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Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood
2017, Vol. 18(2) 114 –126
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Transforming early childhood
educators’ conceptions of “dark
play” and popular culture
University of Calgary, Canada
E Lisa Panayotidis
University of Calgary, Canada
In an online graduate-level early childhood education course, the authors sought to playfully disrupt
and transform educators’ conceptions of children’s “dark play,” as provoked by contemporary
popular culture. Embracing the imaginative potential of darkness and liminality, the course
participants problematized and expanded their thinking concerning what constitutes children’s
play scripts focused on themes of fear, power, and violence. Cognizant that some educators are
reluctant and even refuse to allow children opportunities to engage in play centered on troubling
social issues, the educators co-authored a fantastical tale, inspired by the Disney animation film
Frozen, and included course topics, classroom observations, and their own childhood memories
of “dark play.” Vivian Paley’s ideas about the connections between storytelling and play provided
a creative impetus to the fictional narrative-imagining exercise, as did Hans-Georg Gadamer’s
notion of Spiel. Eliciting the literature of children’s play experiences through fictional story-writing,
and “play” as a contemporary aspect of creative thinking, the educators entered imaginary worlds
of their own making. Unlike a traditional online graduate course format that often incorporates
textual readings, posts, and responses, the authors strived to foster a virtual space in which
the educators buttressed theories about play and imagination in a deeply felt, experiential, and
playful manner. In creating an imaginary story based on the film, the participants gained a different
understanding of the nature of play, and came to recognize how popular-culture play themes can
provoke and strengthen children’s imaginative and abstract thinking, problem-solving skills, and
emotional development. Likewise, this narrative experience showed the potential and role of
“dark play” in initiating new ways of thinking and talking with children about the complex issues
of the modern world.
Carolyn Bjartveit, Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, 2500 University Drive NW, Calgary, Alberta
T2N 1N4, Canada.
714075CIE0010.1177/1463949117714075Contemporary Issues in Early ChildhoodBjartveit and Panayotidis
Bjartveit and Panayotidis 115
Creative writing, digital learning, early childhood teacher education, theories of play
In this article, we tell a story about a story—a living, breathing narrative—that adult students wrote
in a six-week online post-secondary early childhood education (ECE) course which called them
into “dark play.” In the evocative research project described below, we critically examined concep-
tions of play and literary representations of narrative imagining in a virtual classroom. This study
is part of our broader research program, aimed at understanding how ECE professionals play
together and imagine in online environments (Bjartveit and Panayotidis, 2014a; Panayotidis and
The 16 students enrolled in the class were working in various early years education and child-
care settings, and were taking the course as part of a graduate-level ECE certificate program of
studies. Their intent was to upgrade and deepen their knowledge about pedagogical theories and
practical skills, while working with young children in multiple professional fields and contexts.
In order to connect the students more viscerally to conceptions about “dark play” and fantasy in
children’s own lives, we conceived of an imaginative co-creation—a fluid and spiraling literary
narrative—that was co-authored by the class participants. Drawing on the literature of children’s
play experiences through fictional story-writing, and play as a contemporary aspect of creative
thinking, the students entered fantastical worlds of their own making, forging online spaces in
which they buttressed theories about play and imagination in a deeply felt, experiential, and engag-
ing manner. Their learning was illustrated through a collaborative form of writing and reverberated
through an inventive narrative, critical reflections and supplementary visuals, and artifacts that
they posted each week in an online class forum. The students’ tale demonstrated a greater discipli-
nary, pedagogical, and social understanding of children’s imaginative thinking and the benefits of
“dark play”—for child development and early years learning—in a different way. By playing with/
in play, the class participants came to view themselves and their practices through a sociocultural
lens. Edmiston (2008: 9) has noted that “[w]hen we play … we enter the ‘if’ dimension to find
ourselves on pathways to imagined worlds which for a time can be experienced as more real than
everyday life.” Gallas (1994: 2) emphasized that “[u]seful stories, for teachers, are those that ring
true, stories that are evocative of their own lives in the classroom.” This play experience, we argue,
revealed manifold aspects of interpretive-based instruction, the work of language as a cultural
artifact of our individual and collective sense of self, and, significantly, the pedagogical potential
of graduate play in an online learning environment. Ultimately, the class participants gained a
deeper understanding of the nature of play and the value of “dark play” by exploring the uses of
popular-culture narratives and multimedia during the process of teaching and learning.
