Monday, January 25, 2016

Halloween Warning: Real Witches on the Playground

   There is just no telling what you are going to hear come out of a four year old’s mouth. 

     One day in October some years ago a little girl ran over to me on the playground. Horror was on her face and she was so overwrought that she couldn’t talk.  She shook with breathless sobs.  My co-teacher and I looked her over, searching for wounds, gushing blood, broken limbs, something that would help us understand what was wrong.

     “Take a breath and try to tell us what happened,” we teachers said.  “Where do you hurt?  What’s wrong?”  But she just shook and cried.  We had no clue.

     After several minutes of asking questions that got no answers we called over the little girls who had been playing nearby to see if they knew anything.  Timidly, two little girls came to us.  The tiniest girl in the class looked at me with quivering lips and she tried to explain.  But words failed her, too.

     “Did she fall?” I asked.  The little girl shook her head.

     “Did you hurt her?” my co-teacher asked.

     Finally, one of the two girls spoke up.  “We were just playing witches, that’s all.  And we said it was time for lunch.  And we said witches usually eat people for lunch, and Hannah thought we were going to eat her.  But we were just pretending. I promise we weren’t going to eat her. I promise.” 

     I asked Hannah, “Did you think the girls were going to eat you?”  She stopped shaking long enough to finally whisper, “Yes.”  I gave her a hug and reassured her that it was just a pretend game, and that the other little girls were her friends.  There were hugs all around.  The crying stopped, and Hannah was ready to run back and play.

     The remorse-stricken, pretend little witch looked like she expected a prison sentence to be handed down for causing so much anguish and wailing.  I whispered to her that when they play pretend maybe she should make sure that everyone playing the game knows it is pretend.  She nodded soberly and went back to join the other girls.

     Cannibalism is just not a big problem in preschool and as teachers, we were pretty sure that the two little girls were not planning to really eat their friend. I’m sure the girls never even  guessed that Hannah would believe it and be terrified. But Hannah took it at face value.

     It is hard for preschoolers to sort out fact and fantasy.  There is such a fuzzy line between real and pretend when you are young.  Some things that we consider very obviously pretend aren’t so obvious when you are three or four.  Television, movies, games, all look so real when they show scary creatures, and it’s hard not to think that everything is just how it looks.  Especially at Halloween we invite ghosts and witches into our family rooms, and bats and vampires on to our porches.  We need to make sure our preschool children understand how much is just pretend.

     Pretend is actually a good thing at times. Learning to play make-believe can be an important step in the creative process.  But it is important to also talk a lot about what is real, and what might look real but is only a pretend story, like witches having children for lunch. 

     Children actually love Halloween and dressing up as a pretend character, and they so want you to believe they are the real super hero, fireman or princess.  Children even love things that are just the tiniest bit scary, but only when the scariness is in control, like shouting “Boo” at the end of a song about ghosts.  Even babies like “peek-a-boo” games. But scary is only fun when children feel genuinely safe, and talking to preschoolers about it can make the difference.  No one wants to believe they might be eaten on the playground.

© Diane L. Mangum 2000