Role-playing helps kids learn moral complexity

"What are ya doin' on my land?" the man growls from the gloom of the dank woods, his boots crunching along the gravel as he approaches. A child holding a flickering oil lamp stops in her tracks. In a small voice, her eyes cast down, she responds that she has been sent to fetch a doctor for her master's wife.

The landowner looks skeptical: What's her master's name? How long has she been traveling? Where does the doctor live?

Further grilling reveals nothing suspicious and he grudgingly lets her pass - but not before shooting off one final question: "Are you sure you're alone?"

Several yards behind her, crouched on the ground, are eight other children, motionless and silent. The suspense is palpable, as one boy pushes his fingers into the mud distractedly. Moments pass. The landowner peers into the shadows, then waves her on, gruffly wishing her a safe journey.

This is a simulation.

The fifth-graders at the YMCA's Camp Jewell in Colebrook, Conn., are role-playing slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad in the 1830s. The staff, dressed in bandannas and smocked shirts, are plantation owners, bounty hunters, abolitionists, a safe-house keeper, and a sheriff.

What simulations teach is empathy, perspective-taking, and, by extension, ethics, which is harder to communicate in a standard classroom setting, says Joseph Polman, associate professor of educational technology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Camp Jewell's three-hour program is not new, but it's part of a growing emphasis in history education and social studies on active learning and more complex interpretations, Professor Polman says.

Teaching children to size up the moral underpinnings of history may be an oblique byproduct of the simulation experience, Polman suggests, but its implications for the present are significant.

"If kids understand that different historical contexts provided a means of supporting moral stands that we can see now are problematic, that can be used as a tool for challenging kids to understand that ... something in their own everyday world ... which is supported in various ways as 'just the way things are' might someday be seen as morally wrong."

Simulation is an experience from the inside, Polman says. "It's trying to understand the perspective of another person from an emotional standpoint." The only other way to get there, he adds, is well-written fictional accounts.

By offering kids historical context and helping them understand the cultural outlook of a certain era, simulations challenge oversimplification of history and even contemporary politics. Too often, Polman says, children make the mistake of assuming the past was just like the present with slightly different window dressing.

"When talking about issues like slavery or Nazism or things that are so clearly from our present-day world view not only morally wrong but morally repugnant, it's tough for learners to understand that they were supported by a whole social and cultural system that reinforced the idea that these things were all right," he says.

As much as simulations may foster more sophisticated thinking, they are not without their detractors. Civil rights groups accuse them of trivializing history. And some academics worry that, if not done well, they reduce the stark experiences of slavery to a game.

The danger is they become "a morality play or a game in which cops and robbers are replaced with abolitionists and slave holders as the 'good' and 'bad' guys," writes Stephanie Camp in an e-mail. This misrepresents history, says the associate professor at the University of Washington, who specializes in the history of slavery. "Slavery was an organic part of national life until it ended in 1865. It was not only something the 'bad' people did and benefitted from while the 'good' people deplored it.... There were very few 'good' guys in this story."

Camp Jewell's program tries to find the delicate balance between historical realism and programming reality, says assistant camp director Craig Cheney. They don't want to underplay the reality of what slaves endured, but they can't be too emotionally intense either, he explains. (The camp does simulations about eight times a year as part of a three-day outdoor education program.)

While prepping the 70 students after dinner, outdoor education director Ray Zetye repeats several times that it is not a game and says, "Don't take it lightly."

Even so, a number of kids smile and act up when the simulation begins and the slave traders (staff) noisily burst into the room. After being brusquely told to look at the ground, one defiant boy holds his head up and is quickly pulled aside. Several others receive similar treatment and are later informed, as they gather separately, that they would be dead by now.

"It's easier to kill you than to take care of troublemakers," Mr. Zetye says flatly, stepping out of character.

Part of the program's power, Mr. Cheney acknowledges, is this intimidation factor. A lot of times he sees kids in tears, he says. To hit home, there has to be initial shock. But the intensity of the role-playing depends on the maturity of the students.

To recreate the experience as close to historical truth as possible, a simulation needs to be built on a system of incentives and rewards that reflects what historical actors faced, says Patrick Rael, associate professor of history at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. "It's all about the rules of the game," he says. "If a simulation is constructed properly, it can allow the student to experience the kind of choices that historical actors had to make."

When Professor Rael's own students designed a computer simulation called Flight to Freedom (, he recalls they wrestled with how entertaining it should be. They concluded that simulating the experience of people who were held in chattel bondage should not be turned into recreation. Thus, one possible outcome, if you play the fugitive-slave simulation, Rael says, is you can die.

At Camp Jewell, the children find their way, via a safe house, to "Canada" - the camp's meeting room and final stop on the simulation. How many folks felt nervous or scared, Ray Zetye asks. More than half raise their hands, as one boy says out loud, "I'm still slightly freaked out."

His comment illustrates Professor Camp's view that "studying slavery should make us all very uncomfortable." But does that discomfort translate into understanding the moral vacuum of slavery?

Rael says everyone knows the basic moral outlines. "The question is, what did it look like, what were the kinds of decisions you had to make?" How people judge it morally, however, is not really an academic question, Rael adds. "It's an ethical question that everyone is free to work with as they will."

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