Through a fictional narrative-writing experience—passing a story between players in a game-
like way—the students explored troubling issues associated with children’s play. They questioned
the restrictions that adults often place on play (Hewes et al., 2016). They described their personal
childhood memories and critically reflected on their observations of play in ECE settings. The
students wove dark threads into the colorful narrative tapestry—themes about fear, surveillance,
power, and violence. By layering popular culture and dark themes, they disrupted and challenged
certain taboos on children’s play scripts. As they developed the story plots and characters, the stu-
dents’ complex ideas about children’s play were realized.
Gafouri (2005: 17) defined “play” as children’s primary means of engaging in the world,
which provides them “with a situation through which they can explore the world as it is or the
116 Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 18(2)
world as they imagine it.” Our understanding of “play” aligns with Sandberg and Samuelsson
(2003: 3), who, rather than defining the term, “state that children express play in many ways
and adults interpret what play is in many different ways.” Play, we add, is always contextual
and contingent, subject to time and space, histories and cultures, intergenerational and
But how do we understand “dark play” and what forms of play might be considered “dark”?
Etymologically defined, the term “dark” refers to the “absence of light.” The Old English defini-
tion is “obscure, gloomy; sad, cheerless; sinister, wicked,” and the Old High German sources
include “to hide, conceal.”1 Uncovering truth shines light into darkness and reveals what was once
concealed: “Aletheia, the Greek word for ‘the event of concealment and unconcealment’ … occurs
when something opens which was once closed” (Caputo, 1987, quoted in Moules, 2002: 6).
Through this study, we have uncovered some truths about “dark” play by observing how the stu-
dents created and used sad and sinister stories to test their emotions and exercise critical thinking
and problem-solving skills. Discovering how adult learners engage in “dark play” has also raised
new questions and ideas about how narrative story-writing and pop-culture themes can support
literacy and learning in pre-kindergarten–12 classrooms.
Johnson et al. (1987) pointed out that adults sometimes feel hostile towards play because it is
spirited behavior, purposeless and free. The social and cultural construction of childhood and early
education is built on a foundation of protection and surveillance:
This innocence requires that access to additional knowledge be withheld or controlled with only “safe”
knowledge being allowed. Psychological surveillance (Walkerdine, 1984) is justified for the protection of
the innocent child. Younger human beings are no longer agents in their own world, but those who must be
limited and regulated. (Cannella, 2002: 35)
Normative western ideals about “good” parenting and teaching (Ailwood, 2007) influence some
adults to shield and overprotect children. By monitoring children’s activities, controlling play
scripts, and limiting their time to play, adults can deprive children of valuable learning opportuni-
ties. We contest that exploring “dark play” themes initiates new ways of thinking and talking with
children about complex topics such as gender, class, and race. Through dialogue and observations,
educators might further investigate how “darkness” is challenged or negotiated by children, and
come to understand if the same “dark” aspects are shared by children and adults alike.
The scholar Brian Sutton-Smith (1983) wrote about “cruel play”—what Schechner referred to as
“dark play,” arguing that the “Western concept of play, no matter how controlling … rest[s] on
a bedrock of ‘dreams’ and ‘illusions’” (Schechner, 1988, quoted in Sutton-Smith, 2001: 58). We
disagree with Scott Eberle (2014: 228), who stressed that “play has no dark side.” “Dark play” is
imbedded in play, and we envision it as a liminal space between real and fantastical worlds where
imaginations run wild and children can test their emotions. The ensuing excitement and tensions
associated with “dark play” can be productive in provoking children’s critical, inventive thinking
and problem-solving as they explore complex topics and social issues.
In order to understand and theorize the nature of play, we drew on the hermeneutical approach
of Hans-Georg Gadamer (2004) and his notion of Spiel— “the mode of being of play” (103). For
Gadamer, the back-and-forth movement of Spiel and language come together to reveal and inter-
pret lived experience. Gadamer described play as having a spirit of its own:
The movement of playing has no goal that brings it to an end; rather, it renews itself in constant repetition.
