First Friday Q&A: Weapon Play and Young Children

This Friday’s Q&A is a hot topic.  In response to a reader’s question about handling weapon themed play among preschoolers, I’ll discuss the importance of fantasy play for children and how we can come up with reasonable, enforceable boundaries.  Of course, this is a question with answers that come from a variety of perspectives, so please respectfully share your insights in the comments as well.  Here’s the video (also found here), followed by excerpts and links to some interesting resources on the topic :


Gun Play.  Yes or No?{Picklebums}

“I want my children to be aware and educated about guns. If I believe that children learn best through play (and I do, wholeheartedly) then I need to accept that they will explore the concepts of guns and violence and death through their play and allow them to do so, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me feel.”

Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! {}

(Great in-depth discussion exploring many viewsFootnotes sourced in article.)

“Research shows that it’s not the kids who are interested in toy weapons who become violent. Rather, it’s the children who are bullied, who grow up in households where guns are used, who live in areas where guns are part of the youth culture, and who feel estranged and alone who are more likely to go on to use real guns.26According to Jones, the antidote to the epidemic of violence is interested, involved adults who affirm a child’s fantasies, model nonaggressive behavior, and mentor a child’s skills and interests.27″

 Kids and Gun Play: Good or Bad{Momversation}

(Video discussion from all sides.)

“My approach is to show my child the alternative to violence.  Otherwise, what’s the point?”

 Gun Play {Teacher Tom}

“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….”

 My Boys Like Shootouts.  What’s Wrong With That? {The Washington Post}

“My wife and I are hardly poster parents for the National Rifle Association. We are social liberals who fret over every detail and danger of child rearing. We do not let our kids watch violent TV shows and do not tolerate rough play. Like most of our friends, we tried early on to avoid any gender stereotypes in our selection of games and toys. However, our effort to avoid guns and swords and other similar toys became a Sisyphean battle. Once, in a fit of exasperation, my wife gathered up all of the swords that the boys had acquired as gifts and threw them into the trash. When she returned to the house, she found that the boys had commandeered the celery from the refrigerator to finish their epic battle. Forced to choose between balanced diets and balanced play, my wife returned the swords with strict guidelines about where and when pirate fights, ninja attacks and Jedi rescues could occur.”

 Bring it: Boys may benefit from aggressive play {Today}

 “It is a very strange thing that is happening in our society,” said Katch, who is the author of “Under Deadman’s Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children’s Violent Play” (Beacon Press, 2002). “The violence in the media is more and more explicit, and at the same time culture is coming down harder and harder on little boys’ own fantasies, which are actually much less violent than what is in the media.”

Michael Thompson, a psychologist who co-wrote “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys” (Ballantine Books, 2000), rejects even this characterization of boys’ play.

“There is no such thing as violent play,” Thompson told LiveScience. “Violence and aggression are intended to hurt somebody. Play is not intended to hurt somebody. Play, rougher in its themes and rougher physically, is a feature of boyhood in every society on Earth.”

Beyond Banning War and Superhero Play {Diane E. Levin, PhD, via} 

“There is no perfect approach for dealing with children’s play with violence in these times. The best strategy is to vastly reduce the amount of violence children see. This would require adults to create a more peaceful world and limit children’s exposure to media violence and toys marketed with media violence. Given the state of the world, including the war against Iraq, children now more than ever need to find ways to work out the violence they see. For many, play helps them do so. We have a vital role in helping meet their needs through play. We must create an approach that addresses the unique needs of children growing up in the midst of violence as well as concerns of adults about how play with violence contributes to the harmful lessons children learn.”

What are your thoughts?  I’d love to get a variety of perspectives in the comments.  Just remember to please be respectful. 

(Note: I had also planned on including a giveaway today, but considering today’s hot topic, I decided to move it to Monday’s post.  Make sure you come back then so you don’t miss out on one of my favorite time management tools for children!)



Filed under Child Development & DAP, Positive Guidance and Social Skills

21 Responses to First Friday Q&A: Weapon Play and Young Children

  1. Great topic…and great timing for me! My 5 year old son is surrounded by girls and always has been. This summer the neighbor boy (6) has been over almost every day. The play between boys is so much different than boy/girl or girl/girl. They wrestle and pretend to fight. I think we have done a good job of biting our tongue and keeping a close eye on the play. While my son does engage in the rough play he is really naturally kind (my daughter is the one we think will have fighting issues…but that ‘s a whole other topic=) I don’t worry about the play turning him into a violent child but I would like to make it the best learning and growing experience possible.

