Weapon play. Gender-Bender play. These are the play themes that press against our comfort zones and challenge our perspectives.
And they’re topics that author Heather Shumaker isn’t afraid to jump right in on in her book, It’s OK Not to Share (*affiliate link).
When we’re confronted with kids wielding toy swords and guns or boys dressed as princesses we tend to squirm. Whether we’re wrestling with our own thresholds or our perceptions of social norms, we start to wonder.
“Should I intervene?”
“Should I redirect?”
“Should I worry?”
With both types of play, Heather is consistent in pointing out the danger of viewing children’s play with our adult lenses. As she says, “A child’s play is not the problem. It’s our reaction to it.”
A child’s play is natural. It’s expressive. It’s exploration. It’s therapy. A variety of themes — and some of them weighty — will be explored and examined, because that’s what play is for.
When we react with severity or out of the child’s context, we may short circuit the process.
We have to remember: “A preschooler’s job is play and exploration.” We support that exploration with props like baby dolls and dress up clothes, so why not with toy swords and pop guns? When we restrict the props, we restrict the exploration. And with the clear developmental drive to explore powerful themes, it seems counter to developmental logic to curtail powerful play.
Clearly we have to know our limits, the limits of the children engaged in play together, the limits of our surroundings, but we also have to respect a child’s right to play.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this section! I’ll be sure to review your comments as I prepare to chat with the book’s author, Heather Shumaker, along with Allison McDonald of No Time for Flash Cards. (It’s going to be awesome!)
(Video will be posted here as soon as it’s recorded. Past posts and videos can also be found on the kick-off page for this series.)
Other points in the section to consider:
* “The Boy Code” (pg 258)
* Teaching kids to set limits with their playmates.
* Finding your own limits for weapon play. (Check out the chart on pgs. 246-247. Where do you land? My knee-jerk reaction happens somewhere around #6.)
* Research indicates it’s “watching people insult each other” that actually leads to children being unkind and aggressive. (pg 244) Consider the common lack of civility in popular culture and media.
* Dramatic play as communication, exploration, and therapeutic expression and the consequences of being too restrictive or rejecting of certain play themes.
* Changing our perspectives: “I had been looking at things in an adult, sociopolitical way.” (pg 238)
* What about “Zero-Tolerance” policies that have become common in many schools and the many ways kids find to create toy gun from anything? (What would you add to the list of improvisations on pg 240?)
* Consider the juxtaposition of the fear of violent play leading to violence and the awareness that the self-control and emotional skills built through free dramatic play is what truly promotes peace. (pg 243)
Add your thoughts in the comments section, or begin the read along at the beginning!
Psst– You might also enjoy these posts on a similar topic:
First Friday Q&A: Weapon Play and Young Children
First Friday Q&A: What to do about the boys playing in the girls’ dress-ups?
I agree with the author although this was an issue I struggled with for awhile. I have a 5 year son who is a “true boy”. He loves guns and blood and severed limbs and killing and swords and the list goes on. When he first began this type of play, I (as a social worker) was mortified and thought for sure I must have done something wrong along the way. After conversations with other parents of boys and after reviewing many, many articles on the topic and then reflecting, I have decided it is best to go with it. My son is desperate to explore these themes and is so engaged when you let him and begin to explore this with him. When I use to shut down this type of talk/play, it shut my son down with no means to explore what was clearly running around in his mind. I do have guidelines though. When my son decided it would be gun to “shoot” his sister (who is 2) in the head, I told him that wasn’t okay but he could shoot her foot instead. Who ever thought those words would come out of my mouth? If kids don’t get their questions answered through us and through self directed play, where do those answers come from? They come from the exploration of their friend’s dad’s firearm when they are in grade 4 which results in deadly consequences.
Lucy G says
I had this issue today! My 3 yo son was dressed up as a spy (wearing a furry kitten hat and carrying a short dagger). We went to a children’s centre and didn’t take the dagger in. When he decided he wanted the dagger I said no – because a previous experience with a different children’s centre had led to me being asked to take a gun away from my eldest son (who was dressed as a pirate and playing on a pirate ship they had in their playground) because they had a strict “no weapons” policy. I wasn’t sure if this centre was going to react the same way so hadn’t encouraged him to take it in. The following tantrum was probably the biggest he’s had in 6 months when I told him no. He couldn’t understand why I’d said no on this occasion and I was uncomfortable that I’d allowed my previous experience to act against my parenting judgement.