The movement backward and forward is obviously so central to the definition of play that it makes no
difference who or what performs this movement. (104)
Bjartveit and Panayotidis 117
Expanding on Gadamer’s ideas, we explored how imaginative play (Spiel) can support our under-
standing of our day-to-day worlds through storied frameworks. Given that our participants worked
with children, we drew on children’s imaginative play scripts and narratives, particularly the work
of Vivian Paley (1981, 2001, 2004), who recorded young learners’ dramatic storytelling in the
kindergarten classroom. Scholars (Kearney, 2002; King, 2003; Loy, 2010) who write about the
symbolic and functional work of storytelling in sociocultural, historical, and political contexts
have also offered us ways to think about storytelling as a form of imaginative play. For example,
Rodari suggested that children
must be encouraged to … reproduce their own language and meanings through stories that will enable
them to narrate their own lives. … [T]he imagination has rules of its own that must be respected if children
are to respond and seek more knowledge about language and imagination. (Rodari, 1996: xix)
As the educational philosopher Gert Biesta (2014) acknowledges, teaching as transcendence is a
“gift or … an act of gift giving” (43). He argues that “to be taught” rather than to “learn from” “is
to be open to receiving the gift of teaching … being able to give such interruptions a place in one’s
understanding and one’s being” (57). So, while we are telling you a story about a story, we are
nimbly attending to layered stories about creativity, humanity, history, culture, and life experiences
in classrooms, forged through the close relations of teachers to their students, and pedagogies of
hope and aspiration in the always risky enterprise of education (Bjartveit and Panayotidis, 2014b).
The lure and allure of imaginative play
Luring students to play online and fueling their allurement was an important feature of this course.
To “lure,” a 14th-century French term, is to “entice” and “attract.” Germanic and Old English ety-
mologies see “lure” as a “call,” a “bait,” or an “invite.”2 Following Biesta (2014), we see teaching
as enticement and attraction. We are drawn to the idea of a “call” or “invitation.” We are not only
invited to play, but also called into play by play. As Gadamer (2004: 105) has elucidated, “[t]he
primacy of play over the consciousness of the player” is fundamental to “playing.” Significantly,
“allure” points to wonder and magic. To be lost in play is to be “captivated” or, as Csikszentmihalyi
and Csikszentmihalyi (1992) would suggest, to be in the flow—a space where time stands still and
where the lure of play is paramount.
As children, we ourselves were fascinated by and invented our own “dark play” scripts. Bjartveit
When I think back to my childhood years in eastern Canada, enacting ghost stories is clearly etched in my
memory. My fascination with spirits and hauntings was fueled by classic tales, such as “The Legend of
Sleepy Hollow” [Irving, 1819]—a story I played out in schoolyards and parks. In the 1970s, I lived in the
residential community of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce in Montreal’s West End. An ally near my house―a place
I called Scary Lane―was where I unleashed my wild dreams and told my friends the frightening tales that
I had read. The children living in the neighborhood never walked through Scary Lane after dark, especially
on Halloween night. I convinced them that the headless horseman would ride down the lane and search for
children to catch and murder. I remember the dares and wagers I made with my playmates and our
excitement (and terror) on Halloween night when we tested our emotions and bravely crossed the lane. My
enchantment with ghosts sparked an interest in geographical imagination and haunted places. In my mind,
the back ally was a terrible and magical place. Through telling and performing stories, I became an
adventurer and time traveler. Popular series of adventure books from that time, like the Nancy Drew
mystery stories, written under the pseudonym of Carolyn Keene, did not spark my curiosity and wonder
like old fairy tales.
118 Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 18(2)
Panayotidis, meanwhile, growing up a world away, was enthralled with tales of the ancient cultures
and mythical gods that bordered the Mediterranean—whether stories of the Babylonians, the
Athenians, or the Persians. For Panayotidis, parents and teachers playing out imaginary wars with
rough-fashioned paper swords, helmets, armor, and shields, amidst wild torturous cries, were not
conceived as “dark play,” but a form of heritage and imaginative historical re-enactment. Such play
was supported by the Greek elementary school curriculum and children’s literature. One signifi-
cant series of books which prompted Panayotidis’s imaginative play was “I Was There” (“Ήμουν
kiEo”). Set amidst these ancient cultures, it follows the time-traveling adventures of a young boy
named Alki. He meets other children, who explain to Alki their cultural traditions, rituals, and
histories. Through its reading, the reader experiences and then enacts escapades from Alki’s
exploits in these now lost worlds. The traditional story hook “Once upon a time” is replaced by
“I was there.”
