I hate guns. I think they are scary and I wish they didn’t exist. (This does not include glue guns. I love glue guns). I am not much of a fan of swords, nunchucks or Chinese throwing stars, either. Stronger than my hatred of weapons, though, is my ardent belief in the value of play. Children ought to play, and children need to play. When given the freedom they deserve, children will chose to play exactly what they need to play. Sometimes what kids need to play is going to seem violent or rough to the adults around. So, though it would take being at gunpoint (har har) for me to join the NRA, I am a proud member of the NPRA (National Pretend Rifle Association). That’s right, you’ll have to pry my make-believe gun from my make-believe cold, dead hands.
First a disclaimer and then one of my all-time favorite true kid stories. I am defending typical play between children involving dramatic violence: cops and robbers, super-heroes, that sort of thing. There are children whose violent play has a character of realism and intensity that goes beyond safe play. This should not be ignored. I also do not endorse the idea of realistic weapon-toys for kids for the same reason I would be against candies made to look like Vicodin. Better they should use their imagination, anyway. Allowing such play does not mean, also, that there should be no limits. Children should not be allowed to ‘shoot’ kids who don’t want to be part of that play, just like they should not drag over and ‘marry’ kids who don’t want to be part of playing family, and they should not do anything that seems likely to cause actual injury.
Now here’s the true story: note that this was during an era in my teaching where I was trying to cheerfully re-direct gun play in my students (oh my, we don’t want to hurt anybody, do we!), without the student feeling bad about his desires.
Enthusiastic four-year-old boy (approaching me with Lego creation): Look at this great gun I made!
Me: Wow, neat! What does it shoot out? Soda pop? Bubbles?
Boy: It shoots out pie!
Me: (feeling pride in how successfully I have turned his violent urges to sweetness): Pie, that’s cool!
Boy: Yeah, pie…. PIE THAT EXPLODES AND KILLS PEOPLE!
Some may object of violent play because they feel it is a symptom of these horrible modern times and we should try to keep our classrooms safe from the media-fueled ugliness tainting these pure children. I don’t buy it. Not that I am a fan of letting kids watch adult TV and movies; I think that is often a bad idea and can give kids wrong ideas about violence and relationships (it gives those same wrong ideas to adults, for that matter). But that is not where the need for this play comes from. Kids here and now have Star Wars and cops and robbers and super heroes as their stories of power and good and bad and control in which to act out their own needs. These play themes will express themselves in whatever stories the children have. Each spring, we recount our people’s journey from slavery to freedom, led by Moses. Each spring, filled with the power of this drama, kids play slave and master on the playground. I have no doubt that the first generation freed from Egypt played this same game (and probably also some super-violent smiting and stoning games, too).
Others may object believing that letting kids play this way will lead them to be actually violent. I do not think this will happen any more than ‘letting’ them play jungle animals will lead them to become jaguars. They are experimenting with things that thrill and scare them and finding out what it feels like to have power and be powerless, they are not learning realistic skills (seriously, they never even hold their finger guns the right way- they always do it with their big thumbs sticking up on top. How is that even like a gun?). In fact, experts think that it is not play of any kind, but lack of play as a child that co-relates to serious behavior problems. (Here’s just the first Google hit – http://www.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/1195/ajp-decline-play-published.pdf).
Here‘s another way the banning of pretend violence can be problematic: I think that, sadly, being a child at a well-intentioned, loving school that frowns on such play can mean being told, day after day, by the adults in your life that what you imagine about and are fascinated by is bad bad bad! That does not make the power and the capes and bad guys less interesting, it just makes it something to feel shame, and a reason to feel angry with and alienated from the adults that seek to repress you.
I have observed, year after year, children of pregnant mothers acting out disturbing (to me, not them) birth scenarios, and children who get a lot of time-outs at home pretending to be angry parents with all of the power. I know that children have good reason to play what they do. It is not a reasonable position to think that children need to be allowed to imagine and play freely, but only at games that in no way disturb the grow-ups. You can’t coherently accept both that the Legos can be a ship, and that they cannot be a ship with cannons. Ultimately, you either believe in the value of children’s co-operative imaginative play or you don’t. The value of children’s play is not that it is cute for us to watch, but that it is important to the children.