I’m perfectly happy for him to be dressed up (often in a pink cape) and carrying swords and daggers but a negative experience with other play workers meant I’d been hesitant about allowing him to take it in. Someone else thought “weapons” weren’t an OK part of imaginative and creative play and I wasn’t sure how they’d react this time.
I was appalled that the original playworkers didn’t understand that children want weapons because their imagination is fed by book illustrations, films etc. which give them an idea of what pirates, knights or spies look like. Not because they are planning on stabbing other children. It is very clearly an adult view (fed by the same media that immerses our children and helps them create these imaginary and safe characters) that play weapons are going to lead my child into gang life.
After discussing it with today’s staff at the centre they were far more relaxed about it and I think it was more a reflection on the two very different areas we’ve lived in – one where a serious riot ruined a large section of the town to a UNESCO world heritage site. I have three boys – I’d rather they learnt what it feels like to be hit by a wooden sword than to be taught there isn’t a pain consequence when you hit someone else. (video games?).
Kristi Hoffman Spear says
At the center I owned for almost 20 years, we allowed weapons play. My favorite was the bucket of foam swords we had on the playground. The only rule: no crying to the teachers that someone hit you!
T H Jones says
in theory I agree with the author but in practice it could be a whole different experience. Many children who own these kinds of toys are not given the gentle and nurturing guidance to play these games and develop from them. These toys are often freely given and then the child is allowed to follow an aggressive and un-structured game, no story line, no plot, no dialogue and therefore no learning occurs. I struggle with these toys much more in a general sense than in a controlled environment where sensitive and responsive adults are able to intervene, model play and language and push story lines forward. The child in the playground with a sword wielding it over others in a threatening and unimaginative way is not my idea of fun! These toys are often linked to some film or TV programme that has gone ahead to make a mint off the back of it without a care or any regard for children and their play or development let alone a social awareness. Plots are often super violent and too complicated for small children to make sense of. I think I am still out on the weapons as toys.
Andrea in Vermont says
This is exactly where my difficulty lies. The vast majority of children are getting their story-lines from media – television and movies, as opposed to books and oral stories. Their everyday play is often limited by this, ritualized characters and dialogue – add in the incredible degree of inappropriate violence children have witnessed visually and the play becomes…I’m not sure it’s even play. I have grave concerns about the impact of media on our young children, and our program does not allow any media-based characters, books, etc. We allow children to play with pretend weapons when they are “hunting” as that is a real-life activity that families engage in. But re-enacting media violence – no, I can’t go there…
My son is only 2.5, so this hasn’t really started yet. In my childcare experience, I also allowed weapon play BUT everyone playing had to consent to it. So if little Johnny did not want to get shot, he could do something else. I was fine with them pretending to shoot each other, just not fine with them chasing down and shooting the kids who wanted to make flower necklaces instead. That worked out well. Also, the church I worked at did not have any toy weapons, but that did not seem to slow down the weapons play at all.
“We support that exploration with props like baby dolls and dress up clothes, so why not with toy swords and pop guns?”–This is not a good comparison. Children play with dolls, dress up clothes, and play kitchens because they are imitating the adults they see and “practicing” for when they grow up. But the adults in my children’s lives do not use guns, and, unless they go into law enforcement, I sincerely hope that they won’t use guns when they grow up. I do think that gun play and violent video games desensitizes kids to violence, and I want them to always have respect for the seriousness of any kind of violence. I know I’ll never buy toy weapons for my kids. When they use their fingers and sticks as toy guns, I’m still not sure what I’ll do. I think that I’ll let them play, but always remind them in a very serious tone how dangerous real guns are.
I agree with you.
Edminston suggests that with adult involvement, gun play, zombie play, goodies vs badies etc allows children to explore possible ethical identities. It’s a way for children to stand in others shoes and view the world from different standpoints.