The Gun Play Dilemma

Fantasy Play in the Early Elementary Classroom

Photo courtesy Jennifer Arnest
Photo courtesy Jennifer Arnest



I opened my desk drawer recently and resurfaced a small collection of tiny toy weapons: a vintage G.I. Joe handgun, a particularly ominous pistol stolen from the hands of an unidentified hero. They are the remnants of gifts that have been given to my six-year-old son over the last few years—gifts from which I deftly removed any weapons being held in pretend plastic hands and hid them away.

My son’s very best friend from preschool gave him a toy gun as a loving goodbye gift. I haven’t allowed him to play with the gun, and it stays in the desk drawer, out of his sight and hands, but I haven’t tossed it out either. I’m not sure why I have kept these toy weapons. Perhaps I question the integrity of censoring the gifts the way I did, thinking I might return the missing pieces to his hands one day, or maybe I know that my edits are not really addressing the point anyway and thus are futile. Looking at the harmless, yet violent toys now helps me reflect and think more clearly.

There are wonderful children who like to play war. They love to mimic scenes from action films such as Star Wars, and guns inevitably come into play—and yes, many of these children happen to be boys. Cathy, our head of school at San Francisco Friends School (SFFS), once told me that one of our students thought early on that meeting for worship was actually a meeting for warships and had been waiting patiently every week for the arrival of the fleet. My son has a legacy of both war veterans and war protesters in his ancestry, and he’s become interested in these conflicting ideas. On Wednesday mornings, when SFFS holds meeting for worship, I bet he is awaiting a warship fleet, and I’m sure too that he is peacefully reflecting on it during the silence.

The line between fantasy and reality is distinguished by the time children are five, so we know they can understand that pretend play is different from real fighting. Vivian Paley, a prolific early childhood educator and a great peace lover herself, reminds us that even war play is an expression of socialization that enhances collaboration; it is self-searching and always contextual, enhancing the well-being of the children’s experience in school.

Working at a school that values peaceful problem solving and is founded upon the history of Quakers as peace builders presents a paradox for me when I confront my sweet boy in the hallway at home with a pretend gun beckoning him in his play. I say to my son, “Please don’t point that at me while making that loud gun noise. I know you are playing, but it makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like guns.” And he responds, knowing me well, “But Mom, my gun shoots love bullets. Can I shoot you now?” Very peaceful boys from peace-loving families still seem to be drawn to playing with guns. Somehow they manage to turn that found stick into a weapon one way or another. While I am on the gender stereotyping bandwagon, I must say that observing my wonderful teenage niece comforts me: I see that a very confident young woman with a strong self image can grow out of a little girl who got her hands on some Barbie dolls.

So, what is my role as a parent of young children in a complex world full of questionable media influences? Should I ban the dolls and intercept the war play at every turn? What is the right balance of intercepting the children with my values while also allowing for self-expression and fantasy play? And when is the appropriate time to make clear that right balance? If my peaceful adult male friends are any measure, I am pretty sure that a young boy’s interest in war play isn’t a sure indicator for real violence later on. Human development is just far more complex than that. As parents, we have to make a million choices at home that are supposed to reflect our values, both social and political, for our children. Navigating those choices and values is a big, persistent challenge.

So how do we approach this complexity at SFFS, specifically in the face of gun play? My mother used to say she loved working at a Quaker school because the line was clear and the culture of gun play was limited without question. At SFFS, we don’t want to shame young children in the midst of their play, but we do remind them of our commitment to peace in the school, so the play guns get put away. We are always seeking opportunities to actively model our core values at SFFS, which are peace, mutual respect, and community. Kids help us stay true here, as so many of them will speak up and say they are uncomfortable with gun play, making it easy for children to respect the community of individuals they play with. The SFFS approach is to watch and limit war play while providing alternative ways to work on the issues that may arise amidst the play.

Teachers at SFFS use a variety of methods to handle gun play. For example, if guns emerge during play in Noah’s kindergarten classroom, he tells his students, “Guns are weapons that can hurt people; we don’t hurt people at school.” Another kindergarten teacher Lili reminds the students that school is a safe place: “Guns and weapons can hurt or scare people, and because this is a safe place, we want to keep each other safe and make sure we feel safe. If you are using something that scares people, it isn’t making sure everyone feels safe.” Ilsa, who teaches second grade, says she sometimes uses relevant and light humor to interrupt the play by firmly saying to the kids, “Put the gun back in the holster” and then simply moving on.

If we notice an increase in the frequency of violent play, we call a meeting for business and ask the kids to join the conversation, inviting them to express what they think about gun play at school. We must make space for and listen closely to every child: the child who says guns frighten him, the child who tries to present the history of peacemaking Quakers, and the child who has a deep respect for the gun-carrying soldiers he knows in his family. In these conversations, Ilsa says the students always bring it back to the environment at the school and their parents’ core values. We try to keep community and peace at the center in our play here together, because upholding these values is important for the growth of socially healthy children. Gun play at a Quaker school should have clear limits.

The world out there is full of mixed messages for children, and in the long run, they will need to learn to distinguish the gray areas and to think for themselves. For now, in their young age, they learn from their loved ones. They are attentive when their parents or teachers respond in a positive or a negative way to anything; they watch and listen to who we are and what we do. They also register cues outside of their family circle, taking in the array of other views they see on TV or hear from their friends. Early educators think even young children can understand some complex ideas and will, over time, form responsible views and begin to act on them. The world out there is a messy place, and children’s experiences at home are also diverse. Here at SFFS, there is a clarity: we make space for fantasy play so long as it doesn’t take over the territory; gun play at school has clear limits.