With this spirit of play, at the beginning of the semester, Bjartveit invited the students to create
a fictional narrative based on the Disney animation film Frozen (2013). Inspired by Hans Christian
Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen,”3 the story is about a princess named Elsa who is cursed
with emitting ice from her fingers and freezing everyone and everything in her surroundings.
Afraid of her own powers and wanting to protect her sister, Anna, from the spell, she flees the
kingdom, but is eventually reunited with her family. According to Jennifer Marsh (2014a: 270), the
plot “is unusual in that there is no stock villain and the handsome prince, who initially appears as
if he will help Anna to rescue Elsa, turns out to be a bad character.” Media writer Maria Konnikova
(2014) has suggested that, for some viewers, the film “was about emotional repression; for others,
about gender and identity; for others still, about broader social acceptance and depression.” To
disrupt the traditional polarization between good and beauty (in the case of the no-good prince) is
a fundamental that relates to this dark play. During the first week of the course, Bjartveit posted the
following invitation to the students on the online discussion board:
I invite you to enter the imaginary world—the graduate program in fantasy play—and dream and imagine
with me. Weave your own ideas and questions about play into a story. You will receive the piece once
during the six-week course. Read the narrative, add a short section and send it back to me within two days.
I will then pass the story on to the next player. Include ideas, quotes, images, and video clips related to the
weekly course topic and readings, as well as your own lived experiences. Feel free to change the storyline
and plot. This exercise will provide a different way to take up and understand some of the topics and issues
about play that we are discussing in class. Each Friday, I will post the story in the online discussion forum.
Continue to read the tale as it unfolds and post your ideas and questions about the story—your comments
will assist the next player.
So, how did the students take up this invitation to construct a fictional story? Each student was
asked to write one section of the tale during the course. Although the activity was non-graded
and participation was voluntary, everyone in the class contributed ideas and wrote a section of
the narrative. Upon completing their piece, the students returned the story to Bjartveit, who then
sent it to a different participant. At the end of each week, she posted the narrative online for
everyone to read and respond to. In addition to the writing activity, the students were asked to
answer specific questions and complete weekly tasks related to various play topics posted on the
online discussion board. Not wanting to create a “textbook” course where the class participants
would read the assigned articles and post their responses to tasks and questions, we provided
opportunities for the students to explore and engage with the course content and topics through
experiential play. Our collaboration on the project involved reading the narrative sections that
the students posted online and, through ongoing critical dialogue, interpreting how the storyline
Bjartveit and Panayotidis 119
reflected the students’ understanding of the course’s content—historical, theoretical, practical,
and sociocultural perspectives on children’s play.
The story-writing activity itself was inspired by Bjartveit’s childhood memory of the Telephone
Game—a favorite icebreaker activity where secret messages are passed from person to person
around the circle, and the words and meanings change. Similarly, we wondered what would happen
if we randomly passed a make-believe story from student to student, and invited each person to
write a section of the narrative. Although she was intrigued by the idea of this story-writing game,
Bjartveit was not sure how to begin the tale and what play-related topics to choose. She posted the
following introduction, which included her own questions and angst concerning restrictions she
had observed adults place on children’s play in some ECE settings:
In many of the childcare centers that I visited last year, children were creating play scripts and artwork
about the Disney movie Frozen. Although some educators facilitated the children’s dramatic play and
provided costumes and props, other teachers discouraged children from talking about the film. One school
had a sign posted on the playroom wall: “This is a Frozen-free zone!” An exasperated teacher commented
that she hoped Disney would produce another movie soon as adults are tired of children’s obsessive
preoccupation with the film. The theme song, “Let it go,” had become the mantra of some educators. I
thought about the lost possibilities for imaginative play and wondered how children would work around
the restrictions placed on them. In “letting go” of my own inhibitions—stepping out of my comfort zone—I
imagined what the movie characters―Princesses Elsa, Princess Anna and the snowman Olav―might say
about adults limiting children’s play. In describing her own fantastical narratives, Vivian Paley (2004)
wrote, “imaginary characters were no different from those that entered the children’s play … We would
talk and listen to them and tell their stories at will. They did not mask reality; they helped us interpret and
explain our feelings about reality” (p. 29). If storytelling connects to and sparks play (Paley, 2004, p. 41),
I wonder what we might come to understand about the nature of play and children’s play experiences
through a fictional story-writing exercise. Furthermore, how do adults play and learn together in an online
Bjartveit initiated the narrative activity with mixed emotions. She was excited, because she had
invested time and effort in writing an introduction to the story and was curious about the students’
