Monday, January 28, 2013

"We Know The Difference"

This is my first year teaching a 5's class, although for more than a decade now I've been teaching a 3-5's class. Each year, when the younger children make their rules, their community agreements, we come to the subject of weapons and every year we agree to ban weapons, both real and pretend.

I've been part of these conversations for a long time, involving a lot of different children, and it always goes down more or less the same way. Someone proposes "No weapons" and everyone agrees. Then I ask about pretend weapons. Someone says "No pretend weapons." I ask why and someone answers that even pretend weapons are scary. We agree that no one should be afraid in preschool and that's that. I honestly don't think so, but I've often wondered if this rule is made simply because the kids believe it's what the grown-ups want, that we've expressed our anti-gun sentiments (and in Seattle, in Fremont, we're mostly anti-gun people) so clearly that the kids are just reflecting it back at us. 

This year, I'd expected our weapons discussion to go more or less the same way. As I'd expected, we banned weapons during our first week in class, but when I asked about pretend weapons, I was surprised by the response. "Pretend weapons are okay." 

I asked, leadingly, "Aren't you worried some people will be scared of the pretend weapons?"

"We know the difference between real and pretend weapons, Teacher Tom." I probed and prodded, but if anything the group's conviction became stronger. All of them, boys and girls, agreed that pretend weapons were okay.

I'll be honest: I don't like it. At any given moment, someone in the outdoor classroom is in someone else's crosshairs. And the play is intense. It's something that's happened mostly outdoors, this weapons play. We start our days out there and I've had several parents tell me that getting their child to school on time is a piece of cake compared to previous years because they don't want to miss even a single minute of "outside time." It's the boys who seem the most excited by it, but there are girls right in the middle of the action as well, usually without guns, opting more often than not for wands. I've tried, in quiet moments to get one of the girls or less enamored boys to admit to feeling afraid of the weapons play, only to be told, quite clearly, that, "No, I am not afraid."

This has been ongoing since September and it has ebbed and flowed. At one point the focus was on swords, but after Rex took home a nasty bruise on his back, the kids agreed they ought to ban "swinging weapons," both real and pretend, so we're back to "shooting weapons," and mostly guns. Children and adults have objected at times to being "targeted," so we have agreed that you may only "shoot" at people who you know are part of the game.

In truth, when I step back and really watch what's going on, as opposed to merely reacting, I see much less shooting and much more running around with sticks of one kind or another. I hear much more discussion about "teams" (it appears the requirement for joining any one team is to simply declare yourself a member and you're in) or specific roles within the games (bad guy, good guy, guard, ninja, etc.). I watch constantly for facial expressions that tell me someone is in over his head or lost himself in the game and forgotten he can say, "Stop!" I remain vigilant for things getting out of control, for someone too excited by the game, who appears to be crossing the line between pretend and real, as what happened when Rex got his bruise.

But mostly I remember similar games I played as a boy, running wildly, hiding, imagining myself as a cowboy then an indian, a cop then a robber, a good guy then a bad guy. I knew the difference between real and pretend weapons, just as I knew that I wasn't really a cop or a robber. I remember that my mom didn't like it. She would ask, "Why do you play such violent games?" but never insisted we stop, although I recall there were some neighborhood boys who were not allowed to play with us when we played guns. I reckon that my constant asking after everyone, my vigilance, is sending the kids the same message my mom sent me.

Last week our stick ponies became the weapons. It was really getting under my skin, but what made me intervene was the way they were waving those sticks around in one another's faces. After several reminders about our rule against "swinging weapons," I intervened more firmly, saying, "I'm worried about those sticks. I keep seeing you guys poking them into each other's faces."

"But we're just shooting, Teacher Tom. They aren't swinging weapons."

"I understand, but it looks like you're swinging them in people's faces. It's my job to keep everyone safe. What you're doing doesn't look safe."

Henry looked at his stick pony weapon for a moment, then flipped it around so that the plush pony head end was forward. "How about like this?"

"That part is soft and won't hurt as much if you accidentally hit someone in the face. I like it. Does everyone agree?"

Everyone agreed and the game re-commenced.

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wondersofnature said...

This discussion has been the basis for over three hours of staff meetings this term-should we or shouldn't we allow children to use pretend weapons and also play 'rough and tumble' games.

I personally feel that children know it is play-it is our judgments that cause the problems-and that children need to learn their limits in play when they are young, rather than play when they are older and can access 'real' weapons.

Our problem as a staff body,(with others who take the view that all weapon or rough play is bad and somehow indicative of future psychopathic traits) is how do we agree what is right for the children in our care?!

Our staff talk started with the title 'Sticks' and we ended up discussing our whole school philosophy and values!!

Valuable conversations but as yet we are still sending inconsistent messages to the children-such as if Mrs X is on duty at break-you have to hide the stick play away!

lil' red said...

Such a good post for what is going through my head at the moment. I have a 4 year old little man who is weapon-obsessed, despite me vigilantly not allowing toy weapons of any sort into the house. However, until recently (he was given foam pirate swords and water pistols for Christmas - we are in Australia, so water play is very popular at the moment!), every time we finished the roll of paper towels he would commandeer the cardboard roll and make it his cannon/gun/sword. We still have no life-like weapons, and I will continue that mantra for as long as is conceivably possible. However, I too have noticed it seems to be a good guy/bad guy team-type play whenever he gets together with cousins/friends, and I remember the cap guns and toy bows&arrows that we used as children and figure that we haven't turned out too badly... so at this point I'm with you, Teacher Tom, as long as it is not physically or emotionally hurting someone, I'm letting them be :)

Cave Momma said...

That last scenario is exactly what happened in our house. My 2 kids were doing the same thing with their stick ponies and when I brought up my concern they said the same thing. Love the way kids think.

Flora said...

You might like to take a ;look at this book: We don't play with guns here: War, Weapon and Superhero Play in the Early Years by Penny Holland.

Sarah H said...

Ahhhh weapons...I used to get kids to park their weapons at the door. We'd all ceremoniously troop out to back door, drop our weapons in the basket provided, solemnly say, "See you later," and head back to play inside. The only problem was every time I came into the room, the kids would all stop playing.

If they happened to be holding a tube in a defensive- like stance, they'd offer up, "It's just a spy glass, see Sarah," as they peered cautiously down the tube. Well after a while it started to get to me. I felt like I was driving the kids underground and forcing them to be feel bad about what they loved to play.

The epiphany came when I saw a group of boys chasing another with their shovels in full attack mode, and they were all shouting with glee. A minute later they were firing away at kid who was crying, so I stopped them. I said,' I have a rule, you can't shoot anyone with your shovel unless they have a shovel too, because that means they're playing the game."

Peace has reined ever since, it's simple, if you want to play you can, if you don't want to you don't have to have to.