Book Recommendations

Here is a list of books to refer to if you have a young child who challenges your notions of acceptable war play:

Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner by Vivian Gussin Paley

The author examines the role of the teacher and parent. Even as violent play pushes all her buttons, she comes to learn that it is not her role to shame the child in the moment of his or her fantasy play.

The War Play Dilemma: What Every Parent and Teacher Needs to Know (Teachers College Press) by Diane E. Levin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige

Using a developmental and sociopolitical viewpoint, the authors examine five possible strategies for resolving the war play dilemma and show which best satisfy both points of view: banning war play; taking a laissez-faire approach; allowing war play with specified limits; actively facilitating war play; and limiting war play while providing alternative ways to work on the issues.

Who’s Calling the Shots?: How to Respond Effectively to Children’s Fascination with War Play, War Toys, and Violent TV by Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Diane E. Levin

The authors explain the parallel changes in society and children’s war play that make a yes-or-no decision impossible. The combination of high-tech war toys with an increasingly violent attitude in society and in the media means children have less control over war play than ever before. The authors discuss several strategies to return creative control of play to children and to lessen the emphasis on violent content.

Jennifer Arnest

Jennifer Arnest is the lower school head at San Francisco Friends School. She has been an educator in the field of early childhood education for more than 20 years and attended Friends School of Baltimore in Maryland as a young student. SFFS is a K–8 independent school founded 13 years ago.

3 thoughts on “The Gun Play Dilemma

  1. While my own perspective on this might be more blatant than most, I doubt it’s unique. I was raised ostensibly Quaker, went to a Quaker college, taught at a Quaker summer camp a few years – and now my professional specialty is staging violent conflict for plays and movies… including lots of playing with toy guns, as it were. My first book, The Theatrical Firearms Handbook, just came out this month.

    So first off – in my I suppose expert opinion, your “particularly ominous pistol” is actually a flare gun, often used for signalling for help. Like this:
    Perhaps we can at least allow for games of maritime or wilderness rescue?

    When growing up I had a similar no toy guys rule, although it was negotiated over the years to eventually just a no realistic, modern toy guns rule – sci-fi Star Wars blasters were acceptably removed from reality, G.I. Joe generally not. The swords and bows of Robin Hood were okay, the guns of the A-Team not. Granted, it just meant I went off in the woods and carved my own toy guns with a pocket knife, which probably was a better life skill and more creative anyway.

    See, here’s the thing… people like stories. Kids especially. And stories need conflict. Yes, there are many more sophisticated forms of conflict than overt violence, but many of those go right over a kids’ head, and few can compete with the immediacy and compelling nature of having to stand up to a violent bad guy… and how do you establish that? Through violence, and having the character do bad things. Things we don’t want our kids to do. Is violence ever a good first choice? No. But then characters who always do everything perfectly make for really lousy stories.

    I assume we’re talking about kids of elementary school age, beyond the games of “house” where they’re just trying to understand the world of the grownups around them (although violence is a part of the world they’re trying to understand). When’s the last time you saw kids at recess playing “Johnny Appleseed”? I mean, what is there to do? Sleep on the ground, plant some seeds, try to talk the Indians into converting to Christianity, maybe rant against the duplicitous nature of underage women who you thought owed you their body and soul because you paid for their upkeep (okay that part isn’t in all versions of his story)… anyway, not the most popular game I can think of. It’s rumored his favorite variety of apple was the Rambo. I can’t even say that name without images popping into your heads of a certain fictional character, yes? And Johnny Appleseed’s dad, he was a minuteman in the revolution… something my area of VA continues to cash in on, with things like historical Williamsburg, Yorktown, all the other battle sites, plus the new AMC series TURN that’s filming around here, about the spies and soldiers of the Revolutionary War.

    So my challenge to those of you who try, probably in vain, to circumvent any violent pretend play in your children and students, is this:

    What alternate forms of conflict and struggle can you offer them, that will allow for an engaging drama, for healthy competition against something, worthy obstacles to overcome, for compelling heroes to rise, and for expression of their boisterous physicality? Because without a compelling alternative, all you have left is “shame on you for wanting excitement”. If your kid wants to shoot love bullets, the only reason left to object is that the subject makes you personally uncomfortable by association. Own up to that, instead of thinking you are nobly protecting your kid from society’s evil programming. Why not just admit, “That makes mommy really uncomfortable, because I don’t like anything to do with guns or bullets. Can you throw love snowballs at me instead?”

    The old-school Quakerism, the one that disallowed dance and stage shows and music… it could not last. How will modern Quakerism strike its own balance of peace with and activism in the modern world? Instead of just “guns are bad”, how about using that conversation as a learning experience, at the very least – so what happened that these people need to shoot at each other? Do you think that guy has a family too, or is capable of doing good things? You’ll still be ruining the poor kids’ game for a time, but at least they might actually learn something about what Quakers value, instead of just what they disapprove of. It’s hard when you’re a teacher and not a parent, because you may not want to presume too much about what the parents believe is the right approach, but as a parent myself (who appreciates that pretend guns hurt siblings less than pretend swords, generally), as a theatre and film professional, as a college instructor, and as a former kid, I’ll take a discussion over a chastising any day.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some work to do; after teaching today’s final public speaking class of the semester, I’ve got my penultimate unarmed stage combat class to run, a crossbow to finish building for a Christian school production of Robin Hood, and some notes to email out about last nights’ rehearsal’s blood and vomit effects in a professional play.

  2. Another approach is to ask children what their playing means to them. What are you expressing? What are you doing? Why? I read that being little can be frustrating and scary, and often games are a way to ‘talk’ about this.

    Friends may find it is great fun and a wonderful learning opportunity to ask the kids, “What is this you are doing?” and “Why?” The answers and responses are often very helpful.

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