    After listening to your video I think I have some ideas of how to turn their play into more of a pretend play situation than just an all out wrestling match. Red, yellow, and orange flames chalked on the fence might encourage fireman play. Army men obstacle course for strong, brave soldier play. Or maybe I’ll just get out a few strong character books and read in the shade before they play!

    Thank you!!!

  2. This came just in time! This is something I have been fretting over. Last summer, my little brother (14 year old) introduced the concept of guns to my son (almost 2 at the time) it happened earlier than I had hoped it would, but I wasn’t really bothered by it, figuring it was normal, natural and inevitable. We watched “The Incredibles” (I didn’t really think it through), and it got rather violent so we skipped ahead to the end. I immediately noticed a difference and increase of violence in his play- the movie has been banned. I suppose, like you mentioned, I am more comfortable with things that come from him than him imitating media. So we don’t have anything besides a squirt-gun- as far as weapons go -and “the incredibles” was the most violent thing he has seen- but at friends houses he has been introduced to Spiderman, Batman and Superman. And because they fight- he thinks they are bad guys. He also thinks they are cool, so lately he has become obsessed with calling himself the bad guy- which is slightly disconcerting even though I know he is generalizing. So this week we checked out a Spiderman book to try and help him distinguish the difference between the “good guys” and “bad guys”- their actions and the consequences. Progress is slow, but we seem to be making it. Even though I was an avid marvel comic fan myself in my younger days and most of my own pretend play revolved around being Rogue or Shadow Cat (I just wasn’t the princess type I guess), it can still be alarming to me the violence acted out by my almost 3 year old. So, this was a forever long comment, but I am very grateful for your post because I was feeling the need to research it and so I am thankful for your explanations, perspective, boundary suggestions and all the links you included so that I can do my homework. Thank you, Thank you!

    • notjustcute

      Thank you for your kind words, Andrea. I’m glad you found this post helpful. I think it’s interesting your son is interested in the “bad guys”. My middle son seemed to have the same fixation— he prefers to be Darth Vader over Luke, as just one example. I was worried a little at first, and then he started qualifying it. “I’m the good Darth Vader.” I think it’s part of their perception of good vs evil and that growing awareness and moral reasoning. Plus, as Teacher Tom pointed out in his post, linked above, we adults often see things that are completely different from what the kids are seeing. Since my son loves red, he may have simply preferred the character with the red light saber. I think you’re wise to simply spend the time discussing what he’s thinking and helping him work through the reasoning process rather than to overreact or ban it all outright. I also wrote a post a while back about superhero play that might interest you that you can find here. Thanks again for commenting. It’s always good to hear from you!

      • notjustcute

        Sorry! The link above didn’t end up where it was meant to be. Just click on the blue text and it should get you there. :0)

        • Thanks for the additional link and your own son’s experience. I must admit, I felt a little relief because I’ve been feeling like he’s the only one! I also appreciate your reminder that we often don’t really know what’s going on in those little heads. This has all been very helpful, I knew we would have to do our homework and decide where we stand on this issue at some point, we just entered the world of weapon and aggressive play sooner than I thought we would. So I’ve felt flustered and at times, a little lost :) Giving more defined boundaries (besides not hurting people) I think will be a good place to start as well as looking at this kind of play as an opportunity- as you said- for discussion and learning. Playing WITH my son is not one of my strengths, I suppose I need to channel my inner Rogue so I can properly join in :) Thanks again!

  3. LeAnn

    Thank you so much for covering this so thoroughly, Amanda!! Your “middle ground” approach really sets well with me – let him do what’s developmentally appropriate, but within boundaries. Understanding a bit of what’s going on in his mind (exploring death, good vs. bad, power, etc.) really helps me put my horror in perspective. I also realize that we need to talk about real vs. pretend guns – he has no clue at this point.
    I so appreciate what you do here! Thanks for taking this topic on!

