Gun Play. Yes or No?

I love it when my blog readers take the time to leave a comment, share their ideas and experiences or ask questions. A comment from my post about imaginative play encouraged me to write the post about adult influences on children’s play, and a comment on that post sparked this one.

Bonna asked,
“I was wondering if you would be willing to share your views on children and gun/shooting/killing “play”. I am curious to hear your thoughts. “

A long time ago (almost 17 years ago now eek!), when I first starting working in long day care I was taught the stock standard policy of the day – no war toys at childcare. For the first year or two I was an adamant supporter of this policy. I tried to educate parents about why it wasn’t ok for their child to bring a toy gun to the centre and I tried to discourage the three and four year olds I was teaching from playing with any kind of weapon, real or imagined.

It wasn’t easy. I could take the toy guns away, but it was harder to stop the children using their imaginations and creating guns out of sticks, Lego, play dough etc.

My third year teaching I had a particularly wild group, dominated by four year old boys who were very keen on weapons of all kinds. Despite being a huge supporter of positive guidance, and not simply saying ‘no’ or ‘don’t’ all the time, here I was saying that phrase over and over. “No gun play.” Despite desperately wanting to encourage these boys to be creative and imaginative, here I was squashing their creativity and imagination over and over every day with that same phrase. “No gun play.”

It was also that year that I began thinking, really critically thinking about what I was doing and how I was doing it. After three years of simply doing things the way I had been taught, I suddenly began to question things, to make deeper connections and figure out how to be a really good teacher. One of the things I questioned was the blanket ban on ‘war toys’.

Was a ban really the best way to deal with this?
Why did we want to ban gun play in the first place?
Where do you draw the line?
If guns were banned, what about swords? Bows and Arrows?
How do you police such a policy?
Do you take away any item that might be used as a gun? pencils? sticks?
Was there a reason why children engaged in this play?
Do kids simply watch too much violent TV?
Is this play all bad or is there some positive, useful or important aspects to it?

All these questions and more were swirling around my head, and as I began to talk with wise people, read articles and think about it all I began to make changes and develop my own stance on ‘gun play’.

I believe that children take on roles and act our situations in dramatic play for a reason, and violent play or gun play is no different. Perhaps it is because children see, hear and experience a lot of violence these days and role playing that violence helps them to make sense of the world? Perhaps it is because guns and weapons give a great sense of power and children are experimenting with this power? Perhaps it is for some other reason, but guns and weapons seem to be quite entrenched in the play of young children at various ages and stages of development and simply banning it doesn’t address the reason behind it, it just sets us up for more battles.

Now, I don’t like guns. I do understand that a handful of professions need to use guns as tools, and I can accept that some people enjoy the challenge of sports shooting, but I do not understand why an average person ever feels the need to own or shoot a gun, ever. Guns scare me. The idea of having a gun anywhere near a child, even if under lock and key scares me a lot. So allowing the children I taught to play with ‘guns’ was quite challenging for me, allowing my own children to explore weapons and war play is even more challenging. But I did allow the children I taught to explore this kind of play and I now allow my own children to do the same.

I don’t allow my children to have toy guns that look anything like real guns as I feel that is too confusing when I am telling them that guns are not safe and never to touch one. If they play with realistic toy guns it would be reasonable for them to at the very least be curious to find out if a real gun was a toy or not. I have, however, gotten over myself a little and I do let them play with water pistols (that look nothing like a real gun), their Star Wars Lego figures have ‘guns’, the knights in the castle have swords and I let them construct guns out of various objects. They also use various swords, light sabers and bows and arrows in their dramatic play every now and then.

We have one rule – if someone asks you not to use your pretend weapon on them you must stop. Interestingly, I invoke this rule way more than my children ever do.

Allowing them to play with guns has done one really important thing that a blanket ban could never do, it has gotten us talking about weapons, killing and violence. My children (and the children I taught) all know that I don’t like guns. They know that guns are dangerous, that they hurt and kill people and that I don’t think there is ever a good reason to point a gun at another person. My children also know that their grandfather was an excellent sports shooter when he was alive, and they have seen his shooting rifles up close.

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.

What do you think? Do you allow your children, or the children you teach to play with weapons? If so do you have any rules?

{image by Tinkerbots, via flickr}

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Read the comments or scroll down to add your own:

  1. says

    I think I have a fairly similar view to you about gun play. And I have always thought that banning it, also bans discussion of why it might not be appropriate – which I don’t want to do. But I wanted to chime in with an idea I love from the book Playful Parenting, which suggests that play guns don’t have to shoot to kill. For example, you can turn it around, grab a gun yourself and shoot kisses – if someone gets shot they will be smothered with kisses.

