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Role-playing helps kids learn moral complexity

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"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."


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