reactions, but this was mixed with reservations about how the participants would respond to her
invitation. She had to remind herself that play is risky for the students and the instructor. Most
recently, Biesta (2014) has noted the importance of risk-taking, which is required in all educational
contexts. Notions of “creativity,” “risk,” and “virtuosity,” he has noted, are inherent to all educa-
tional enterprises, including contexts, processes, policies, and, of course, university post-secondary
classrooms. Choosing a class activity with unpredictable learning possibilities forced us to step out
of our comfort zone. We were concerned that some students would not be interested in fictional
narrative-writing, or want to invest their time in a voluntary, ungraded activity. We were relieved
when, after explaining the imaginative play activity to the class, a student responded with excite-
ment and said that she was looking forward to participating. Although many writers initially
expressed positive comments in their emails about the story-writing activity, very few individuals
posted ideas related to the story on the discussion board. Bjartveit did not know how to read the
silence and found it difficult to step back and not intervene when she herself wanted to play. She
was tempted to ask critical questions and provoke dialogue, but resisted, knowing that her actions
might interrupt or influence the next writers’ ideas. A student named Dee expressed her qualms
about the story-writing activity:4
I was nervous writing my section because I wanted to do “right” by the person who had written the
previous section and had wished I had an opportunity to ask where they thought the story was going. I
120 Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 18(2)
analyzed it, worried about timelines and … about how everyone would perceive the section I wrote. Would
I write the “wrong” thing? (It was interesting for me to reflect that this worry I had was the same one we
discussed in regards to students who want more guidance and are less willing to take risks). (Post, 12
During the second week of the course, we placed the narrative, including the new sections, on the
discussion board, and invited the class to post their ideas and questions about the tale. Many stu-
dents commented on the images and story setting. Student Jennifer posted:
What beautiful imagery … while keeping true to being an investigation into the modern image of play it
is now starting to feel like a story … I feel like there is room for some kind of play “super hero” to come
in or maybe a fantastic spell. (Post, 11 July 2015)
Another student created a video to illustrate the narrative; she played with an electronic tool and
demonstrated how it worked to her classmates. This provoked discussions and questions about
class projects with young children that include writing and illustrating stories online. Although
some writers initially expressed concern about participating in the class activity, they were reawak-
ened to the magic of imagination by immersing themselves in play.
Fantasy, realism, and dark tales
There was a time when play was king and early childhood was its domain. Fantasy was practiced leisurely
and openly in a language unique to the kingdom. (Paley, 2004: 4).
Fantasy stories, in literature, films, and popular culture, spark children’s curiosity and draw them
into imaginary worlds—“virtual playgrounds and beyond” (Marsh, 2014b: 410). By inventing dark
play scripts, children exercise problem-solving skills and critical thinking, and learn to cope with
real-world experiences. Educator Kieran Egan wrote:
[CS] Lewis says that the acceptance of fantasy creates “a special kind of longing.” It is not a longing that
the real world should be different, but a longing to be able to go through the mirror or the back of the
wardrobe to worlds that enlarge and enrich our imaginative experience. Our bodies have pragmatic
experiences, our minds have imaginative experiences; both are educationally important. (Egan, n.d.)
The artist and author Maurice Sendak (1963, 1970, 1981, 1993) included dark themes in his con-
troversial children’s books. His masterful stories and aesthetic illustrations represent children’s
deepest thoughts, fears, and secrets. According to Margalit Fox (2012), a writer for The New York
Times, Sendak “wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and
plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche.” In the
book Outside Over There (Sendak, 1981), the main character, Ida, is angry about having to care for
her young sister and distressed mother while her “sailor papa” is at sea. She faces her secret fears
about evil and death when she is forced to rescue her sister from the grips of goblin kidnappers. The
illustrations represent nature’s reaction to the powerful binaries represented in the story: bright
sunflowers whither; sunny skies darken; and calm seas rage in sync with the dark narrative. Sendak
recognized children’s ability to order their complex world by using binary opposites. Representations
of good/evil, love/hate, life/death, security/fear, and freedom/oppression are woven into his texts—
illustrations and themes about childhood fears, responsibilities, and dark secrets. However, Sendak
has collapsed these binary opposites through his vivid descriptions and aesthetic representations of
the deep and inner world of children’s thoughts, fears, and secrets. Despite the current culture of
Bjartveit and Panayotidis 121
fear and sometimes obsessive desire to protect children from life’s dark truths, reading Sendak’s
stories to children might help them discover and face their inner “self” and develop important cop-
ing strategies. Egan (1986, 1997) explained how binary oppositions in children’s stories serve to
structure meaning. By mediating between opposites through imaginary play texts, children come
to understand phenomena in the world:
Hot and cold yield warm, wet and dry yield damp, and life and death yield—well, ghosts, for one thing.
