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How to handle “gun” play

Date: March 8, 2016 Author: ecpcblogger Categories: News, Parent Resources

It’s hard to spend much time around a preschool — and we as parent participators at ECPC spend plenty — and not encounter the issue of kids playing at fighting and shooting.

It’s almost automatic to interpret these games in grownup terms (“we don’t shoot people!”), but it is, after all, child’s play. And, as it turns out, there are good reasons to just let the kids be kids. Among them: evidence that freedom to indulge in play fighting may correspond with better impulse control and less aggression in real life.*

Check out the following article from The Atlantic. Click through to read the whole article, or scroll down for some key excerpts.


Keeping Kids From Toy Guns: How One Mother Changed Her Mind

When my husband was growing up, the only boy in a family of all girls, his mother didn’t allow him to have any toy guns. He was a mild mannered, sweet little boy. But when he was five years old, he ran over to his friend’s house and “borrowed” one of the toy guns he had played with over there and coveted, stashing it in his bedroom.

… [I]n the U.S. we vilify children for even being interested in playing with guns. In the past six months alone, a little boy in Massachusetts was given detention and forced to write a letter of apology for having a tiny, Lego toy gun on a school bus; a five year old in Maryland was given ten days of suspension for having a toy gun at school, interrogated for so long he wet his pants in the principal’s office; elementary school students in Washington were suspended for shooting off Nerf guns that their teacher had actually asked them to bring in for an experiment in probability; and in California, an elementary school announced a plan to “buy back” toy guns in exchange for books. Little boys bear the brunt of our panic over toy weapons, but girls are not immune either: a five-year-old girl in Pennsylvania was suspended from school and made to undergo psychiatric evaluation when she threatened to shoot a classmate with a toy Hello Kitty soap bubble gun – a toy she hadn’t even brought to school.

We didn’t always used to frown upon weapon play; children of the 1950s grew up steeped in television shows showing gun-toting heroes like the Lone Ranger, and toy soldiers and cowboy costumes were common playthings. But societal panic intensified in the wake of a spate of tragic school shootings in the 1990s, and a shift towards zero tolerance policies and regulating how children should play has been steadily increasing ever since. …

Although many of us in America worry that gun play desensitizes kids to violence, the research doesn’t bear this out. In fact, it can actually help teach children to read each other’s facial cues and body language, figure out their place in a group, and learn how to adjust their behavior in social settings. Play helps children learn how to signal each other: this is fantasy. As Mechling explains, using the theories of anthropologist Gregory Bateson, when children are playing with toy guns, they do so within a play frame they have created, one in which “a shooting is not a shooting.” Children don’t see their own play through the lens that adults do. To children, gun play is play, while to American adults–especially in the post-Columbine or Newtown era–gun play is violence.

When children are engaged in play they choose, they are more engaged and motivated to sustain it for longer. Imaginary play hones self-regulation, which is essential for school success but has declined in recent decades. (Today’s five year olds have the self-regulation skills of a three year old 60 years ago). Research has found that incorporating preschool boys’ interest in weapon play rather than banning it entirely leads them to play longer, more elaborate games that go beyond mere weapon play. The British government, in fact, concerned by a pattern of preschool boys falling behind girls in part due to zero-tolerance policies that had led teachers to curb any hint of boisterous play, advised preschools to allow boys to play with toy weapons and other play of their choosing, since the research suggests that acknowledging their interests will help them feel more engaged in school and improve their academic performance.

There is no question that I’d rather have my sons read a book than play with a toy gun, and there is no easy answer when my Japanese friends wonder at the paradox of our banning gun play when we do not ban the guns that kill thousands of children and teens in the U.S. each year. Does the debatable benefit in banning the toys outweigh the harm in shaming young children for the imaginary play they’re drawn to, giving them the message that they aren’t good enough as they are, that their interests are wrong, and that their play isn’t of value unless they play the way adults deem appropriate? …


*Source: “In a 2013 study, researchers observed how preschoolers played by themselves with various objects and then watched these same children in their classrooms. They found that the more oral aggression the kids displayed—for example, pretending that stuffed animals bit or ate each other—the less aggressive their behavior was in the classroom. The researchers speculate that when kids incorporate violence into their pretend play, they may learn how to control real violent impulses and regulate their emotions. Another recent paper penned by academic psychologists went so far as to argue that preventing kids from play fighting could interfere with their social, emotional, physical, cognitive, and communicative development.”

“It’s Fine for Kids to Play With Pretend Guns. In fact, it might be good for them.”
Slate.com, July 2, 2015

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