Discussing death with young children can be extremely difficult for many educators. The tendency to avoid touching on the concept probably stems from the fear most adults have internalized about death, and their own inability to come to terms with its inevitability.

I have personally witnessed many occasions in which educators and parents have taken action to avoid the possibility of ‘death’ entering into the daily experiences of children. I have had worried parents sidle up to me in the playground to quietly alert me to the presence of a dead body (bird or possum) in the hope that it will be removed before the children are exposed to the confronting image. I have even witnessed educators quickly whisk a body away with the slight-of-hand of a seasoned magician.

Are parents and educators doing children a disservice here? Is this yet another example of ‘bubble-wrapping-cotton-wooling’ our children? Experience tells me that children are very interested and curious about death. It is one of their first philosophical/intellectual encounters in the outdoors as they discover a squished snail or a motionless bug on a pathway.  A child’s personal experience with death is influenced by those around them and if we attempt to sweep the concept under the carpet, what are we teaching them? Preschool-aged children may begin to understand that death is something feared by adults and begin to internalize this fear in the same manner.

Very young children can understand the basics of the concept of death.  Death can be discussed openly and honestly in a language that is conducive to their stage of development. A child’s concept of death varies with age, and this must be taken into consideration. Just as many aspects of a child’s development occur in identifiable stages, so does their ability to comprehend death. A mature understanding of death involves the acceptance of three components; universality (that it impacts upon all living creatures, including ‘self’), inevitability (that all living creature will die), and functionality (all living functions and activities will cease).

Research tells us that 3 to 5 year olds regard death as a temporary state of being that is reversible or alternating. In addition, they tend to assume that ‘they’ will not die. They believe that death is the result of an accident rather than possibly being an inevitable event. Between the ages of 5 and 7, children begin to understand that death is final, inevitable, universal, and personal.

I would like to share a story with you about J. and his encounter with death in our preschool playground. J. is a little boy who is passionate about animals. We learnt this about J. very early on in his time with us as he held lengthy discussions with staff about his beloved pet dog, brought photographs along to preschool depicting his encounters with animals at a variety of animal sanctuaries and shared animal posters with us.

On arrival at preschool one morning, J. stumble upon the lifeless body of a bird within one of our garden beds. He quickly alerted staff to his discovery with a reverence that brought tears to my eyes.


Staff tuned in to J’s ‘self-talk’ as he attempted to resolve the circumstances around the precious birds demise in a manner that sat comfortably with his own understandings.


J.’s observations lead him to the conclusion that the bird had succumbed to some sort of accident.  He noted, ‘Look at his head, I think something has happened to his neck. Maybe he fell from the tree, or he got hurt by another animal’.


J. went on to rally any interested child to the scene.  He was quick to hold out a protective arm as he said, ‘Don’t kill him, he is dead’. 


Eventually J. determined that the bird needed to be buried to protect it from further harm.


He sourced some pebbles from the dry creek bed and created a circle around the burial plot.




 I later reflected upon his choice of a circle and wished I had the presence of mind to question him about his choice while in the moment. I was humbled by the reverence and respect this little boy showed for a fallen creature and couldn’t help but think of his circle as a reference to ‘the circle of life‘, but I am sure that was just my adult mind at work…..?


Several little girls closely observed J. and responded with compassion to his emotional investment in the experience.  With his acceptance, they laid little posies within the circle of pebbles.


There is no doubt in my mind that this was a positive learning experience for all children involved.  What would we have taught J. if we had whisked the little birds body away and not allowed J. to direct proceedings? I shudder to think.


A precious life lost has been given its due respect and several children have gained a better understanding of the nature of death.

My favorite post from last fortnight’s link-up was from:

 My lovely friend Jennifer Kable over at ‘Let the Children Play’.

Click on the image below to witness the visual feast of Reggio inspired outdoor play environments. Simply beautiful!

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How did your kids play outdoors this week?

Any kind of children’s outdoor play-related posts are welcome!

We’d appreciate it if you included a link back to this post (either in your post or sidebar) to help us spread the word about the importance (and fun!) of outdoor play! In return, we’ll gladly further share your post on Facebook/ Twitter/ Pinterest. Please feel free to grab the Outdoor Play Party button from the sidebar and/or include a text link back.

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  1. What a beautiful post and a beautiful life lesson for those children. Thanks for sharing this story.

  2. Beautiful post and an example of how the outdoors provides for important and meaningful life lessons for our children.

  3. Thank you ladies. This little boy has a beautiful soul. 🙂

  4. In addition to Monday Kid Corner, this week’s theme is MUD. Brush off those archives and link them up at See you there! Jennifer


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