Monday, March 28, 2011

Gun Play

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?”

Class: “No.”

Teacher Tom: “Does anyone like to get shot?”

Class: “No.”

Teacher Tom: “So should we have a rule that says, No Guns In Preschool?”

Class: “Yes.”

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.

Extra reading

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)

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Laura said...

you might find this article interesting too. I don't like my children playing like they have guns, but this made me think twice about not letting them imagine in that way.

Unknown said...

One year in my classroom (when I taught at a Head Start classroom) the children came up with rule that pretend guns could be made and played with, but couldn't be pointed at anyone! (we had to list all the places they could point them...the tables, the walls, the ceiling...) :) It worked! They continually reminded eachother of the ok places to point the pretend guns!

KiddoKare1 said...

Very thought provoking! Thank you!

Play is Important said...

You might also want to look at Penny Hollan's research aout Gun Play in th UK :

In Playwork theory 'mastery' play has little to do with re-enacting violence and more to do with trying to understand who they are as part of a social group, exploring power relationships. I only learnt these view points since leaving the classroom, but looking back it makes a lot of sense.

Anonymous said...

Here's what I always wonder about when I read about violent play and children. My parents were reared in the 1940's and 1950's, when playing "cowboys and Indians" outside all day was pretty commonplace and nobody blinked an eye at play guns, water guns, army soldiers, or any other of the myriad violent things kids played with. When I asked my parents about this, they both said it never occurred to them that this sort of play was wrong or encouraged violence. Having two girls who were bored with gunplay, it never occurred to them to think about it as parents. I often wonder if the widespread ban on gunplay is such a good idea, especially if it encourages lying or sneaking around. I wonder if there is a positive side to violent play? Does pretending to die, for instance, help a child work out his or her feelings about death? Somehow, I feel as though like so many outright bans that get placed on behavior, we tend to lose a bit more than we gain in safety. I think I would rather have my son play cops and robbers, for instance, than violent video games, which seem far too realistic and glorify violence in a scary way. But then again, I don't know how or if we can "allow" violent play at all anymore, given the current climate against it.

Anonymous said...

Two quick observations: all nations' histories are rife with the use of weapons, training young men in the use of them always has been an important rite of passage, and not every modern culture is attempting to change that; although it sounds as if YOU don't instigate the no-gun rule, I wonder if any child would actually raise the issue if he/she hadn't already heard adults do so during playdates or other social situations.

Melissa Taylor said...

thoughtful - thank you. I love your kiddo who thought up the love shooter. That's some quick thinking on his part!

Let the Children Play said...

Uncanny. I have a gun play post in my drafts that is almost good to go, along with a painting boxes post that is almost good to go. You are one step ahead of me :)

If play is the way kids work out the complex world in which they live, it is no surprise that gun play comes up again and again. I believe that if we ban it, we are missing out on such a valuable opportunity to help kids work through their stuff in a positive, supportive and safe environment.

Deborah J Stewart said...

Last week, I observed a class of three year olds and the majority of the boys are all boys. There isn't a toy in the classroom that doesn't become a gun. I really appreciate your thoughts on this and will share it with our teachers. The idea of helping children regulate their own selves is sooo much better!

Anonymous said...

I do love the way you allow the children to make the rules. What a sense of ownership for them. Very inspiring.

I respectfully do not agree with allowing children to play with guns. In the same right that we do not allow our children to play with pretend cigarettes, or pretend beer cans, or pretend matches. We can loosely categorize
all of these things as "dangerous." We limit their play with other dangerous things, why exclude guns? We certainly wouldn't want children "acting out their emotions about alcohol or smoking" which is seen in their lives daily. Would you give a young child pretend matches to play with? No, because then when they saw real matches, what if they weren't able to differentiate and handle them safely? When a child sees a gun accidentally left out while on a playdate, do you want them to run and tell a grownup, like we teach them to do with matches? Or play with it, if we have allowed them to do so. Guns can take away a life forever. Children are not able to wrap their brains around the term forever. Children are desensitized by guns from preschool, to playground play, to inappropriate video games, and so on. So it is no wonder that teenagers are carrying guns to middle school and high school. They can't grasp the emotional reality surrounding taking someone's life. Why do they need to act this out in dramatic play? Talk about it, learn about it, yes; but allow it to be "fun?" I wholeheartedly disagree. As you said, often the children know best what is right for them. They are excellent at knowing and thriving within boundaries. If they "always make the no gun rule." Let's follow their lead.

Michelle said...

There was an article in Mothering Magazine where the dad told his boys, "If you want to play with guns, you can join the army (or police force) when you are an adult."

rachelle | tinkerlab said...

