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Villains Assemble!

Greg Bottrill, author of Can I Go Play Now..? and early years thought leader, shares some thoughts with us on the role of villains in childhood and story. Why do children respond so strongly to villainous characters, why do they capture their curiosity and imagination to such a degree?

More and more, as part of my work in the Centre for Childhood, I’m becoming fascinated with the joy and magic of story. I’ve always loved books and making up nonsense rhymes, something that I inherited from my Gransie and the almost daily trips to the village library with my Mum, and now that my own childhood days lie far behind me I still hold the dream of immersing children in the same world that I once spent many a happy day in.

Angry monster
Angry monster

I’d like to think that you too, as one of the Play People, share stories and read books to show your children the joy and delight of exploring the landscape of story dreaming, and that you’re driven by an authentic love for make-believe and all its wonderful potential to inspire children to want to read not have to read.

For this is one of the many ‘dreams’ of childhood, to be absorbed and immersed in a world that boils with the possibility of heroism, adventure, the extraordinary and the absurd. It wants anticipation of the page-turn, the climactic ending, the victory of struggle and the overcoming of struggle and mild malevolence. In fact, it is this last element that we might say childhood craves – it wants baddies and lots of them.

If we think about the stories we share with children, and hopefully there is a wide range of them, we often find that it’s the baddies that the children hook into. In the tale of Three Billy Goats Gruff which character does childhood lean into more? Yep, that’s right, the troll. No one seems to care whether the goats even get across the bridge particularly but instead it’s the troll who becomes the Character of Care. It’s as though children feel a little bit sorry for the troll being swept away by the river’s current and perhaps they even story dream that the troll hoists himself out further downstream to surreptitiously sneak up on the Three Billy Goats as they scoff and gobble the long, fresh green grass on the other bank and while they aren’t looking pounce on them and eat them up. That’ll teach the big Billy Goat!

It’s the same with Little Red Riding Hood. The children don’t seem to bat an eyelid at the thought of Grandmother being devoured by the wolf and as they listen to Little Red Riding remarking on Grandmother’s great big teeth, it’s as though children are secretly hoping that Little Red Riding Hood is going to join Grandmother in the Wolf’s stomach. Certainly, children don’t seem to want the woodcutter to come to the rescue and they also seem to want the Wolf to give him the run around and escape into the safety of the big, dark wood far away from the sharp edge of the wood axe.

Even in books, the same can be found. My all-time favourite children’s book is ‘Not Now Bernard’, yet when I read it with children, not one of them is horrified by the idea of the monster eating Bernard even before he’s had a chance of playing in the garden without his parents ignoring him all the time. In fact, many children laugh at this moment – it’s as though they want the monster to eat Bernard and anything else would be wholly unsatisfactory and indeed highly disappointing. Children do however recoil in horror at the sight of the monster breaking one of Bernard’s toys, although one child did say to me that it didn’t really matter because Bernard wasn’t exactly around to play with it anyway!

So childhood wants baddies in the stories we share with them. It wants things to go wrong, to be difficult and challenging within the pages of a book and when we tell stories to them, children are often waiting in anticipation for the villain to come along. It quietly pleases childhood to know that malevolence is in the world but that it can also be overcome. Even if it doesn’t show it immediately, childhood delights in the joy of villains getting their comeuppance and baddies getting their just desserts with “and that was the end of…”

And why? Because ultimately that’s what their play is too – the overcoming of limitations and fears, making the connections to other children and adults who they have to work out and begin to understand, and the taking of that step from what they know into the Unknown. When children play it’s their way of ‘writing their own story of themselves’, discovering who they are, their own courage and their own capabilities to be a mini hero. They just need to look out for the troll who’s making his way up back up the river bank, the Wolf who’s sidling back through the wood to Grandmother’s house and the monster sitting on a big rock in the garden waiting patiently to gobble them up…

Curious Question

How do you see the mild malevolence of story play out in your setting and what are your favourite stories to share with your children? How do the choices that children make show you that they are capable of going beyond the limitations they see in themselves?