Many of the children absolutely love to play ‘good guy, bad guy games’. Many of them create or seek out games where they can be the hero, save the day, even be a little afraid and scream and run with reckless abandon all over the yard. They work with their friends to protect each other, to find safety and to make plans to thwart the bad guy and keep everyone safe. They sometimes have to stop the games to catch their breath – or because they actually get a little scared and it is too much, or because they want to change roles. Sometimes they like to be the bad guy, the one that eludes capture, is the big powerful animal or monster, can growl loudly and chase and capture. And, although it is not our favorite, some children like to have pretend weapons in their games – super powers, claws, guns, lasers, blasters or swords. The tools of heroes as they often see it. We see games like this every single year no matter what we say or do. They often pop up sometime in the 4 year old year with a couple of the kids and other children are often drawn to these projects. Some children stay away, happily playing their family puppy game in another area of the yard or classroom.
We watch these games. We watch to make sure the children understand when their play goes too far – when the rough-housing crosses over to aggression and anger and is no longer play – although it is amazing how well most of them can gauge their playmates emotional and physical responses and limits and make sure the play remains harmless – but still fun – still with some risk. I think that is what makes it fun for them and challenging and interesting. We watch to make sure that children can stand up for themselves when they need to - say “STOP. I don’t like this anymore.” This is an important skill to learn, and often needs a context to be able to learn it. Sometimes we need to help children find their voice. We watch the children who are NOT playing the games and work to make sure that only children who have chosen to be in the game are part of the pretend aggression. You can’t throw your super laser blast at someone that is not playing with you. That is a hard and fast rule. We use the word ‘intimidating’ – ‘when you point your laser at someone that is not playing with you it is intimidating. It makes them feel threatened and uncomfortable. In our class we have to respect everyone’s right to play or not play.’
Games with pretend weapons always create a tension – mostly for the adults. We cringe when we see the kids with their pretend guns, swords and light sabers. We don't have commercially made toy weapons at school, but kids invent them. They make these or find something that will work as a stand in. My friend was telling me last night they had a no gun play rule at first and her son used beanie babies as pretend guns. As adults we have visuals in our head of what these real items can do and it is hard and sometimes impossible to allow the play to continue. We do curb it sometimes at school, but I always find myself wondering if sanitizing their play is best for them. The children have different images and understandings in their heads than adults do.
We fully embrace the idea that play is how children make sense of the world around them. Through play the children are able grapple with ideas and concepts they know about and hear about in the world. Protection, heroism, security, death, family, friendship, community, destruction, war, compassion, kindness, evil, weapons, safety, power, love. While we enjoy watching them play through the positive aspects of life (what is better than seeing kids play family and take care of their pretend children or playing a puppy friendship game?), it is hard to watch them process the more negative or aggressive aspects. But, I wonder, can they truly understand either if they are not allowed to process all of the concepts swirling in their heads?
On September 11, 2001 I was teaching at Foothills. The children entered school like any other day although their parents looked like zombies. I remember walking into our block area and a child was building a tower with big foam blocks and asked me to help her find an airplane. I helped her find one and she, quite happily, began to run the plane into the towers she had created. I remember thinking I was afraid to let anyone see her doing it. I watched in horror. But I let her do it. She didn’t say much, just making crashing sounds, but kept building and knocking it down. Another child came over and told her in excited tones that that really happened on TV today. She told him she knew and asked him if he wanted to play. He helped her build up the tower again. I don’t know why she wanted to do it – but all I could think about was, who was I to stop her? I hated that she was thinking about something so terrible and it was hard to watch them play this game with smiles on their faces. But it was all I could think about too. We are both human beings. We both need to process and try to make sense of the world around us – the good and the bad.
We recently had a discussion with the 4-5s and 345s class about good guy bad guy play and guns in the classroom and about how we noticed that there have been more weapons like guns in their play lately. We asked how they felt about it. About 5 of the children in the 4-5's class said they didn’t like the play with pretend guns. One said, “because it makes them feel like it is real.” About 3 or 4 of them said they like to play the games with weapons. That "it is really fun". One boy told us when he grows up he is going to be a police officer and they have guns. One explained all the things his scanner gun that he made could do like scan for good and bad, light up and shoot. Some shared that their family has guns. We told them that often grown-ups are really uncomfortable with games that have pretend killing and especially with pretend weapon and gun play. We talked about the fact that there are real guns and that they are never toys. We told them grown-ups worry that children won't know the difference. We talked about what they should do if they were ever somewhere where they see a real gun or one that might be real (reiterating what Officer Hooker told them when she visited in the fall). We have also talked about being able to say when you don't like what is happening in a game - using your voice and your right to say you don't like what is happening. We asked them if we could make an agreement for now at school that if we make pretend machines at school, that they are not for pretend killing. Almost everyone agreed. We let them know that this agreement is something we came up with because it is uncomfortable for the grown-ups and some of the children. We want them to understand that their interest is not a reflection on them as people at all - it is because we are uncomfortable. We let them know that if they disagreed they could come talk to us about it. No one has – yet. And on some days of course - the good guy/bad guy games certainly continue with huge excitement and smiles.
It is an agreement that I am pretty comfortable with - but not completely. I was talking to a friend who teaches at at another school and she was telling me about a game the kids are playing where some are animals eating babies! Nice. But again – it is not malicious. The children are not being unkind, violent, antisocial as their real selves. They are playing out something – something kind of impossible for us to truly understand. Would it be better to stop them? We know that when we do stop the play, many then try to hide it from us, knowing we don't like their choice of play (which feels super yucky too). We want them to know they can be honest with us. I know it would make me feel more comfortable not to see children pretend shooting each other or pretend eating the baby dolls – but in the end, controlling and sanitizing their play feels like we are betraying a trust we have with the children and a belief we hold strong. Is play only for processing warm/fuzzy concepts – or is it far more complicated than that? In some ways I think of them as playwrights – author, actor and audience of their own complex theater. Where does our censorship begin and end in the invention of their stories . . . We grapple with this a lot.
I know we all have different opinions and perspectives and very strong feelings on this topic. These are your children and you have hopes and dreams and concerns and fears that dictate your desires for their experience. We, of course, will continue to monitor their projects closely and have discussions with the children, with you and with each other. We have that luxury in preschool. We navigate our path forward with our own research, experience, reading, observation, relationships with the children and all of your varying perspectives. It is overwhelming sometimes. But, it is part of learning and living as a community. We respect each of you – and each of your wonderful children.