"A scary thing happened” – how to make child’s play of disasters


How should we help our children deal with horrible events they witness or are told about from history? It’s a hard problem. Often the solution is simply to avoid the issue until an age is reached at which a young person can handle it. Then there are various approximations of the truth, made into a form that can be in some way understood by minds that are still under construction.

Here I want to tell you about another approach that could be called “therapy through play.” The idea seems to be inspired by approaches where a phobic person is slowly exposed to the situation eliciting fear, and through repetition the phobia is slowly diminished.

I’ll give two examples of this approach in action. In 2003 FEMA published a coloring book for kids about the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Entitled “A scary thing happened,” the book contains drawings of the towers in various states of destruction that kids are meant to color in. Here’s the cover of that book:

I can only imagine a parent intoning to their traumatized child: “That’s great Johnny, but don’t you want to color in the people jumping off the buildings?” The coloring book came to the public’s attention in the past few weeks and the uproar that resulted has led FEMA to remove the book from its website, but it can still be downloaded from “The Smoking Gun” online.

The second example comes from something I saw 20 years ago, from an activity booklet to accompany an exhibit of African artifacts at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto. The ROM commissioned Jeanne Cannizzo to curate an exhibit, titled “Into the Heart of Africa,” which was partially made up of items from their collection. Cannizzo decided to weave a fascinating story about what the objects told us about their collectors, largely Canadian missionaries and soldiers. The problem is that this story depended strongly on reading all the captions. Without doing so the exhibit was quite offensive, with drawings of mounted soldiers spearing Zulu warriors, photographs of white people showing Africans how to launder clothes, and other curios that seemed to be more about conquest and civilizing savages than anything else. And they were, because that was why those Canadians were in Africa. Each caption explained this, but in museums, you can’t count on people reading those. The exhibit caused a huge furor and was shut down, and is now featured in text books on museum curating as an example of what can go wrong when dealing with a sensitive subject.

The activity booklet’s first page warns: “lt is important to explain to children and students that the objects they are about to see offer only a partial view of Africa as selected by soldiers and missionaries at the turn of the century. Their view of African societies as 'uncivilized' and 'pagan' is very different from the realities of our present-day multicultural world.” Despite this initial sensitivity, I still remember the shock I had 20 years ago when I was looking at a page from the booklet which rendered the tragedy of the slave trade into an exercise in arithmetic. I’ve scanned it from an old collection of items I have about the exhibit (for a time I was involved in mediating between civil action groups and the museum):


Despite the intentions behind the therapy through play approach, clearly there are some big problems with it. First, by associating a traumatic event with playing, we are sending some strange messages to our kids, such as “this is awful, but it can also be fun!” Second, it is trivializing the event. These are truly grave happenings: one relating to colonization of Africa and the associated slave trade, the other the worst act of terrorism that the US has lived through. You don’t do grave through playing hopscotch, coloring, face painting, math puzzles, and other childhood activities that are about joy and fun. Let’s keep the lines clear and devise other approaches.


Totally agree!! and that puzzle disgust me and if I ever seen my kids or anyone else kids given such a puzzle well god help the person that gave it to them.

There is no excuse for that and there are plenty of other ways to teach our children other then using racism and death.

Sure it is a part of our history but to use peoples hard life and death to teach our kids in that way is just pure evil.

Good on you for exposing this!!!

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