Gun Play in Early Childhood
When I hid in my office building at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle as a gunman shot my colleagues one by one, the sound and smell of gunfire was etched into my brain. To further the trauma pathway, when I visited the Federation building after the shooting and saw the outline of one of the weapons the shooter used drawn in marker next to the fax machine, I added a visual trauma to my already growing hatred of guns. So, it is no surprise that, as a school director, I am very sensitive to gun-play among children. The surprising thing, I suppose, is the way I respond.
I have had teachers and parents come to me over the years concerned that a little one is engaging in gun-play. Many adults hold an informal causal theory that playing with guns in childhood leads to the use of guns in adulthood. However, there is no real scientific evidence that playing (these) games in childhood leads to real-life aggression (Michael Thompson, PhD, Child Psychologist and author). Any teacher of young children knows that anything can become a gun to a child - tree branches, blocks, a banana, chicken nuggets. The amazing thing is,children engaging in this type of open-ended play are using their imaginations. This is often a rarity in today’s plugged-in, tech-savvy world. The challenge becomes how we as adults respond to this behavior in the wake of real-life shootings which result in death and injury and threat to topple our foundation of safety.
Benefits of Play
We know that a child’s play is linked to social and cognitive development. Through imaginary games, children learn how to control impulses, delay gratification, think symbolically, and view things from another person’s perspective. They are able to act out their dreams and their fears. Imaginary play hones self-regulation, and helps little ones cope with stress. Oftentimes, when it comes to gun-play among young children, the underlying goal of the play is one of control. Defending the world from “bad guys” makes kids feel brave. It comes down to a game of good versus bad. Historically, this type of play was normal among children (think cops and robbers, cowboys, superheroes), but adults became much less tolerant of this type of play in the wake of a spate of tragic school shootings in the 1990s, and many schools shifted toward zero-tolerance policies.
It seems that in today’s world we vilify children for even being interested in guns. When my son, who was a baby at the time of the Federation shooting, wanted a Nerf gun my response was, “We don’t play with guns in this house. Guns are dangerous. They hurt people.” When he started using his fingers as a weapon in imaginative play I inserted my fears into his innocence by calling it a laser instead of a gun. I thought that if I encouraged playing with lightsabers or laser beams instead of imaginary guns with imaginary bullets, I would somehow ensure that my little boy would not grow up to shoot up a school or a workplace. The problem with this type of thinking is, children don’t see their play through the same lens as adults. To adults, in the wake of Newtown, gun-play is violence - to children, it is just play.
So, what do we do when little ones start play-shooting each other? Here are my suggestions:
- Stay calm. Remind yourself that this is not a real-life gun situation. It is play. Children do not see the world the same as adults. They are not cognitively able to process the real-life consequences of real gun use. They are children with a child’s view of the world.
- Ask yourself, “Is there real danger? Is the play reciprocal (no one is being bullied)? Is there an actual threat of injury?” “Is there cruelty or abuse?” If you feel the play is unsafe, intervene to stop the play. If it is not posing a threat, take a breath and…
- Look and listen for the underlying goal or reason for the play. Is this a reenactment of something in a video game, movie, or TV show? Is this a “good guy versus bad guy” scenario? Keep in mind that even G-rated programming can have themes of violence.
- Be aware of your tone of voice and body language when responding to this type of play. Research by London Metropolitan University suggested that children who are constantly “told off” while playing superheroes or during military play become withdrawn and dispirited. We are, after all, a militarized society. Children see guns on military personnel and law enforcement. To children, guns protect as much as they do harm.
- Use the underlying goal or reason for the play to inform your response. “It looks like you are saving our playground from aliens. I wonder if we can build a wall with blocks to protect the sandbox area.” Remember, children are not equating their gun-play with real-life violence. Even if you don’t want them playing with imaginary weapons, you can still allow them to engage in play that meets the underlying goal. “Joshua, you are defending the slide. You are very brave. Do you have superpowers?”
- Don’t feel like you have to allow gun-play. Gun-play can make an adult uncomfortable. That’s OK. As long as you don’t shame a child, or burden a child with your adult fears, feel free to healthily redirect. “You are using that stick as a gun. What else could that stick be (a magic wand, microphone, a big spoon for a witches brew)?” The secret is, don’t stop imaginative play just because it makes you feel icky. You are an adult, redirect.
- Allow for other healthy outlets of childhood energy. Oftentimes aggressive play in childhood leads to sports play. Make sure you are offering various outlets for this type of play. “Good guys versus bad guys” play could easily be redirected into a game of Sharks and Minnows. Racing from one side of the playground to the other can expel some pent-up energy. Try marching around the room stomping feet and clapping. Sometimes, aggressive play is just a hint that there is a lot of energy that needs an outlet.
The Bottom Line
Aggressive play, including gun-play, is a normal stage of childhood. Gun-play is just part of a larger repertoire of play for children. As adults, we must not let our knowledge of real-life violent adult events taint the innocence of childhood. We must stop demonizing children for doing what comes naturally and start exploring ways in which we can support the child’s need for imaginative play.
I don’t particularly like guns. I jump at loud noises. I still have nightmares about the horrific shooting I survived. I never want any of the children in my care to go through what I went through. In my school, seeing children point tinker toys at each other and pretend to shoot is unsettling. But, I know that it is my job as an educator to get down to the child’s level, recognize that they are just children playing, and help them to explore their fears and their hopes in a safe, loving way.
Tammy Kaiser, MSJE, is the Director of the Early Childhood Learning Center at Temple Beit HaYam in Stuart, Florida. Kaiser survived a shooting at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle in 2006 and is the author of Diameter of the Bullet and Miss Tammy’s Children’s Haggadah.