    • katef says

      that is a lovely idea Catherine… especially as a way for me to be able to engage in the play without feeling uncomfortable or simply asking them not to ‘shoot’ me…

  2. says

    Great post Kate. With our first son we didn’t want any toy guns in the house, in fact someone bought him one for a present and we took it off him and threw it out. He never watched shows that had guns or blasters or anything like that. He still doesn’t. (he is now 6) He has never liked Ben 10, Power rangers etc. Not that I let him watch them. When we were at a playdate once the boy had dvds of the things and wanted to watch them with DS. He sae 5 mins of it and said no.

    So he has never had any exposure to guns, swords or anything. Until kinder. They didn’t have them at kinder but all the boys just wanted to make them (just like you said Kate). The kinder teacher wasn’t keen on it but she told me that it happens every year, the boys just want to make them and play fights. She is strict with them though, no pointing at people, if the other person doesn’t like it, you stop.

    Now he is in primary school and that phase has passed. He is into sports now – thank goodness!

  3. says

    Great post Kate and I have to say I agree wholeheartedly with your view. When I had my first boy 11 years ago I was going to be this oh so politically correct parent who didnt allow guns etc. As I am about to have my 5th boy…that idealism went well out the window a long time ago! My second son would plead to go over to my friends house as they had a toy gun. It got to the point where he was almost obsessed about wanting to go there, would ask for it as soon as we got there and would want to take it when we left. So I bit the bullet (so to speak) and bought him his own toy gun. He played with it for about a week and then it got caught up and left behind amongst all the rest of toys in the toy cupboard. Since then there have been guns in my house, sometimes they play with them, most times they dont. Are they violent kids? No. Do they know guns are dangerous? Yes. Just as my boys enjoy rough play and wrestling with each other, they know their limits, they know what will hurt and they know to stop when someone is no longer having fun.

  4. says

    Thanks for this post. It’s very timely for me. As a teacher, I was the same way, always “banning” the gun play. In fact, teaching in a public school in the US, we were told to take such things seriously. And I think that’s good. However, now I am raising boys. My oldest is three and is just starting to get interested in shooting things. I also have all nephews and I’ve noticed them playing shooting a lot- with sticks, legos, and sometimes water guns. It’s hard to know what rules to enforce and I want to be consistant. This gives me a lot to think about. I like your rule that if someone asks you not to use your pretend weapon on you, you must stop.

  5. says

    I ban guns, even water pistols and contrary to your assertion we do talk about weapons, why people use they or feel the need to have them – my father has nine shotguns and has encouraged my brother and I to use them on live animals and cow pats. I don’t ban swords, each of my boys has his own light sabre. Their lego miniatures have guns and swords. I don’t tolerate shooting games at each other or others. They are not allowed to make guns out of lego, sticks. So, I do draw a line, but I also believe my children are able to explore themes of power, violence, fear, and so on – and we certainly do talk about it.

    I alao employed critical thinking to come to my understanding of their needs and where to draw a line regarding explorations in violent play.

  6. says

    No head shots is my only rule. They can play whatever they want. I’m fairly contemptuous of guns in general (snipers and other marksmanship type things excepted) and that may be an influence in why they don’t gunplay much, or they could just not care. I don’t regulate anything either way, the only rules I ever enforce is if someone’s had enough, then stop freaking playing with them.

  7. says

    I had three daughters who never needed ghuns, but when a little boy came along I found that anything could be used for a gun. I never wanted toy guns in the house, and had never allowed then but when I realised that he was “shooting” with lego, sticks, a toy hammer, funny shaped carrots, ANYTHING that slightly resembled a gun I took a different line. We bought him a gun with those foam suction “bullets” and taught him to handle it safely. Only shoot at the target; never aim a gun at a person; never walk around with a loaded gun. The novelty has worn off, but whenever he does pretend to shoot we remember the rules of safe gun handling.

  8. says

    Great thought provoking article. I have always steered away from buying toy guns for my 2 boys. It’s not easy, a heap of kids have them, and they see them at friends houses. There are the nurff guns available now in every way. I’m sure you’ve seen them. Double shot guns to semi-automatics that shoot the nurff pellets. Almost every time a toy is requested these days it’s for one of these. I hate the idea of them running around shooting each other and or me and the dog. I keep hoping they’ll just move on to something else, maybe we should talk more about it. More thinking required.

