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Playing Dead

By Alistair Bryce-Clegg

Author of 'Best Practice in the Early Years'

There are lots of things that I love about my role as an Early Years consultant, but by far the thing I love best is working in settings with children. I love their boundless energy and zest for life, and particularly their honesty, both in terms of what they say and how they play.

It is important that as practitioners we give lots of opportunities to children to play what they know, as opposed to asking them to pretend to play something they haven’t experienced, like working in a garden centre, say.

Once on a visit to a Nursery, I was walking around the space with a member of staff as the children played. We were talking about the space that had been created and how it was supporting children’s learning.

When we got to the Home Corner, we could see one boy who was definitely leading the play, organising three other children and putting them in particular places with very specific instructions.

He had found 3 cardboard fruit boxes that he had put on the floor and was asking the other children to lie down in them. When they did their head and legs hung over the top and the bottom of the box. This was uncomfortable and caused the children to wriggle and eventually try and sit up. But every time one of the children moved, the boy leading the play would shout ‘lie down’!

The Nursery practitioner and I watched this with great interest. The boy leading the game clearly had a strong sense of purpose which unfortunately was shared less and less by the other players.

At one point during the game the boy looked over and saw us watching. The practitioner I was with said to him ‘this looks exciting, tell us about your game…’ and without even pausing for thought the boy said, ‘we are playing ‘dead grandad’…they are all dead.’ The play then continued for a short while longer and then naturally transitioned into another focus.

The adult I was with was really shocked by the what the boy had said, and it sparked a really interesting team discussion about why he had decided to play that game and what the adults could have done in response to his announcement that it was a game of ‘dead grandad’!

Just this week I was sent a message from an Early Years practitioner about some similar play that had occurred in her space:

Hi Alistair, I was searching to see if you had ever written about when children play ´dead’. This happened today in my setting. It was fantastic to observe the kids trying to revive the ‘dead’ person. They gave first aid, tickled her, slapped her face gently, got a magnifying glass, tried to prise open her eyelids and rubbed and stroked her. The youngest were comforted by the bigger ones « she’s not really dead ».

I particularly liked the clarification at the end of the message!

The truth is that playing dead is really common in children’s play. The main reason for that is that children often base their play around what they know, and they also use it to help them to understand.

Understanding a concept like death can be difficult when you are an adult, but it can be even more complex when you are three or four years old. Add into that that children have not got all of the life experience that we have, and so their concept of death is even more complex and likely to be mixed up with all sorts of other information, imagination and their version of reality.

When children feel comfortable enough then they will experiment with making sense of the world around them. They will replay with accuracy the bits that they know and understand (like making tea in the kitchen or putting the dolls to bed). They do this using their real life lived experience. They will also try and normalise or make sense of things that are not part of their everyday and that can result in play like ‘dead grandad’.

It is important that as practitioners we don’t try and divert or stop this type of play, but that we try and understand where it might be coming from and give children the space and time to explore their emotions and understanding.

Have you ever seen an albino squirrel? I hadn't until finding out recently that there's a family of them living in a cemetery near me! Albinism in grey squirrels is so rare that apparently the chances of spotting one are just one in 100,000, with around only 50 of them living in the UK. I was lucky that this one stopped a few times and allowed me to get a handful of good photos
Photographer: Andy Holmes | Source: Unsplash

Death can be a really difficult subject for adults to deal with and we often shy away from discussing death with children as it might feel uncomfortable, and we are not always sure what to say. But of all of the things that we can help to prepare children for in their lives, experiencing bereavement is a certainty.

Whether this be the death of a pet or a family member, all of us will experience significant loss at sometime in our lives. The better prepared we are to deal with that loss then the better it is for our own mental health and wellbeing.

Whilst I am not suggesting that you have in-depth discussions with your children about death instead of story time, that preparation can start in the Early Years.

Statistics tell us that over 100 children per day have a parental bereavement in the UK, and in the job that we do, we are likely to know one of those children sooner or later.

It makes sense then for us all to be prepared. I know that it is not a nice thing to think about and perhaps that makes us less likely to devote time to ensuring that we are in the best place to support children who are in this situation.

In the midst of Covid19, it is even more likely that the children that we work with will experience bereavement of a close family member or someone connected to their family. It is really important that we ensure that we are prepared if that eventuality should happen and be equipped to support them in processing what they are thinking and feeling.

As I have said, it is quite normal for children to be fascinated by death. I remember hatching eggs with a groups of Early Years children, and whilst they were overjoyed to see the little chicks break out of their shells, they were most fascinated with the chick that had hatched but then died.

Being able to talk about the dead chick, ask questions, explore their feelings and emotions was really powerful for both the adults and the children and let them know that death is a quite normal part of life.

There are lots of organisations that can provide us with good quality resources that we can use to inform ourselves and get the conversation going with children. Here are some that I have used in the past

Winston’s Wish – www.winstonswish.org

Child Bereavement UK – www.childberevementuk.org

Childhood Bereavement Network – www.childhoodbereavementnetwork.org.uk

There are also lots of great books to share with children that you can use to introduce the concept of bereavement or loss. The messages are often really subtle, but just allow opportunities for lots of discussion.

There are gorgeous classics like Judith Kerr’s ‘Goodbye Mog which talks about how a family cope with the loss of their beloved cat ‘Mog’. The loss of a pet is something that lots of children will have experienced. For some it is their first encounter with bereavement. As the children are not thinking about the loss of ‘human’ family member, it can be easier for them to discuss.

In ‘No Matter What’, Debi Gliori deals with the concept of unconditional love that goes on even after death. The subject is explored through the relationship between a mother fox and her cub. The cub listing a range of fanciful and often humorous scenarios and asking his mother if she would still love him, his final question being:

“But what about when we’re dead and gone, would you love me then?”

It is a really lovely story looking at the concept of love and a gentle way to introduce the idea of death.

In ‘Always and Forever’ Debi Gliori is the illustrator and Alan Durant the writer. He tackles death head on in a story about a group of woodland friends Otter, Mole, Fox and Hare who live happily together until Fox becomes ill, goes out into the woods and doesn’t come back. This is a really honest story written specifically for young children. There is nothing ambiguous about where Fox has gone. The other characters find his body in the woods and bring him home. Alan Durant deals sensitively with the other animals’ feelings after Fox’s death and then how they go on to remember and celebrate his life. It is a very well and appropriately written book.

The Heart in the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers tells the story of a young girl’s grief at the loss of her grandfather. The text is brief – it’s the beautiful illustrations that tell the whole story. This is a book that you will definitely need to talk to the children about. The girl puts her heart into a bottle to keep it safe while she is sad, eventually taking it out again. Although illustrated, this story is about humans rather than animal characters so very relatable. The concept may be a little abstract for lots of children, but the book will provide you with a wealth of things to talk about.

Laura Olivieri’s book ‘Where Are You? could not be described as abstract. It is a simple, very honest account of the death and loss of a parent. She wrote it following the suicide of her husband because she couldn’t find a suitable book to share with her son.

It goes without saying (but I am saying it anyway) that you should read any book that you are going to share with children in advance. It can also be really useful to read and discuss any books you might choose as a team so that you can create a shared approach to discussing death and bereavement.

Laura Olivieri says:

The best advice on dealing with this most sensitive and universal subject is to be kind, truthful and available. Explain things simply, without graphic detail. Most children will indicate what they need to know, when they need to know it and when they have had enough.

I reckon that is excellent advice!