Anyone who has been near kids while they play have witnessed games that have a death theme about them. Whether its ‘cops and robbers’, Zombies, or even Barbies, kids will eventually explore the idea of death. At one site I worked at a girl was killed (Pretend!!!) and she fell to the ground and didn’t move. She stayed there for around 5 minutes (lucky I was a part of the play, so I didn’t freak out and ring an ambulance). She was 5 and her understanding was, when you die you stay dead. Most of her friends got better after they died so they could keep playing. Another group of kids created an elaborate graveyard for rain moths. It had ‘stones’ (headstones), crosses and you had to say stories when you buried them.
I was so curious about what was going on in their heads. I already knew kindy kids didn’t have a mature understanding of death. The most common observation was, they thought death wasn’t permanent. I buried (no pun intended) my head into a pile of papers and books and discovered lots of fascinating info.
Firstly, the research has divvied the concept of death into 5 groups:
- personal mortality
Much research posits, these steps come in stages, however the findings vary so much on the order that you would have to think it depends on the child’s personal world understanding. Some believe it’s related to Piagetian stages and pre-operational children cannot grasp certain concepts like ‘forever’. Others follow a socio-cultural theory and believe cultural experiences accelerate understanding. Research did find, children in war torn countries have an understanding of death that is more advanced than the more peaceful countries.
Many studies looked at children’s understanding of non-functionality (when your dead everything stops). Many understood you stop breathing, your heart stops, and you don’t do the Michael Jackson thriller dance, however many thought you still think, you still get hungry and you might get cold if you are left outside (many kids bury animals with food treats or blankets). The concept of universality comes fairly early. Kids understand that everything living will die, and yet the understanding of personal mortality can sometimes come much later. Kindy kids understanding of causality is nearly always related to violence, such as monster attacks, guns or accidents. Irreversibility is a tough one to grasp as the concept of forever is too abstract for the preoperational children’s concrete way of thinking. With that being said, they will invent their own version of what forever looks like, and this understanding will be the groundwork for what will help them understand the real concept when they are older (some philosophers feel even the adult brain is incapable of understanding forever).
Nearly all the research found, instead of children getting worried about the many different concepts of death, children get anxieties about the unknown. They found in environments where death is a taboo subject the children harbor many fears about death, yet in environments where open discussions on all aspects are examined, children are more ready for when death comes a knocking.
On my travels I have noticed how diverse educator’s reactions are to kids playing death games. Some believe the innocence of childhood should be preserved and death games should be discouraged, some are so death adverse they retreat from the concept, yet others believe, to quote Kastenbaum and Costa, “mastery of the concept of death is related to mastery of the concept of life”. Play is how kids master life.
Many researchers believe children have the right to know and talk about death. Death is a topic that interests children irrelevant of their stages of development. Therefore, it is so important to let children play death games. If you observe children playing death games, it is often supported by much discussion. The girl that stayed dead for a long time at the start of my rant had a go at all the others that only stayed dead long enough to hit the ground. Forever was mentioned. When I saw a group bury a dead parrot, arguments broke out when some wanted to dig it up to check if it was better (he’s just sleeping! No he’s not! e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil). Socially they nut out the ideas of death and share all they know and think about the subject. They debate whether the tree branch is dead, can a rock die or where is grandmother now. They create understandings they will then build upon to become what is considered a mature understanding of death.
Bonoti, F., Christidou, V. and Papadopoulou, P., 2022. Children’s conceptions of coronavirus. Public Understanding of Science, 31(1), pp.35-52.
Butler, F., 1972. Death in children’s literature. Children’s Literature, 1(1), pp.104-124.
Corr, C.A. and Balk, D.E. eds., 2010. Children’s encounters with death, bereavement, and coping. Springer Publishing Company.
Grigoropoulos, I., 2022. Can We Talk About Life Without Taking Death Into Account? Early Childhood Educators’ Self-Perceived Ability to Approach the Topic of Death With Children. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, pp 1-14.
Hunter, S.B. and Smith, D.E., 2008. Predictors of children’s understandings of death: Age, cognitive ability, death experience and maternal communicative competence. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, 57(2), pp.143-162.
Kastenbaum, R. and Costa, P.T., 1977. Psychological perspectives on death. Annual Review of psychology.
Kenyon, B.L., 2001. Current research in children’s conceptions of death: A critical review. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, 43(1), pp.63-91.
Puskás, T., Jeppsson, F. and Andersson, A., 2021. ‘There is no right or wrong answer’: Swedish preschool teachers’ reflections on the didactics of death. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, pp.1-15.