Saturday, 30 April 2016

To shoot or not to shoot...?

An interesting question was posed by some educators on our recent call-back days. "Many of our learners (predominantly boys in years 1 and 2) are engaging in gun play - should we let them?
Hmmm good question team - so the following is my thoughts based on years of watching children play and of researching about the value of play in a school setting.

One educator replied that gun play is not 'natural play'.  I disagree, I have found that play themes involve big and serious issues which can and do include loss, death, loneliness, abandonment and being cared for (or not). In fact anything that children are anxious, concerned, worried or have viewed can form the basis of their play. Gun and weapon play is as natural as pretending that a play kitchen produces delectable goods or that by putting on a cape you are a super hero.

Weapon/gun play certainly provides opportunities for many themes to be explored and also involves the common dominant theme in children’s play – namely power, and either being in control or being controlled by others. Children are regularly seen to mimic adult roles in their play as they try out for themselves what it is like to be in control as they mimic parents, teacher, nurses, doctors vets, retailers etc. 

But it promotes violence....
There is no evidence to support this belief, and believe me I have looked. Play with weapons and superhero play is pretend play. Imaginative play does not produce violence. Engaging in such play is an antidote to violence and not a cause of it. It is my experience that if you 'ban' gun/weapon play they will do it anyway - they just do it when you're not watching, then the moral issue of condoning violence or killing is replaced with the moral issue of accepting, and perhaps promoting, creative lying.

Personally, I’d rather children didn’t play with toy guns, mainly because they look too realisticLetting children use their fingers, stick or some other creation they have made as weapons could actually help them gain enough understanding, empowerment and emotional stability to have fulfilled their need to use guns.

Play is the way in which children make sense of the world. Where such play ie weapon/gun play is not permitted children may get a  sense that what they have experienced, what they know about, what they are anxious about, what they want to know more about, what they are interested in and how they feel is not valued. 

When children receive this message, their self-esteem will drop. When their play is not permitted, they lose out on developing play skills – and when this happens, they lose a whole range of routes to learning, to exploring their world through play and developing all the skills that play enables. Their cognitive capacity is reduced, and so is their commitment to learning as these negative messages are likely to affect their engagement in the world of education where their interests have been marginalised right from the start. Children who have their starting points for play stopped at an early age may not achieve their potential because they do not feel positive about themselves as learners.

Weapon/gun play has many benefits because it is about:
  • Exercising their imagination.
  • Problem-solving, “how can I hide”, “how can I get from 'a to b' without being hit?”
  • Empowerment - taking initiative and making decisions 
  • Empathy - learning to think about the perspective of others, provide protection and care as superheroes do good, they keep people safe and help people in trouble.
  • Understanding that rules of consent and safety are important for any game -you only shoot those who agree to be part of the game
  • Belonging and being part of a group - sharing interests helps build friendships.
  • Developing confidence - great for quieter children giving them playful opportunities to assume a more confident persona.
  • Developing play acting or drama skills 
  • Learning their own limits as to what is too rough (for example if they are too rough then the game will stop because someone gets hurt the game will stop).
  • Cooperation and collaboration as they build tribes and teams
  • Assimilating what they’ve experienced, witnessed or heard and beginning to understand what confuses them

It is not about ...
  • Supporting the killing or harm of animals and humans, and/ or the destruction of property

When you support this type of play you are:

  • Picking up on children’s own interests and it becomes possible then to use this interest as the starting point for further learning.
  • Helping improve spoken language as they engage in pretend play. 'Sportscast' or commentate the play this will help increase an enriching their vocabulary .
  • Engaging children in deeper level learning 

As an adult/educator you can help by:
  • Supporting this kind of creative and imaginative play. If they don’t have to hide their weapons they will feel safe in approaching you for ideas to develop their play.
  • Getting involved as and when appropriate. When you watch only there is a risk that you will end up being judgemental, it is harder to guide play or help to enrich it when you are not part of it.  Join in!  Die spectacularly or add complexity i.e I have a power that turns bullets/lasers to dust... 
  • Suggesting ideas, information, and materials and props to extend the richness of the play. Turn their play into a movie or podcast - what will happen next? What happened first - what's the story...
  • Facilitating children’s understanding of violence and aggression and why violence is never acceptable but aggression can be ie in sport 

Help the children establish clear safety boundaries, communicated in a calm manner, focusing on what the children CAN do, is the most effective way I’ve found to keep pretend weapon play safe. Naturally responsible adult supervision is advised during war play too. Think about the quality of the play - if it is low-level you may like to use the following indicators to help the children improve the quality.

The 12 indicators of quality play: 
  1. Using first-hand experiences 
  2. Making up rules 
  3. Making props 
  4. Choosing to play 
  5. Rehearsing the future 
  6. Pretending 
  7. Playing alone 
  8. Playing together 
  9. Having a personal agenda 
  10. Being deeply involved 
  11. Trying out recent learning 
  12. Co-ordinating ideas, feelings and relationships for free-flow play. 
Indicators adapted from Bruce, T. (1991) Time to Play in Early Childhood Education, London: Hodder & Stoughton


  1. Great reflection. I don't personally have an issue with gun play. Children see guns in the media so it makes sense that they would have a urge to use them in their play. When they use objects be it a stick or some duplo to create a weapon this is child initiated learning through play. If you allow gun play but with certain rules such as no shooting people or needing a gun licence can this still be play based learning?

  2. Interesting blog! Definitely some really good information following our discussions. As you mentioned, if they have two fingers - they have a gun and I can definitely see that the more you prevent it, the more they are going to try to do it "behind the LC's back". Abby poses a very interesting question as I was wondering about channelling the play to teach them about the reality of guns, but that eliminates the use of their imagination and possibly the potential learning opportunities. It is more beneficial to use activities and play they are engaged in and interested in to direct their learning, but their also need to be boundaries in place so that the weapon/gun play doesn't develop into anything further between the learners. Although I then question is it the weapon/gun play that is causing the fighting, or is it more that they fight over what has been made and someone having a "better" weapon?

  3. Your list of benefits associated with gunplay really highlighted to me just how valuable play fighting is for young children and why some learners are so eager and keen to engage in this sort of play. I too agree that if gun play was 'forbidden' it would become even more desirable to some learners and it if wasn't a gun it would be a sword or some other kind of weapon. These learners need to explore boundaries and risk through play, whether that be their own physical boundaries or how far they can push and challenge their peers during play without causing any physical harm or emotional upset.