If I had a dime for each time I heard a group of boys say: “shoot, kill, gun, sword, attack, bad guy or good guy,” I could retiree from teaching. And if I interfered or corrected this language each time it occurred, I’d retiree as an old grump. Instead I learn ways to relate, to find deeper psychological and emotional understanding, and embrace it for what it really is: kids at play.
Inevitable heroism and battle language is more often heard coming out of boy’s mouths, however young girls also tend to chime in from time to time. But for the sake of this article we will focus more on the boys, as this is where most of the cultural hype around “aggressive play” most notable stems.
“This is my shooter,” the boy belts out after constructing weaponry out of tape and Popsicle sticks. “Look, I made a sword,” another four year whispers to another playmate. All of these fascinations to weapons preschoolers brandish in the midst of play further reflect a society that tends to idolize weapons, either through war, military industrial complexes, media (cartoons, magazines, television, radio, etc.), an Uncle Billy who shoots pheasants or an older brother plucking squirrels with a B.B gun – guns and the sense of elusive power behind them is not going away any time soon. Many battles raged and many wars fought, on a patriarchal front. To many battles and wars to list inside one book, let alone an article. We are a world saturated in weaponry. And when a mother or father here’s that little Johnny or Susan is mesmerized by things that shoot and go boom, you want to pin them down and read about Gandhi. Yeah, all this war, cops, and robbers in the play yard certainly can drive adults absolutely bananas! But seriously, what is all this talk and fascination of weaponry really about?
Living within a culture that is entrenched in violence and war, anxiety about young people creating or playing games revolving around guns, lifesavers, swords, arrows, and other like weapons, can be alarming for adults. Honestly there is not a day that goes by as an early childhood educator that I do not hear inferences to weaponry. This interesting connection to things that go “boom, ” in the preschool world is not going away soon, with or without “no weapons policy,” (For the record: I am referring here to imaginative weapons.) at school, or the home front. Environments that preach absentee or a No Tolerance approach to kids pretending to project weaponry, usually are constructed out of a place of fear and anxiety, which do not constitute a rational understanding of kids play, in particular boys who imbued in the fascination of hunting and weaponry. These environments either in the home or at school, I would argue starkly resemble the ineffective or destructive approach of Drug Free School Zones. Systems of “no tolerance” measures originate from a punitive place that leaves kids further alienated socially, distraught, and other wise not to be trusted in the eyes of an adult. In these systematic structures imposed by adults that enforce 0 tolerance measures, leaves little in any room for experimentation and exploration in life. Rarely, the adults who thrust these measures among young people take the suitable amount of time to build more of an understanding and connection with why they experiment in this degree of play, and as a result kids are being condemned for the nature in which they chose to play, instead the behavior becomes stereotypically illegal, inappropriate, unacceptable, punishable, or banned from happening. Freedom does not necessarily mean license, as A.S. Neil in Summerhill, A Radical Approach TO Child Rearing strongly advocated that within any community there exist a mutual respect. In other words the adult does not intrude or force a child to a defined way of being, nor does the child inflict these same measures of pressure on the adult. Just imagine if some one in a position of say: “authority,” came along and demanded that no longer can you indulge in a certain freedom in your home or community without any inquiry, questioning or further discussion. As adult and what would this pressure look and feel like? Surely it does occur in our times, but rightfully so, should we be inflicting it onto kids and does it come from a place of nurturing and understanding. I’m not advocating to sitting out in the play yard watching submissively if another kid is poking another in the face with a sharp stick, but there needs to be more space for kids to play those games that tend to be on the rough side, and where conflict just may arise, no matter how annoying it may be.
Kids who are learning about the world either the days before they enter young adult hood or in their early elementary school age, search to find ceremonial ways of belonging, and the imagination wrapped around power, identification to the group, and experimentation have precedence and relevance. One way kids, especially boys begin to process and relate tot the complexities of the world is through inventing imaginary conflicting characters and sources of weaponry to act out engaging scenarios.
Lend an ear in the schoolyard around the pre-k and kindergarten age group and you’re sure to get an earshot of “good guys versus bad guys ” or “our team versus your team.” This language is important to growth, as they learn to perceive power dynamics.
Despite the teachers pipe dream of harmonious and cooperate play the structure of the play in a free environment is defined by the minds of the young people doing the playing, and sometimes play can be conflicting.
All human beings have seeds of violence and love inside them, but playing cops and robbers or war in the play yard gives reason for adults to be seriously alarmed? One particular boy in my classroom has a quick trigger figure, like a nervous tick in the spontaneity of the game. And when he tends to be angry or frustrated his hand points in rapid fire, as if it is a gun. Many who do not know him would be quick to judge and label him as aggressive or violence. (Actually within a few months this trigger-happy behavior weaned and must of those unsettling, socially nervous issues of distraught, along with sometimes disruptiveness of others playing, has stopped, mostly because of the pressures and complaint coming from his peers.) But, I find him and the mostly boys I have encountered who thrive for a game of using pretend weapons, as vulnerable, sensitive, sometimes insecure, and generally sensitive to emotions and others. When adults spend too much time labeling or branding the behavior then often times the individual continues to be stymied within a role of the “agitator.” This is self-deprecating label, much like the popular label of “bullying” that it is so prominently misused in our media. Names, labels, casting judgment or any other intrusive labels cause much more harm, and stiffens the natural growth of children. It is respectful to watch our tongue around kids, being careful not to slap a label on their play. For example, over hearing another teacher visiting our school (with years under her belt in early childhood) “Joseph you are being aggressive and mean towards others…you need to stop being a bully.” This is where we can show more tolerance, patience and sheer mutual respect can come into play. Take the time out to listen and connect to this play, to discover why a kid may be choosing this form of play, while being careful not to analyze or place adult anxieties on the play they may be indulging in.
Developmentally four and five years olds are at the epic age of exploring competitive play, of defining their personal limits – testing the waters, — squabbling with others, and learning how to work it out. These competitive games where groups team-up, boys versus girls or girls versus boys, and the mantra of “winning,” some how emerges despite your wishes that it would subside, kids thrive on setting structure within their play, as they learn about commonalities and differences. These games also exist because socially and emotionally they’re at the appropriate age to go through these struggles, especially in autonomous school environments where relationships can fully blossom.
Sometimes as early childhood educators, requests for kids to conceal or stop the brandishing of their imaginative weapon fall short, as they return in blank stares, as if awoken from a bad dream. After all these games can be an educators nightmare if we do not take the appropriate time out to rethink, reflect, and relate to the challenging behavior around weaponry play.
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