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Let’s Talk…Gun Play

This weekend is a celebration of Memorial Day, a federal holiday to honor and remember the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Many of us will attend parades or special commemorative services where children will be exposed to military professionals carrying weapons.  Guns have had, and still do have, positive and negative uses in our society. They figure into hunting, police work, and soldiering even as they play a role in violent crimes. As a child care professional it is likely you have had families in your program from these backgrounds. Yet, for many of us in early childhood, it can be unnerving to see a young child pretending to shoot a gun.

I first began reflecting on this topic of gun play in early childhood over a year ago when I read an article on an Australian program that set up a gun center. My initial reaction was shock – what preschool teacher would encourage gun play?  As I began to reflect further, I tried to consider the culture as well as my own biases about guns. For full disclosure, I have never been around guns and, frankly, they frighten me.  I talked with friends that enjoy the sport of hunting regarding the article I read. They had a different reaction than me in seeing all of the education happening around safety, and compared it to teaching children about receiving a fishing license and allowing them the opportunity to practice that through play (how we know children learn best).

Next, I had a conversation with a colleague that works in an early childhood program in inner city Chicago. Like me, she has always worked in schools with a “zero tolerance” policy around weapon play. She shared that while she would never encourage gun play, she does believe strongly that children work through issues and share with adults through their play. She recalled a time a child was descriptive in the housekeeping area about where a gun was hidden. She spent some time observing and having a delicate dialogue with the child. At pick-up time, she respectfully shared with the child’s parent. The parent had no idea her child knew about the hidden gun and immediately purchased a lock box for it. Because of this reflective teacher, a potential tragedy had been avoided.

Let me be very clear – I am not in any way supporting or advocating for allowing pretend weapons in early childhood programs. But when I reflect on my own practices of the past as an early childhood educator, I wonder how much I considered the above thoughts when I immediately told children to break apart their Lego gun, throw their pretend gun stick over the fence, or frown at the toast bitten into the shape of a gun. Not really.  Were these learning opportunities or teachable moments that I missed? Likely. Did I unintentionally make guns forbidden fruit? Maybe. Could I have done a better job at considering what their true desire was and helping support it through a more desired behavior like setting up cans as a target to knock down with a ball? Yes.

I hope you will take some time to read this Cooperative Extension article on Ensuring that Children’s War Play is Healthy, Safe, and Positive. It discusses strategies to support the child who is pretending as well as children’s need to feel safe. Another interesting read is a blog post from Extension’s Military Families Learning Network titled Three Reason to Allow War Play in Your Early Childhood Classroom.

Do you have thoughts on this topic? Do you have program policies around weapon play? Hope to hear from you at http://blogs.extension.iastate.edu/childcare/gun-play/


Malisa Rader

Malisa Rader

Malisa Rader is a human sciences specialist that misses the daily hugs and high-fives from little people.

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  1. This is such a thought-provoking, and sometimes uncomfortable, topic, Malisa – thank you for raising it! Like you, my beliefs about gun/war play have changed over time. Having a hard-and-fast rule certainly is simpler. But I’ve come to recognize that it isn’t responsive to the kids and, in the end, it isn’t any easier because it becomes a constant discipline battle! Having tried both, I would rather work within the children’s play to raise their understanding of and respect for other people’s feelings and support their skills in negotiating than to constantly be nagging them about not making guns. That’s just not enjoyable for anyone! Sometimes I think we just don’t give children enough credit for being able to negotiate with each other and come up with good solutions (with a little support from us). I’ve been pleasantly surprised when I’ve taken the risk to allow “dangerous” play and seen children in a fairly short time develop some amazing social skills!!
    Thanks again, Malisa!

  2. Thanks Kathy! Like I mentioned, I’ve been pondering approaching this topic on the blog ever since we began discussions on starting Let’s Talk…Child Care. Gun play is a more gray issue than the black and white one I likely made it to be early in my career. And one not easily fully discussed in a blog post! 🙂 Thanks for the encouragement! I am in full agreement that building a classroom community where open discussions can be held leads to children developing the skills that will serve them well as members of society. It takes time and reflection and patience, but when its done well it is beautiful and leads to the peaceful, supportive classroom we all desire. Malisa

  3. I used to have a very strict policy about gun play too. About a year ago I read an article very similar to the ones in this post that gave me a completely different perspective on gun play. I grew up with hunting guns in the house and I even went hunting with my dad a few times. My grandfather used to keep a bb gun at his house that we could take into the back yard and shoot at a metal garbage can lid. We had so much fun doing all of this. When I got older and became a parent I immediately became terrified of having guns anywhere near the kids. After I read the article a year ago I sent a copy of it to all of my daycare parents and asked them to let me know what their thoughts were on this issue. Most of them were not comfortable with gun play, but they agreed with the article. It also became important because two of the children I watch have a father who is a police officer and he also was in the guard and got sent to Afganistan for a year. This kind of play still makes me uncomfortable, but I try to hide that and watch and listen when they do play this way. We have also had talks about what we would do if we found a gun. It can really turn into a learning experience.

  4. Thanks Chris for your thoughtful response! I appreciate that you are being reflective on your practices and respectful of the family’s culture as well as taking the opportunity to use teachable moments for important conversation – signs of a mastery teacher. 🙂 Have a wonderful holiday weekend!!