Your writing always has ne nailed to my seat through the last sentence. And for such a serious topic, you had me rolling with the love shooter bit! Okay, so here's my anecdotal two cents: my parents banned all forms of guns in our home, despite my aggressive brother's constant pleading. And now that he's an adult I'm not at all surprised that he's found his vocational bliss as a captain in the US Marines. I wonder if he had a chance to work through the gun interest as a child if he would have landed on a different career path or if it was just in his nature to end up in this field. There's no way of knowing, obviously, but it's interesting to consider.

kristin said...

i grew up without a mere water gun allowed in the house, we went to weekly nonviolent protests, etc...i carried that passion into my classroom (very teacher driven, i'm afraid)...then i had my own son.

i've been humbled to a place of more gun conversations than i thought i would be.

i'm eager to have an intentional class-wide conversation of this sort. it's been too long.


brown robin said...

I haven't all the time to say what I would like to, so I need to keep it short. WELL DONE!!! Your post is one of the most thought provoking that I have seen about gun play... just beautiful. Keep up the imaginative, extraordinary work. In my mind, that is the beauty of blogs... to share all of those extraordinary ideas and moments that are otherwise never witnessed by the wider community. Thank you.

Roc said...

I really love and appreciate how diplomatically involved the young ones in the creation of the gun rule - well done and thanks for sharing this important piece of writing.

Anonymous said...

I have to also respectfully disagree. I have two grown young men whom I didn't allow play guns, instead I worked on problem solving skills. I do this in my pre-k classroom too. Both of my boys have grown up to be very strong independent young men who care about others. Their peers respect them because they are not fighters but can defend themselves if they had too. The boys in my class, as well as the girls all treat each other with more respect than I what I find in other classrooms. I truely believe it is because we have a system of problem solving that focusing on communication and respect.

Anonymous said...

I previously worked in childcare - I remember one child who had very delayed speech. He generally communicated through pointing and I thought he may have been mute. Once he was playing toy guns with a stick and was speaking "bang bang!" I was so proud in that moment that he had found confidence to speech when another carer went over and told him "we don't play with guns". I was so annoyed at the other carer, I felt the benefits of this child finding the confidence to speak was far greater than the risk of encouraging violence.

Anonymous said...

There are a few children (mainly boys but some girls too) who like to play with guns. They either make a gun shape with their fingers or they make a gun shaped object out of something (I was rather impressed the other day when one boy made a very intricate model of a gun out of duplo, it took him half an hour to make and he kept persevering when bits would fall off or it didn't look right). We have a couple of members of staff who tell them no gun play and others just let them get on with it providing no one else is getting upset.
The other day one member of staff told a group of children who were playing 'guns' to stop as it wasn't nice to use guns. One boy said 'But my daddy uses a gun, he goes clay pigeon shooting'. It's very hard to argue with that as he is obviously aware that guns are used in his environment and how they are used. He is only modelling what he knows. One other boy said 'but the girls are pretending to hurt each other by freezing each other when they're pretending to be Elsa'. Again, how can you argue with that logic, the boys were stopped because they were pretending to hurt each other with guns, yet the girls were allowed to carry on their game because the guns were not involved.
It's a difficult situation and I don't think there is any right or wrong answer.

Garrett Kett said...

Good read thanks Tom. I think someone above mentioned it also, but as an early childhood teacher/legislator enactor such as you are, I am curious as to why a child would randomly ask to make a rule about guns. Through my experience this would be the result of some kind of pattern involving guns in the room or the infiltration of 'home' philosophy into the room philosophy (not that that's a bad thing).

I think it's great that you allow children the opportunity to democratically decide rules or pass legislation as the case may be! When children have the capacity to create and enforce rules, they are invested in those rules and the chance that they would then follow them increases dramatically.

Great piece.

teachersbud said...

While working at a university based center years ago, a professor in early childhood did a long term study on "Rough & Tumble Play on the Preschool Playground". He was very lenient in the rules & he noticed that the children would self-regulate the roughness of play & set up rules & restrict or reject players that didn't follow the rules. (Seasoned teachers like myself almost lost our mind!) He stated that when he "interviewed" the children, they said they played these games to "save the girls or village & the bad guys had to be stopped from doing bad things." The most surprising comment from several boys & girls was that it's fun to be the bad guy or monster, it's ok to be bad for a little while as long as you turn back to your good self. The professor suggested we teachers base our lesson plans around their play (as we should anyway) to show the everyday life of a superhero, warrior, soldier, DRAGON OR MONSTER. Study medieval times & castles; branches of the military; in other words, direct their playground activities from the classroom. The sense of justice & protection of the weak is to be commended, they just need direction & focus. And to completely forbid it makes it even more special for the "risk takers" in every class. Now granted, this study was done 15 years ago with college student & professors' children. And only with 4-5 year olds, the children rejected the 3's, stating they were too little to know the rules. But to me, that's the perfect age to instill the self-regulating, rule-creating, justice warriors the playground & the world needs!