Baby.”
Others: “We have a Mommy and a Baby.”
Me: “Is it possible to have a second Mommy or Baby? Do we have an older sister yet?”
Others: “She could be the babysitter. Mommy needs to go to the dentist.”
Me: “Let me call Clare on the phone and see if she can come babysit.”
I mime a phone call, and Clare agrees to babysit. The play continues in a more productive, structured way.
Good guy/bad guy play provides an avenue for children to test some of their understandings about life, and it serves important functions that we don’t dare smother or ignore. Unsupported good guy/bad guy play (as with all types of play) can become chaotic if improperly supported. Our skills as mediators and fellow players can provide children with what they need to successfully manage these scripts.