  9. says

    Im in the middle of a post about this. The short answer is yes I let my kids play with guns but we have rules. I can understand people’s concerns with this issue but personally I had positive experiences with guns…my Dad did it as a sport and I used to love going with him to the range. I also did a lot of aim practice with a air gun on our family farm. However there is a serious side and I respect that. So that’s the short answer. Ha! I’ll link back to this post when I write my own post…great topic

  10. says

    My dad is a hunter and growing up, we often had rifles and shotguns sitting on the kitchen table. This is probably why I have such a strong negative reaction to guns.
    Dad bought my eldest son (4) a gun for his Christmas. I actually knew what it was by the shape of the parcel, and put it away before my son could open it. When I did open it, it was an AK 47 with real looking bullets. I was so angry at my dad! Who makes this stuff?! REAL looking gun AND bullets.
    I left it in our storeroom, not really knowing what to do with it. Then a few months later, cleaning out the garage, my son found it and proceeded to shoot people walking past our front gate. By the end of the day, the gun was in the bin. We don’t watch violent TV, we don’t play computer games … to me it seems like this desire to play with guns is hard wired into some boys. While we won’t go out and buy him toy guns, I think it’s futile trying to stop boys playing with weapon-like toys. It is power play, good vs evil, and while it upsets me sometimes, i think we need to accept it.

  11. Francine says

    Thank you for this. I have always been of the view that I would never have toy guns in my house. But I was brought up understanding about guns. My grandpa always had a gun (country boy then a cop) and I had friends who grew up on properties and they had guns too. It was still a bit of a shock to me when I turned up at day care one day and discovered that all the little boys she went to day care with (home day care, total of 5 kids, she was the youngest and the only girl) had all made guns out of duplo.

    The other thing is, my husband plays with Nerf weaponry. Nerf is the brightly coloured plastic guns with the foam “bullets” or darts as they are usually called. So, I figure, she sees that her daddy plays with that, I can’t ban her from guns. Having said that, she is not even 2 yet, and her new day care is mostly girls (of which she is still the youngest, but is now actually the biggest, and most … robust (?) of the group).

  12. says

    I generally don’t allow toy weapons of any kind in the house. But as you say, boys will make weapons out of anything and they do. They know I don’t like this, so they don’t go over the top with their play, but only because we live in such a small house that we’re always on top of one another.

    But as you say, their Lego people have guns, the TV shows they watch show weapons and fighting, it is really hard to avoid the concept of fighting. We do talk about it, as needed.

    My 5 yo got a Nerf-like gun for his birthday a few weeks ago and a bubble-blowing gun. I was not happy. I think toys like that lead children to believe that guns are safe and are toys, when they’re not. I will be getting rid of these when they’re forgotten. We don’t even have any water-pistols, but have been known to use spray bottles for wather painting in the hot months.

  13. says

    This is a really good point to raise. My view has always been, “I am not raising a warrior” so I refuse to allow any warrior behaviour in my house. Then I read Steve Biddulph’s book, Raising Boys. I still refuse gun play in my house, but am slowly relaxing on swords and other hand-to-hand weapons (including weapons) – they are easier to explain and understand as “hurting people” due to the closeness of contact. This is really hard for me. However, as my son is now 5 and at pre-school, guns and other weapons are becoming part of normal play. He’s not exposed to much violence from TV etc, but his Dad works as a civilian for Defence, (and his grandfather was a military man) so there seems to be some innate family connection.
    I agree that it does open up dialogue about war and civil rights and freedom and being safe. We do our best to temper his burning “need to know”, but he is still as intrigued as ever.
    May have to give it up as a battle lost, but I still aim to win the war.

  14. says

    I wasn’t going to encourage David to play with guns but when he chewed his toast into a gun shape I gave up trying to restrict him and started buying laser guns so he could be a spaceman as well as a cowboy.

  15. says

    I just wanted to add that I don’t think it’s necessarily violent TV that causes kids to be interested in playing with guns. When my mom and my dad were kids they didn’t have a TV and both of them played cowboys and Indians with pretend guns (using their fingers). I think it’s perhaps something innate in our nature. I haven’t had any of this type of play with my 2.5 year old yet, but I have a feeling it won’t be long. Thanks for the interesting article and responses too.

  16. Christina says

    In my 2 year old classroom, we have several boys that are participating in this behavior. At first we were telling them to not to do it, but they were not responding. Then I heard this idea from a workshop to make a “gun zone” in the room. When the children are particiapting in this beahavior to move them to a small marked off area of the classroom where they are allowed to play this. While I am not putting a stopper to their play, I am not promoting it either. It becomes really boring for them because of the small area, but they are not being told it is not right at the same time.