Opal School closed in 2021. You can continue to access these resources for free at teachingpreschoolpartners.org/resource-library/.

Good guys vs. Bad guys

Giving the children more time to play and imagine together around the imaginary seeds they had created did just what we hoped it would do. It gave us (the teachers) more information about what it really was the children were paying attention to and wondering about. In almost all of the seed stories the children created, were details about good guys and bad guys and the power each side was struggling to have. Here are a few snippets from their seed stories:

AG: The Camouflage Horn seed is a superhero. He eats bad guys and he charges at them if they get out. 

RB: The powers are to protect itself because it is scared of villains. Villains get power from the seed so they can take over the world.

ZB: He has this power point that he keeps all the energy inside of him. If the power point gets to another person, they will have the power and the seed will lose his energy and fall down. 

LH: My seed has lightning bolts and sidewalk power, which can sink bad guys into cement.

LH: It shoots lasers and it shocks people if somebody is fighting because the plants are good guys and they want to get a special crystal.  The crystal destroys the whole world and the whole universe. The plants are trying to get the crystal away from the bad guys. The crystal shoots all the people and it gets the whole universe. 

MR: People try to get the seed because it has gold in the middle. If a bad guy plants the seed, it will grow into a plant that will fight the bad guy.

It became evident to us quickly that what the children were really wondering about was more than just protection, but about power and this idea of good guys vs. bad guys. We know that this is a common idea for children of this age to be wondering about. Eric Hoffman, author of "Magic Capes, Amazing Powers" says, “Trying out good guy, bad guy, and victim roles; testing limits; pretending to do noble and evil deeds; helping others; and allowing others to come to your rescue fosters moral development by giving children experiences on which to build abstract concepts.” These abstract concepts are important ones that we want to support children to begin building. As teachers, we reexamined our goals for Opal school children and confirmed the fact that this was an idea worth digging into, that these ideas would support the goals we have for children at Opal, and that this was an idea complex enough to really spend some time with.

Once we felt more confident about what the children were wondering about and how we might support those ideas through a project, we dove in enthusiastically. We started out by asking the children, "What is a good guy and what is a bad guy?" And from the beginning we felt stuck. Maybe what we really needed to consider was how we were going to go about supporting the developing understanding of these abstract ideas. In response to our question we heard lots of talk about weapons, stealing, robbing, and killing. The good guys were essentially abandoned from the conversation and the idea of the power that weapons held seemed to be so distracting that the children wouldn't or couldn't really consider what it was we were really asking them. This was not our idea of engaging, meaningful project work. This wasn't working for us. And instead of helping children to uncover their own assumptions about good guys and bad guys, instead of helping them see the wonder and awe in the world around them, it felt like we had done the opposite. Two Opal goals in particular stick out in my mind as goals we were really hoping to connect to through this work:

  • Discover, cultivate and express the joy and wonder of learning
  • Develop an understanding and curiosity about multiple points of view. Have value and empathy for experiences and perspectives different from one’s own.

Immediately I realized that we weren't touching on these goals. It felt more like we were moving away from them. We wanted to really follow the interests of the children but we wanted to do so in a way that also supported the goals we have for students at Opal. We didn't really think we could get there if we allowed the focus to stay on weapons and stealing.

So we asked ourselves, how could we pursue this idea of good guys vs. bad guys in a way that supported our goals for children at Opal? We reconsidered: What information did we already have about what would hold this particular group of children's interests? How could we support children to develop empathy for other perspectives? How would we use what they were already interested in? What had got us to this understanding of what they were interested in in the first place?

We decided to look back to the children's work with their seed stories and the creation of their own seeds in response to the natural world. We wondered how we could build off what we had already started, what we had already seen the children invested in. After we spent some time thinking, talking and collaborating, we decided to take this idea of good guys and bad guys back to our garden. We hoped by zooming in to the garden, the children would have a more concrete meaningful way to explore this abstract idea. 

To do this, we asked the children to consider:

Who are the good guys and bad guys of our school garden? Why?

LG: The aphids won't go on the flower because the flower has thorns. The aphids are only biting on the weeds.
CR: The ladybug is a good guy and the worm is a good guy and the daddy long leg is a good guy. Aphids, slugs, and snails are the bad guys. The ladybug eats the aphid and the aphid eats the plants. The worms loosen up the soil so the plants can grow. The daddy long leg eats the aphids. The slugs and snails also eat the plants.
RB: The slug's the bad guy and the flower is the good guy because the slug is hungry and they don't have any food or any water and they need it to survive. And the flower has lots of food and water and the slug is trying to take it.
RR: The worms are good guys because they don't hurt anyone.
MR: Worms are good guys and slugs and weeds are bad guys.
CM: Some plants are bad guys because weeds are bad guys.
RB: No they aren't. They can help.
CM: I know, but for our garden they're bad guys.
RB: But they can be helpful for us but not for our garden.
LH: Yeah, they feed things.
NJ: And they help protect things.

Here was that sense of wonder we’d been expecting. We could almost see the children pondering over these ideas in their minds. This was a new way of considering the world. Could a weed be considered a bad guy if it was helpful to people? Aphids eat plants so they must be bad guys, but what about the bugs that eat the aphids? If the slug is trying to take water from the plant just to survive then is it really a bad guy? Can something be a bad guy in one situation and a good guy in another?

This is what challenging, thoughtful, engaging work can look like. This is where we began to see those goals coming together, where we got a window into their thinking, and began finding those key moments as opportunities to challenge their assumptions in ways that might just make them consider a perspective they never had before.


One response to “Good guys vs. Bad guys

  1. Kerry – thanks for sharing, this is so interesting. I was just at a conference and incredibly inspired by a presentation given by CeaseFire and the filmmakers that covered their approach to reducing urban violence in a fantastic documentary, ‘The Interrupters’ (check it out if you haven’t already – free to view on PBS/Frontline).

    Ceasefire, its funders, and one of the ‘Interrupters’ who works on the street level, talked a lot about the need to change public perception about those youth that have participated in violence in urban neighborhoods. They talked about this from the perspective of the systems that interact with youth (police, teachers, criminal justice) but also how critical it is for these youth to see themselves and their options differently, which will ultimately help reduce the violence in their communities.

    A critical lever is a broad and deep campaign which changes the narrative and moves away from a concept of “bad guys”. For many, it will be very difficult to shift perspectives but already the project has seen significant reductions in mortality rates. The project is being replicated in post-election Kenya where violence was extreme following the last election and with military in Iraq; other places where perspectives have become quite fixed and cemented by circumstances.

    As I read this Opal 1 post, I am struck once again at how fortunate the Opal kiddos are to be in an environment where they are consistently given these opportunities to think about multiple perspectives and build a deeper tool-kit in a safe and supportive environment. They will be so much more equipped as adults to think about the many difficult and complex societal problems we face.

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