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  5. Lora

    I really enjoyed the variety of articles. I especially resonated with the couple who, when they took the swords away, their boys commandeered the celery to finish their play. We also tried to avoid the violent TV shows, stories, and weapons at home. We knew, however, that we had lost the battle (no pun intended) when our three-year-old son chewed his sandwich into the shape of a gun, then commandeered our water bottles for weapons. We were getting reports of him playing roughly at school, too. Being a long-time educator, and having taken child development courses over the years, I knew that rough and tumble play is essential to our children’s (but especially our boys’) healthy development. My husband and I came up with an idea for how our son could explore his rough and tumble side while curbing what was happening at school. Our son, too, has a tremendous imagination and loooooovvvvveeeessss stories of all kinds. I find it difficult to completely avoid the whole ‘bad vs. good’ theme in stories and believe that such stories, when used in the right way, can actually help our children learn about standing up for what is right, protecting themselves, and how to use their strengths for good. Anyhow, so my husband and son started to play a game we made up called “Good Guy,Bad Guy.” In this game, they would engage in pretend fighting with one another. There were rules, though: this was not allowed in any way, shape, or form at school, keep away from the face, and if someone says stop, you stop. Later in the game, my son came up with another one: if someone ‘dies’ he can be brought back to life with a kiss.
    This actually worked well and we’ve been able to use it to also teach our son, now five, a few simple rules of protection. In addition to this, we now have allowed him to have weapons (play swords, light sabers, toy guns) at home with the rule that they cannot be pointed at people’s faces. If they are, he loses them for a day.
    Interestingly, our daughter, two years older than our son, eventually also asked to play “Good Guy, Bad Guy” every once in a while. I noticed, when she did play, she has a much stronger competetive streak than we knew about!
    The one challenge I still have and don’t know what to do about is this: As a trained educator and as a parent, I can see and believe in the importance of the rough and tumble play, the good vs. evil play, in our children’s development. When approached the right way, I believe it can bolster our children’s self-confidence, self-image, and imaginative play. In addition, it can help them learn to be better problem-solvers and, a good educator can even use such examples of play in connecting to children more successfully (when educators use what children are interested in in their lessons, they have a better chance of getting through to their students). All this being said, the rough and tumble play, the weapons, the good vs. evil play is all disallowed at our school (for which I am the director) and has been for the over 30 years the school has been in existence. I have watched teachers struggle with remembering to separate children’s play choices from their personalities (just because they want to play good guys and bad guys doesn’t mean they are bullies, etc.). Many of the parents I’ve spoken to seem okay with the rough and tumble play, and, yet, we have to really sit on our children to not engage.
    Thank you, again!

    • Alison

      I am a “seasoned” preschool teacher and mother of 2 and this has been a hot topic for a very long time. I agree that it is normal and natural for all children to “play” with power and require that practice in order to internalize that power in healthy ways. We must have boundaries and firm rules about weapons and aggression for the hallmark of 4-5 year old development is blurred lines between reality and fantasy. This is the root , yet paramount that we must assure that all children in our care are safe above all else. In my school, we 1. make sure that everyone who is part of the game wants to play and feels comfortable. 2. shooting is fine, but no bullets…so they can shoot water, goo, bubbles, candy, etc…and each thing they shoot can have different “powers,” 3. no body to body aggression–no hitting, kicking, punching, pulling etc…air kicks and air karate chops are hokey dokey and 4. if you want to stop there is an agreed upon signal (like a T– time out gesture). As a group we make sure everyone understands that we need to be safe and respectful with each other even in our imaginations at school. Home is very different and while it doesn’t have to be quite so regulated, conscious parenting
      While we are discussing weapon play which is more typically “boy oriented,” I think we see the same types of issues with girls in other (usually more verbal) situations, and these need our attention just as much, if not more. In the dollhouse corner, or at the art table, “word weapons” can be firing viciously. Our support and interest is equally needed to help develop healthy attitudes and positive self esteem.

      • notjustcute

        Lora- Thanks for sharing the boundaries you use at school. Those boundaries sit right with me as well and hopefully will come in handy for Lora, who commented above. You also make a great point about helping children control the use of “word weapons” as well. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and perspectives.

    • notjustcute

      Lora, I’ve been mulling over your application of boundaries in a school situation, and as I read Alison’s answer, I thought it might be helpful for you as well. I think they sound like wonderful boundaries for a school setting.

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  7. Tina J

    A preschool class in New Zealand requires that the children earn a “gun license”. The kids learn all about what, where, how, and when they can shoot guns. Their guns are stored in a gun rack and if a child shoots another child, their gun license is taken away.

    The article “Kindy kids get gun licences” by Michelle Duff is dated 3/30/2011 and is in the Education tab on this website,

    Personally I do not like guns but understand that when used safely and for their intended purpose that they are useful. Children will make and play with guns. Making them earn a license and holding them responsible for being safe with the guns is an incredibly respectful approach to a touchy subject and sets a great example for the kids.


  8. I bookmarked this when you posted it but I just watched the video—thank you! Your perspective gives me more of a sense of balance in the area of weapon play. Very good points, thank you!

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