By Cindy Ligon, Director
Recently, a mom of a three year old came to me in a bit of a panic. “My son is obsessed with guns and yesterday he played, ‘shooting police,’” she confided. Obviously unnerved by the theme of her child’s play, she wanted to know how we were guiding and responding to this sort of play at the center.
So, what is the best reaction? A zero tolerance approach banning all weapon play? A modified approach, allowing some gun play with rules and restrictions (“no shooting at people”, or “ask before you take aim.”), or an approach that allows and supports this type of play as a natural part of childhood? To re-evaluate our position (we have always had a loose no gun-play policy), I went first to the experts – our team of early childhood educators who spend forty plus hours a week observing and interacting with young children.
I started by asking the teachers, “Why is it so appealing and of interest to children, especially to boys?” We acknowledged that weapon play is a common theme in childhood play that seems to satisfy their needs to feel strong, powerful, and in control. We discussed the social aspect of the game – good guys vs. bad guys, the roles that can evolve as children try to determine what is good and what is bad (evil), and the fun of games that involve pursuit and capture. We also examined the draw of “projection with power” and how there was a naturally occurring impulse to throw things (especially for boys). All in all, we shared over fifty years’ worth of collective observations that concluded: children (boys) like gun play. But, we still felt uneasy. Some of the teachers felt downright disturbed with the prospect of supporting violent play in their classrooms.
Next, we turned to the limited research on the topic. Some studies indicated that where gun play is permitted, it tended to spike then taper off in popularity. Another study affirmed that “aggressive”, or rough and tumble play where gun play is sometimes permitted, is linked to increased social competencies. But still, we felt uneasy and conflicted.
After many discussions and shared emails detailing research and hypotheses, we huddled for a nap-time meeting and rather quickly agreed that we just were not comfortable openly allowing weapon play at McKendree. However, we also agreed that we had to respect the children’s needs for power-related play through intentional activities and experiences. We brainstormed ways to use children’s literature, The Very Cranky Bear by Nick Bland is a great example, to create games of chase and pursuit, and good vs. evil. We compiled a list of topics rich with schematic play opportunities for children – giants, super heroes, magic, community helpers, and Disney characters and story lines – and vowed to thoughtfully explore these more often. We also shared ideas for incorporating more “projection with power” experiences so as not to squelch children’s energy or impulses but to direct and channel them into positive directions. For example, we might ask, “How about we line up some cans and knock them down with tennis balls?’, “Let’s get a hoola hoop and shoot balls through it.” Or, “Who is up for a game of basket ball (using a laundry basket and soft balls)?”
When gun-play surfaces, we will not have a knee-jerk, corrective response but will instead ignore (if possible) and then purposefully redirect. We are prepared to tell the children that pretending to hurt others is not safe and is therefore not allowed at our school. Play is a tool that children use to make sense of their world. We are committed to helping them to do this work in a safe and peaceful way. We began with a group discussion (led by Safety Dog, our well respected ambassador of staying safe) and will continue to purposefully provide safe ways for the children to play.