You can shoot a bad guy with your snack if you really want to.

Have you noticed that? If you take a big bite out of one corner of a graham cracker, it immediately looks exactly like a gun. If not, you are probably well past four years old.

War play, gun play and other acts of make-believe violence are themes that recur with as much regularity as the phases of the moon. And, of course, we are all extra sensitized to this in light of recent National events and the ensuing discussions and debates.

A few years back when an especially enthusiastic group of kids were mapping that territory,  I was motivated to do some further research and reflection. As you can imagine, there is no easy or entirely comforting answer to the question of what to do when this stuff starts.

There is very little definitive research on the subject, but there’s plenty of contention and anecdotal observation on the part of early childhood professionals all over the place. It comes down to two fairly distinct positions on the subject, both well intentioned and pretty well supported.

Many teachers and parents feel more comfortable with the ‘zero tolerance’ rule. The lines drawn are clear, the message uncluttered by nuance and interpretation. Basically, any and all reference to or enactment of play that involves guns, shooting, firing, etc., is unacceptable and curtailed immediately. The belief is that allowing this form of play encourages aggression and endorses force and violence as acceptable ways of solving conflict.

The problem is … most of the research on demonstrable connections between fantasy war play and increased actual aggression is thin to non-existent. It is a logical extrapolation borne out of people’s personally held philosophies regarding peace and non-violence. All honorable points of view by the way, but what I think we’re skipping over is that we all came to our mature defensible beliefs after having a lot of life experiences that influenced our conclusions. The logical connection between zero tolerance and decreased aggression may only seem logically evident.

Other researchers are of the belief that limited and regulated war play is important to children’s total development. To completely deny any sort of imaginative games of aggression deny a child an avenue to experience a sense of power and control at a time in their lives when they are comparatively weak and powerless. They submit the theory that to completely enforce a zero tolerance policy, teachers and parents must rely on the use of adult power to enforce a real world moral and behavioral imperative against children engaged in imaginative play. This idea is based on the idea that peace cannot be achieved by force, but by understanding. A resourceful and attentive adult can find teaching opportunities around conflict resolution, empathy, alternatives to violence and various feelings elicited by other’s aggression as well as our own. It is also a logical and contextual opportunity to articulate your values and beliefs about guns, war and human conflict.

We have, as a school, made the conscious decision to embrace the second philosophy. We are very wary of being put in the adversarial position of assuming we are controlling the thoughts and ideas of the children. We have chosen instead to conduct conversations with the kids to give them the opportunity to articulate their ideas about shooting games, how they feel when it is happening,  how and if they like to engage in these play themes and what the agreed upon school-wide parameters should be. We feel this is in keeping with a democratic, respectful and thoughtful culture within our school community.

About Kris Taylor

I am the very fortunate director of two small, mixed-age preschools that are finding their unique paths by interpreting and incorporating the best of the progressive, constructivist early childhood philosophies. I never forget that the community of teachers, families and children are what makes it the amazing place that it is. Each day is another precious opportunity to practice and perfect valuing, respecting and loving one another; creating and exploring community; and having immeasurable fun in the process.
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