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War and Gun Play: Understanding the Influences in Children's Play, Responding Responsively

Submitted by Heather on Wed, 03/02/2016 - 15:25

Many years ago, the Caterpillar Cottage teachers and I were pondering together how to manage children's fascination with pretend gun play (or pretend sword play, “pow pow” games etc..) on the playground and in the classroom. Every year, this is a theme that some children introduce and typically it is one that reappears multiple times. This can be difficult because it is the kind of active play that is more likely to lead to misunderstandings and upset.

Together we discussed the reasons for their interest and persistence in this kind of play. We contemplated having a rule against it and considered the message it sends to ban it completely. We talked about the practical feasibility of out-ruling certain themes that children want to play, and about how that kind of rule would work within our philosophical framework. We considered the reasons why we are uncomfortable with this kind of play, the meaning we feel it holds for children and also the many ways we might redirect the children in these pursuits. We also thought together about the message that it sends to avoid talking to children about what it means to them.

At that time, we found a wonderful book written by Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Diane E. Levin titled “The War Play Dilemma. What Every Parent and Teacher Needs to Know.” We each got a copy and read through it to discuss at our teacher training and meetings. We even contacted the author and researcher, Diane E. Levin, and ended up having a conference call with her about her research and how we might support or encourage calmer/peaceful themes on our playground.

This was such a worthwhile set of conversations. What we learned and how we implemented these new strategies on the playground made a big difference in their play and in our own perspectives. I wanted to write about this so that the parents here might also benefit from this experience and the knowledge we've gained.

To start, I'd like to list the important points of this book and our conversations here:

  • When children want to play with violent themes such as pretend guns, shaming them or telling them it isn't okay only makes them feel misunderstood, upset and more curious/confused and can start a power struggle. This is especially true if they are witness to any violence in the media, such as cartoons with characters who hurt each other even as a joke (ie. Bugs Bunny, Scooby Doo...) but also if any of their peers are captivated by this kind of play.
  • Young children usually really don't understand what guns or violence are or the danger they may pose. Adults tend to assume that when a child wants to pretend they have a “gun” that they understand the implications of that.
  • Children play in these themes because they see characters as role models, because they don't understand weapons and they want to, because they are powerful roles, because their friends introduce the themes into play, and because many times they are exposed to media (billboards, news, television shows with superhero themes or violence, movies, and the toy aisle marketing in the toy stores especially boys).
  • Children are impressionable and easily influenced as they try to understand their social role models in these early years, much of which can also come from media. Boys are more often exposed to ideas in the media and social world of violence as part of being “male”.
  • Aggression and acts of heroism (often related to military or superheros) in men is seen as a more acceptable emotional expression than other kinds of emotion such as sadness or fear, children tend to pick up on these social expectations early on.
  • Steering clear of the violent media or television/movie content and exposure is hugely helpful in changing what young children want to play with their friends. Children are inspired by the stories they hear and the shows they watch. Avoiding shows with “bad guy” references also helps remove these themes and the idea of good and bad characters on the playground. You will notice that there is rarely ever a “bad girl” reference in children's media and the concept of you are either bad or good can cause conflict within the child, driving them towards more of this kind of play just to understand it all.
  • Steering clear of programming that includes commercials (by only watching on dvd or something like Netflix) can avoid exposure to additional violent or inappropriate themes in advertising.
  •  Supplementing books on CD with headphones as one option instead of a show might be just as interesting to the child and can reduce the time spent watching Television.

Most importantly, for our practice here, when this kind of play begins on the playground, as with any kind of physical play, our goal is always to ensure each child is safe and wanting to participate in the themes of play that are present. Additionally, our role is in helping children to grow their understanding of helping others. Solutions to pretend violence such as introducing themes of calling for an ambulance when someone is pretending to be shot or hurt, helps them understand more what these weapons really do and can expand play toward solving the problem of someone getting hurt in their pretend world.

We have learned over time that children don't have the same level of desire to explore these themes if the adults around them aren't reacting in ways that show the children “it's not okay.”  The power struggle of saying no often intensifies the curiosity and can work against attempts to diminish the time spent engaging in this kind of activity. The teachers are engaged in all kinds of creative and meaningful dramatic play with children, and if the interest in violent play themes is present, the teachers engage with the children in ways that allow them to deepen their understanding and find solutions to issues within these games. As the authors state, “When children engage in war play, learn as much as you can about the nature of the play and the issues they are working on understanding.”

Understanding and trust is at the heart of what we do at Caterpillar Cottage. When we are able to engage in meaningful dialogue with children about what they are playing or talking about, we are helping them build their own voice and their own social responsibility.

Reality and Fantasy are hard for preschool aged children to differentiate. Partly this is exposure related, and partly as adults help them understand what is real and what is pretend, this can really help them process confusing themes in the media easier. Honesty and clarity around what is real can also reduce any unwarranted fears that some young children struggle with. Helping children understand what they are watching as they are watching it, whether it is real, and how they might have made that pretend thing look so real, can go a distance in helping children feel safe and diminish their confusion and impulse to understand it all through play.

Aside from what we can do at preschool, we want to partner with parents and encourage you to be cautious as to what and how much preschoolers are watching at home or elsewhere. It can make a big difference in the kinds of play that children are exploring at preschool. If your child doesn't watch any shows or play any video games, this is not an issue. For parents who do allow some media or tv shows, here is a list of shows currently available (this changes frequently) on Netflix or elsewhere that are more developmentally appropriate, don't show violent themes and typically are messages without a “bad guy” character. As always, it is helpful to limit the time watching any shows or using devices such as an ipad, and if you can watch with your child so that you can explain things and understand any of your child's concerns.  Here are some of the better programs that are not violent for a preschool-aged child:

Mr Roger's Neighborhood

Little Bear


The Backyardigans

Curious George

The Clangers

Franny's feet

Blue's Clues

Puffin Rock



Paw Patrol

Ella the Elephant

Henry Hugglemonster

Bo on the go

Doc McStuffins


Wibbly Pig

Ruby Gloom (for children who are closer to 5 and up)

Peppa Pig

Winnie the Pooh

Guess How Much I Love You


Little Bear


Franklin and Friends

Pound Puppies

Busy Town Mysteries

The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That

Chloe's Closet

Angelina Ballerina

Nina's Little Fables

Peg & Cat


On a related note, some parents struggle with the question of how much media is okay for my child.  There are many arguments against and for allowing young children to consume any media. Each parent knows best their own child and a front row view of how it impacts them. Here are some questions you can ask yourself in trying to decide where your limits are for your own child:

If you find there are many “No's”, your child may be having too much screen time:

(1) Does my child play outside?

(2) Does she play in imaginary/pretend themes?

(3) Does he enjoy being read to?

(4) Does she play with other children?

(5) Does she enjoy music?

(6) Does he have any interests/activities other than media or tv?

(7) Does she do activities such as puzzles or creating a block structure?

(8) Does he do chores or help you around the house or kitchen?

(9) Do you or another adult usually watch the show with your child and help answer questions?

We hope this is helpful and as always, let us know if you have any questions or want to hear more about any particular topics in our newsletters or in our parent education events.