Ghosts are to life and death as warm is to hot and cold or damp is to wet and dry. How about human and
animal? Yeti, mermaids, Sasquatch. And how about nature and culture? (Egan, 1997: 46)
According to Marsh and Bishop (2014: 148), players also explore and respond to the cultural
and social contexts that surround them: “Through their games, rhymes and playground rituals,
children examine cultural and social values and practices, seeking to reinforce normative dis-
courses but also to question them.” Through writing the imaginary tale, the graduate students
challenged some of the current issues around dark play and interrupted dominant discourses,
including western childcare practices related to surveillance and overprotectionism, often
instigated by strict health and safety regulations.
Excerpts from the students’ narrative
The students’ tale is set in the Frozen filmscape of Elsa’s ice palace. At the beginning of the story,
the narrator informs the princess about the lack of play in early learning settings:
“Forgive me your Majesty … I have alarming news to share and need your advice. In the human world
children’s play is being restricted … Disney Corporation’s recent film about your fantastical realm has
sparked great excitement and interest among children. However, some teachers feel kids are spending too
much time talking about the movie characters and engaging in fantasy play.” Pulling up the sleeves of her
gown and tightening her fists, Princess Elsa replied, “If play is frozen, the children will become cursed as
I have been … For years I remained locked up in a room unable to play with anyone. Your dilemma is
serious! I will put out a decree that children must be permitted to imagine, dream and play in schools.” Elsa
clapped her hands together and let out a triumphant cheer. “Quickly, invite all the children in the land to
come to my palace. The adults mustn’t come as I need the children to be as natural, creative, and uninhibited
as they can be. I’ve got something extraordinary planned …”
The children accepted Elsa’s invitation to play in the castle. However, their fun was interrupted by
controlling adults. One student posted suggestions and prompted her classmates to include “heli-
copter parents” in the story. In addition to well-known characters in Frozen, the students intro-
duced monsters, pirates, and sword-fighting children, as well as dark themes related to fear and
Time! Could that be what was causing play to be lost to the children? As the children began to explore the
books in the library I watched the pictures from their imaginations take form in the room. Mountains,
pirate ships and candy houses began to take shape. Some of the children pulled out the small objects they
had gathered on their walk to the castle and used them to interact with the characters from the books. Boys
were fighting pirates with their wooden swords while the girls held them off with icicles plucked from the
castle. Acorns doubled as lost buttons for the gingerbread men and one group was building a village of
snowmen out of the rocks they had collected … They easily fell into this world of imagination and
incorporated elements of the real world into it. As a large dragon reared up in front of me, it became clear;
the imagination of the child is vast but it needs time and space to grow. In their world, these children were
just not given the time, space and support they need. Their parents were so busy herding them from activity
122 Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 18(2)
to activity that they had forgotten that their children needed time to play and imagine free from interference
and adult control.
Whap, whap, whap, whap!!!! What on earth was that noise thundering over the meadow? What was
making the ballroom windows shutter and quake? All children stopped, froze, and looked out with
trepidation. The skies darkened as we watched the helicopter parents approach. The sky boomed with the
shrieking voice of one mom over the helicopter loudspeaker: “What are you doing honey? Can I help? I
want to come and play with you! I want to buy you a plastic toy manufactured in China!”
Disturbed by the intrusion, Elsa devised a plan to engage the parents in play. In one part of the
story, the adults entered a magical playground with their children, where their memories of play
experiences came alive:
“A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood independence, risk taking and discovery—without
making it safer” (Rosin, 2014) … Had parents forgotten or just had no recollection of the magic of
childhood play? … [Elsa] said “Clearly it has not been the fantasy play that has changed over the years.
However, our attitude toward the children spinning their webs during school hours is quite explicit. Stop
your endless make-believe, we say. It is time to become real schoolchildren. Indeed, the children are
pretending to be real schoolchildren, but they see a monster chasing them and so they must run into the
forest and hide until their mother finds them and takes them home to play” (Paley, 2004: 39–40).
