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I Hope That is Not a Gun?

By Alistair Bryce-Clegg

Author of 'Best Practice in the Early Years'

Dealing with gun play in the early years can feel like a bit of a minefield.

I know that when I was training back in the early 90’s we were told very clearly that gun play was not to be encouraged. In the first setting I worked in it was seen as a very negative aspect of children’s play, and I spent a lot of my early career saying “Er, I hope that’s not a gun?”…to which the children would inevitably reply: “No, it is a hose, I am watering the plants!” or something similar.

Nerf gun.
Photographer: Kolby Milton | Source: Unsplash

We would engage in this dialogue on a regular basis. They knew it was a gun, I knew it was a gun, they knew that I knew, and I knew that they knew that I knew – but we all pretended that we didn’t!

I was reflecting on this when I was talking to a group of practitioners recently. We were exploring the question of why children engage in this type of play and what is it about it that we don’t like.

As adults, I think we worry that if we let the children play ‘guns’ then we are encouraging them to be violent and aggressive in their play and that sort of behaviour will spill over into their everyday life.

What also became really apparent through our discussion was that between us we had over 100 years of Early Year’s experience and we had all worked in multiple settings. In every setting we had each worked in, in the UK and across the world, we had experienced this play. So, it is not something that is unique to one particular area, social demographic or experience. It is universal.

When a type of play is universal, that indicates that it is linked to more than just experience, it is linked to development. So what could children possibly be developing when they are engaging in gun play?

It occurred to me after a few years that no matter what sort of cohort the children were, no matter which school I was teaching in, superhero and weapon play was a big part of significant number of children’s play of choice.

Because children don’t have the same vast catalogue of experience that most adults have, when they experience the world around them then they have to try and make some sense of it. Before it makes any sense, they have to get what they think they experienced clear in their heads. The way to do this is to re visit and re live those experiences and the easiest way to do that is through role play. That is why children’s role play can be so diverse anything from house play to playing dead.

Photographer: Steven Libralon | Source: Unsplash

Role play allows them to explore all of these questions and emotions in a controlled environment and a safe context. They can explore what is possible and, equally as importantly, what is impossible. Exploring what is risky and dangerous through play is essential if we want our children to be able to acknowledge and accept the limits of reality.

There is a huge element of emotional exploration that goes on during this sort of play. Through power struggle and combat children can put themselves into semi-real situations that allow them to experience and combat negative emotions.

One of the reasons that children play in that way is that it gives them an opportunity to explore their interpretations of what they see going on in the world around them. By that I don’t just mean in the playground and at home but also in the media. How many ‘children’s ‘ films, even Disney, contain large sections of physical combat and power struggles?

Increasingly when I am engaged in talk sessions with groups of children they will tell me about films they have watched with older siblings or parents, computer games that they have played or news reports that they have watched, all of which contain graphic images and often quite extreme violence.

Even if they haven’t actually seen it for themselves, lots of children will relive a ‘version’ of what took place in the retelling of the child that did. No matter how cautious and careful we are as parents, our children cannot escape the reality of the world around them – especially when their influences become not just their parents and carers but also their peers!

This sort of play also involves struggle, chase, competition, noise! It is often adrenalin fuelled play, there is a high level of thrill for the children taking part so it will be fast and loud. We cannot penalise children for that. If we accept that this sort of play is going to take place then we need to make provision for it, both inside and out, and make sure that the whole team have clear expectations about what is acceptable and what isn’t.

When we begin to see some of the learning and emotional responses that underpin this sort of play then I think the question that we need to ask is are children really engaging in play that will encourage violent or anti-social behaviours or are they just exploring emotions such as control, risk and a sense of power. Lots of our children’s essential emotional connections, consolidation and development can be made through fantasy play. The more opportunity they get to rehearse them, the more proficient they will get at managing them.

Children can also use this type of play to learn how to manage their own feelings by ‘practising’ emotions in situations that they know are made up. They can make things turn out as they want them to, reinvent the truth and explore other possible outcomes that wouldn’t be possible in ‘real’ life, where you only get to live each moment once.

Wrestling, chasing, play fighting all help children to experience ‘safe’ danger, assess risk and take appropriate action. Much of the way that children play is grounded in instinct and an innate desire to hone our survival skills.

A playmobil person stopping a bank robber.
Photographer: Dan Counsell | Source: Unsplash

I think it helps to think about this if we see the gun or the sword as a symbol. If your children were playing ‘Ben and Holly’ and the one playing Nanny Plum (I love her) turned pointed her wand and turned another child into a frog, would you say, “I hope that’s not a wand?”!

Probably not.

If we take away the symbol of the gun and the wand, the intention of the child is the same: to assume a position of power and control within the play. The symbol is linked to experience and preference.

Most often, but not always, the children who are attracted to this sort of play are boys. It is not that girls in general don’t want or need to explore these feelings and emotions, they just tend to do it in a different way. Why they choose to do that is mostly liked to expectations of gender – but that is a whole other discussion!

Gun and weapon play is attractive for many reasons but particularly because:

  • making guns is an achievable task
  • weapon play relates to early communications skills
  • major themes of children’s play are represented in weapon-related playing
  • running in big spaces, outside is a preferred play style
  • Weapon play is a universal language. It doesn’t require a shared language or even words to be accessible.

I am not recommending that as a result of reading this, you go into your setting tomorrow and say “right, let’s get the guns out!” But, if you and your team have had similar problems trying to manage this play, or a discussion about why children constantly it do, then it would be worth revisiting the conversation with a slightly different perspective and see where that takes your thinking.

Here are some other books that you can read that explore this subject in more depth.

Creative Role Play in the Early Years – Alistair Bryce-Clegg

We don’t play with guns here – Penny Holland

Rethinking Superhero and Weapon Play – Steven Popper

Calling All Superheroes: Supporting and Developing Superhero Play in the Early Years – Tamsin Grimmer