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See evil, draw evil, play evil

What can teachers do when images of violence, such as those familiar from September 11 and July 7, find their way into children's art and play? Gerald Haigh finds a book that seeks answers

Images of Violence: responding to children's representations of the violence they see By Sian Adams and Janet Moyles Featherstone Education pound;14.99

Try as we might, it's not easy to keep violent ideas and actions out of children's lives. Our pacifist friends banned war toys, only to see their sons shooting each other with slices of breakfast toast bitten into the shape of pistols. My nine-year-old grandson isn't allowed Grand Theft Auto on his games console, but he's entirely open about his access to it in the homes of his friends and can't see what the fuss is about.

Does any of it matter? The toast shooters are in their late twenties now, super young men, a delight to spend time with. My grandson (like many other children) has a sensitivity about the living world and its future that puts Western leaders to shame.

But what if children produce - as some do - dark and disturbing drawings, or make models of falling skyscrapers, or act out disasters with toy planes? Maybe then it's time to intervene, but how?

Sian Adams and Janet Moyles recognise that violence and stark images have always been there. They feel, though, that brutal terrorist events - 911, the Bali and Madrid bombs (presumably they'd include the London bombs) - are somehow different. September 11 particularly, shocking in its unexpectedness, produced incredible, instantly recognisable, endlessly repeated images that have stirred up dark clouds in the minds of some children.

"Soon after September 11," they write, "we started to observe some new elements in children's play. These appeared to be directly related to what they had seen in the media. When we discussed this with other practitioners we found that they shared our perception. Children seemed to be struggling to find a response to these different violent images, and they were doing so as they always have, through their play."

The authors build their book around 12 short case studies, descriptions of children at play and adult reactions, in early years settings. From each of them they derive discussion of the theoretical background, questions for practitioners, and then, in a section called "supporting practice", some suggestions about what to do.

Most of the case studies clearly show responses to 911 or other forms of terrorism. There are towers, bad people, planes, guns, bombs, death. So, for example, one case tells how four-year-old Fiona builds twin towers of wooden blocks. Sue, her teacher, doesn't recognise what this is all about.

"She shows her how to build up the blocks so that she can measure Fiona's height. The child watches while the teacher builds a single tower of bricks." As soon as Sue's back is turned, Fiona rebuilds her twin towers and brings in a play bus which she says is an "alien car for shooting at the people we don't like".

She doesn't stop there. "The pilots are going to the seaside," this small child goes on to say. "Horrible people are at the seaside. They are going to be shot because we don't like them."

The questions that follow put us on the spot. How would we have reacted? How would we deal with Fiona's violent thoughts? How might we help Fiona and the others to work through these obviously strong feelings? And, pointing up just one of many themes in the book, "Would (we) have reacted differently if Fiona were a boy?"

Questions are one thing. What all teachers in this position want is some answers. In this we're not disappointed. In the "supporting practice" section, the authors begin gently, standing alongside the teacher. "Sue is aware of the dangers of overreacting and bringing her own values and fears to the situation. Children often do build towers and knock them down," they write. But, they continue, it's clear that there's a bit more to Fiona's play than that, and it's here that there's a need for high level skills that Sue, for now, doesn't have. She needs, Adams and Moyles suggest, to improve her ability to observe and interpret children's behaviour, perhaps through training. Then she'll be better equipped to let children experiment with expressing anger and frustration. She'll also be able to give children more opportunities to talk about those disturbing thoughts.

Sue's enough of a teacher, though, to know when it's time to involve the parents. "Fiona's purpose - to shoot the residents of her tower - was out of character. Because of this, Sue decides to meet with Fiona's mother to try to understand this unusual behaviour."

The same pattern - story, discussion (there's a lot of that, reviewing theory and existing literature), questions, practice - takes us through all the case studies, each of which crosses a line into an area where a teacher would feel the need to do something, but may not know what. There are the five-year-olds who play at keeping "hostages" (they use the word), the child who uses model figures to act out a bomber attacking people at a bus stop, and the one who relates Jack's beanstalk to a tower and finishes with the words, "Hooray - all the Americans are dead!"

The coping strategy in each case is similar; it's to develop the skills of intelligent observation and interpretation, and to give space and confidence for children to bring out their worries in a range of ways.

The constant theme - which, incidentally, resonates far beyond both the early years and the single issue of violent images - is that the teacher's job is to build a classroom in which children feel safe and confident, aware of their feelings and those of others, and able to talk about and express them. That calls for teachers and other adult workers who are professional, sensitive and alert, confident, creative and knowledgeable.

Sian Adams and Janet Moyles are providing an explicit reminder to all educators that they have to do the work, develop the skills, do the thinking, listen, watch and learn. At a time when teachers are increasingly being deskilled by top-down schemes and initiatives, it's a call that's timely, welcome and refreshing.

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