As the weeks passed, we came to know the students through their written assignments, emails, and
telephone and online conversations. We recognized how they wove their self and their own lived
experiences, emotions, and ideas into the story. One student, named Babs, wrote: “It was fun to
imagine those helicopters flying over the meadow, kind of like an ‘apocalypse now’ scene. My
husband fixes helicopters, so it is an image true to my experiences” (Personal correspondence, 26
July 2016). Another class participant who had recently experienced a personal loss wrote about the
death of a minor story character. Babs also explained how the unpredictability of the unfolding tale
triggered her emotional responses:
When there was a new post I would read it and predict what would happen next. Always I was WRONG!!!
How could this be? We’re reading the same assignments, thinking about the same questions, and have a
similar philosophical base. At times I would be angry that a writer took a different flow from what I would
have done … I was puzzled as to the connections made, and most often, I was amazed that someone picked
up on something that I hadn’t noticed or didn’t think about. (on-line post, August 2015)
We found it interesting that no one suggested a title, chapter headings, or an ending for the story.
Ultimately, the class participants created their own conclusions. Perhaps this is appropriate as there
is no definitive end to our thinking and learning about imaginary and “dark play.” We expected that
writers would move away from the Frozen theme and were surprised when it continued to the end
of the story. Some students were nervous about fantasy writing, and we reminded them that it was
a playful experience and not to be taken too seriously. Perhaps the contrast between more tradi-
tional and serious approaches to graduate studies and make-believe activities created too large a
gap for some participants. Wanderlust, another of the class participants, posted:
I have learned not to be afraid to add to the creation, that collaborative creation of an engaging story is
possible and that the experience, viewpoints, and understands of others come out through their writing. I
have enjoyed reading the additions to the story every week! To see how each person, adding their own
background and vision, can take the story to a new level! We have, as Kline, quoted in Chudacoff (2007),
contended, “achieved a kind of synergy between a child’s fascination with TV programmes and their
Bjartveit and Panayotidis 123
immense engagement in imaginative play” (p. 171). Story-writing this way is something I have not done,
both collaboratively and with a pre-determined character with a set of characteristics and history. Teachers
over the years have mentioned the struggles with the children’s inability to be creative and imaginative on
their own, instead writing from the viewpoint of known characters from TV, movies, video games, or
books. When writing the section I did, I realized the capabilities required to do so. I had to have an
understanding of many character individualities and perspectives; not an easy task. I had to take information
from earlier sections, add in education evidence, and script a section that was engaging, readable, and lent
to further exploration and elaboration. The ideas within the text spark so many questions for me still: what
is play for adults, how much involvement should an adult have in the play—focusing on the idea of
co-constructing the curriculum, and will the parents revert back to their attention on their devices/
achievements when they leave the magical land? I am intrigued to try this type of writing with my future
class. (Post, 11 August 2015)
Writing the story rekindled the students’ childhood memories and a sense of returning to a place
they had forgotten or had not visited in many years.
Embracing the imaginative potential of dark play and liminality
Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come
from. (Solnit, 2005: 4)
This ongoing study has important implications for early childhood educators and other pro-
fessionals working with children. Teachers, administrators, and parents may gain a deeper
knowledge of early years learning and recognize the connections between past and present
pedagogical theories and practices in the context of online curriculum play. Society at large
may benefit from a better understanding of how children learn through imaginative and creative
processes, and how teachers can promote students’ inquiry in rich and evocative ways.
According to Marsh:
popular culture, media and new technologies are fundamental features of these young children’s everyday
lives. As such, they are integral to their language and literacy development and connect this learning to a
complex nexus of social relationships and material cultural artefacts. In facing up to the challenges posed
by the emergence of a digital generation … we can ensure that early childhood education reflects the
social, cultural and economic milieu of the early twenty-first century. (Marsh, 2005: 193)
But our study findings point further than multimodal literacy processes and language development.
We observed how collaborative storytelling, narrative writing, and imaginative play can raise self-
awareness and construct identities. The students became aware of their hesitancy to enter a virtual
playscape and engage in fictional story-writing. By taking risks, stepping into the “dark” so to
speak, they uncovered truths about their self and came to understand the value of using pop-culture
narratives, “dark play,” and imaginative story-writing in ECE settings. As David Loy (2010: 4)
explained: “stories are not just stories. They teach us what is real, what is valuable, and what is
possible … To understand is to story.”
