The children in the Woodland Park 3-5 class make their own rules and it usually doesn’t take long for them to ban guns at school, real or pretend. I’m glad the children do it because otherwise it would be up to the adults. We would probably make the same decision, but for all the wrong reasons.
As far as I know (and I’m prepared to be corrected) there is no scientific study that shows a connection between preschoolers playing with toy guns and future violent proclivities. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed no correlation between the boys (and it’s mostly boys) who have a strong urge to “play guns” and their propensity for actually hurting their peers. And personally, between the ages of about 4-8 I carried a lot of guns as part of pretending to be a cowboy, soldier, or The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and today I’m a pacifist to the tips of my toes. But knowing our Woodland Park community, if left to the adults to make the rules, I’m pretty sure that the concern about future violence would carry the day.
There are many theories about why young children play guns, but most revolve around the concept that being powerful through violence is deeply ingrained in both our culture and psyche, if not our genetics. Our nation’s history, in many ways, is the story of using gun violence to exert power. From the Revolutionary War through our current violent occupations of the Middle East, we’ve “proven” our superiority from behind the barrels of guns. Our literature is rife with the conflict between good and evil, with “necessary” violence more often than not being at least part of the solution. Any home with a television, no matter how strictly monitored, will eventually bring gunplay of some sort – be it the news or a cartoon – into the home.
Whatever our personal opinions about guns, it’s hard to argue that our children are not surrounded by violent imagery and it shouldn’t surprise us that they bring that into their dramatic play. Just as they might play with dolls to experience the nurturing they see around them, or basketballs to emulate athletes, they pick up toy guns (or more often than not, form them from their fingers) as a way to explore the violence in their lives, real or imaginary. And it’s mostly boys because guns are almost always connected in some way to masculinity.
This is important work they’re doing and as a teacher I have a hard time standing in the way, but I must because the children always ban guns.
It usually goes something like this:
Child: “I have a rule.”
Teacher Tom: “What rule would you like to suggest?”
Child: “No guns.”
Teacher Tom: “No guns in preschool. Why should we have that rule?”
Child: “Because guns scare me and I don’t like to get shot.”
Teacher Tom: “We don’t want people to be scared at school and getting shot hurts. What about pretend guns?”
Child: “No pretend guns either.”
Teacher Tom: “Why don’t you want pretend guns in school?”
Child: “Because they scare me and I don’t like to get shot.”
Teacher Tom (to the whole group): “Does anyone like to be scared?”
Teacher Tom: “Does anyone like to get shot?”
Teacher Tom: “So should we have a rule that says, No Guns In Preschool?”
And that’s how guns get banned. But just as a real-life gun ban doesn’t mean that there won’t be guns in society, our preschool gun ban doesn’t guarantee there won’t be guns in the classroom. As the executive in charge of enacting legislation, I feel it’s my responsibility to use some discretion in enforcing the ban. I’ll usually look the other way as long as the gunplay stays within a self-contained group of children and doesn’t start involving the children who would rather not be “scared” or “shot.”
It’s a tightrope that has many pitfalls, both expected and otherwise, as you will see.
One day Cash was standing in our loft with what was clearly a gun he had fashioned from some ½” PVC pipe he’d found in the block area. Since he was quietly playing on his own, it was the kind of thing I normally allow to pass, but one of his classmates noticed, objected, and complained, “Cash has a gun,” so I had to do something.
I said, “That looks like a gun.”
Cash lied, “It’s not.”
This is one of the very real negative side-effects of a strict preschool gun ban, it encourages kids to lie.
I pushed on. “You and your friends made a rule that says ‘No guns in preschool’.”
“It’s not a gun.”
“It looks like a gun.”
“It’s a love shooter.”
Giving him credit for quick thinking, I said, “That doesn’t sound so bad. Do you think your friends know it’s a love shooter?”
Cash looked down upon his classmates, “No, they probably think it’s a gun.”
“And they’re probably scared because they think you’re shooting bullets at them.”
Cash answered, “I’ll tell them,” and with that he descended from the loft and went from child-to-child informing them that the PVC construction in his hand wasn’t a gun, it was a love shooter. By the time he was done, he’d collected a team of boys, each with his own PVC love shooter. They marched back into the loft and proceeded to rain love down on a group of girls who were dancing around with their hands over their heads.
I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the mom in charge of the drama station, proudly watching the scene, enjoying my own magnificent ability to turn violence into love. I said, “Look at them spreading love instead of war.”
She answered, “And the girls are loving it too.”
It must have clicked for both of us at the same moment. Our eyes locked as we shared a look that bespoke horror. We watched in awkward silence as the boys and girls joyfully played a game that looked to us adults like some sort of bizarre, slightly-pornographic fertility rite.
She finally broke the silence, “They have no idea, right?”
And I answered, “I hope they get tired of it soon.”
When it comes to children, adults often see things that aren’t there, be it sex, violence or an objection to eating beets. That’s why I prefer the children making their own rules. They often know better than us what’s what.
When it comes to playing guns, I always make sure the tell the kids that the “No Guns” rule applies only to preschool and that their own families may have different rules. For those of you who would like a little further reading about guns and preschoolers, I’ve provided some links to articles I found insightful/useful:
Beyond Banning War and Superhero Play: This piece by researcher Diane Levin makes a strong case for allowing children to explore violence in their play.
Super Heroism and War Play In The Preschool: This is a well-written think-piece based in large part on Diane Levin’s research.
Guns and Boys: Okay to Play?: This is a short, practical guide for parents.
(Reposted, with editing, from 8/26/09)