We continue to question if the story-writing game was an authentic play experience in the con-
text of Gadamer’s (2004) notion of “play” (Spiel). Although there were game rules—time restric-
tions and a requirement to weave course topics and literary sources into the narrative—we observed
the students’ deep engagement and the oscillating movement, characteristic of play, as ideas were
passed between them. Gadamer explained that it is the game itself that draws the player into play,
and that the game has a spirit of its own:
124 Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 18(2)
The particular nature of a game lies in the rules and regulations that prescribe the way the field of the game
is filled … Apart from these general determining factors, it seems … characteristic of human play that it
plays something. (Gadamer, 2004: 106–107)
While writing this piece, we ourselves were swept up in the spirit of play. As we passed the
article back and forth, we became curious and wondered what ideas the other person would write.
In dreaming, imagining, and remembering our own childhoods and “dark play” scripts, our atten-
tion became fixed on the game—play captured us as the story unfolded. Gadamer (2004: 103)
wrote that “[p]lay fulfills its purpose only if the player loses himself in play.”
The research holds important implications for pre-kindergarten–12 post-secondary contexts,
particularly in teacher education, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Academic research-
ers will understand the processes through which teachers interpret and undertake “dark play” and
narrative scripts in ECE teacher education and in children’s programs. Likewise, they will have an
increased understanding of new online imaginative play-based literacies and pedagogies in both
post-secondary contexts and ECE programing with young children. This research will add to our
knowledge about how ECE teachers and professionals explore play and discover how it can sup-
port learning in a virtual classroom.
We wonder whether a concern for total fidelity to an external curriculum-as-plan and a lack of
simultaneous concern for the aliveness of the situation does not extinguish the understanding of
teaching as Aoki (2005: 162) would envision it—as “a leading out to new possibilities” and to the
“not yet.” In focusing intently on the technology itself, we argue that educators risk losing sight of
what truly matters—creating a vibrant, “living” curriculum where students are fully engaged in
collaborative and dialogic learning. Through our ongoing research,
[w]e can see … how truncated our understanding becomes when we see only a single curriculum-as-plan
awaiting implementation. In this truncation, teachers are often technicized and transformed into mere
technical implementers, and good teaching is reduced to mere technical effectiveness … indwelling in the
Zone of Between [the space between curriculum-as-plan and curriculum-as-lived] calls on us to surmount
such reductionism to seek out a more fully human understanding of who a teacher is and what teaching
truly is. (Aoki, 2005: 163)
In the end, we contend that online graduate classrooms must be more meaningful than the sum of
their organization and technological parts. Classrooms must be alive with curiosity, and wonder,
with conversation and critical dialog which sparks thoughtful and humane encounters on the
nature of “dark play.”
Ethics approval for this study was granted in September 2015 (REB15-1769). I would like to thank Ms
Brenda Mansfield for her assistance with administering this study. This article is published in remembrance
of my dear friend Dr Lisa Panayotidis, who passed away in December 2016. I want to acknowledge the origi-
nal joint scholarship of this article and honor my late colleague’s scholarly legacy.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
1. See the definition for “dark” in the Online Etymology Dictionary. Available at: http://www.etymonline.
Bjartveit and Panayotidis 125
2. See the definition for “lure” in the Online Etymology Dictionary. Available at: http://www.etymonline.
3. “The Snow Queen” was translated into English by Montague Rhodes James for his book Hans Andersen
Forty-Two Stories (see Andersen 1930).
4. All names are pseudonymous chosen by the research participants.
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Carolyn Bjartveit is a sessional instructor in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary,
Canada. Her doctoral research focused on the topics of teaching and learning, and the complex intersections
between the self (of students and educators) and the curriculum in culturally diverse early childhood educa-
tion post-secondary classrooms. Her research has appeared in the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, the
Journal of Applied Hermeneutics and Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood.
E Lisa Panayotidis sadly died during the production of this special issue. She was a Professor and Chair of
Educational Studies in Curriculum and Learning in the Werklund School of Education at the University of
Calgary, Canada. Her multi-authored book, Provoking Conversations on Inquiry in Teacher Education (Peter
Lang, 2012), with Darren E Lund, Hans Smits, and Jo Towers, won the 2015 book prize from the Canadian
Association of Foundations of Education.
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