Gunplay on the School Playground

Gunplay on the School Playground
Guest Blogger: Hillary Henne

As a teacher, I believe that it is not my job to imbed my personal sense of morality into the minds and hearts of young children. Rather, I hope to help them develop their own code, a sense of empathy and standards that they want to uphold as they make friends, approach challenges, and interact with the wider community. While I believe that my sense of right and wrong serves me relatively well, I also truly believe that there are as many different paths to being “good” as there are people in the world. 

I also know by my own observations and by the work of other teacher-researchers that play is a powerful way for children to learn. Through play, children make sense out of some surprisingly difficult domains—social-emotional connections, patterns of adult life, the boundaries between reality and fantasy. Play therapy is even used to help children who have experienced trauma to cope and recover. Dramatic play seems to come naturally in early childhood and gives children agency over their learning. 

All that is to say, when I noticed during the winter of last school year that many of the children in my class were frequently engaged in play that revolved around guns I was completely distressed. I was disturbed by the sight of children pretending to kill each other, making “pew! pew!” sounds and yelling “You’re dead!” Admittedly, I felt some judgement that this play, which seemed to be heavily influenced by media about which I felt skeptical, could not be offering the children anything substantial. I felt particularly concerned for those children on the periphery who were engaged in other play but continually found themselves in the line of fire, so to speak. I began to feel like I was spending much of every recess helping to resolve conflicts that began with “He/she SHOT me and….” 

As this play became dominant during outdoor time, one of my colleagues brought the issue up during an early childhood faculty meeting. As teachers, we seemed to be unanimous in our personal dislike of guns. Our immediate approach to the topic was an attitude of problem solving—play that revolved around guns and violence did not fit into our shared vision of classrooms where children were learning to live peacefully. Guns were, in our first round of thinking, powerful, scary, and a symbol drawn from violent media. We imagined that our goal should be to help children move past this type of play and on to something more peaceful. However, our attempts to forbid gun play on the playground had been an unmitigated failure. Either children became creative in their explanations (“It’s not a gun, it’s a blaster/laser/water cannon/bubble shooter/ etc.”) or else they became stealth gun users—shooting from behind trees or the part of the playground farthest from teachers. We were not punitive, but each time the issue arouse attempted to be as honest as possible with children about why gun play was forbidden. Day after day I told children “Guns are very scary,” “Guns are used to hurt people,” and even “We don’t pretend to have guns at school because guns kill people.” To my frustration though, I found that these explanations that felt so weighty to me seemed to make little impact on preschoolers and kindergarteners. Even those children who I knew to be particularly empathic and thoughtful would nod their heads and immediately return to shooting their friends. After several weeks it became clear that our moratorium on gunplay was not teaching children a meaningful lesson about living peaceful lives. Instead from our simple solution children had learned a simple lesson: don’t let teachers see you shooting guns. 

As the playground wars raged on, we decided to consult research about gunplay and so called “heroic play”, or play focused on children feeling powerful. Each of the early childhood teachers spent time reading up on the subject and chose articles to bring back to the group. We read everything from neuroscience about the developing brain to other teachers’ accounts of seeing children play shooting games (some of which could have been verbatim accounts of our own recess experiences). The research reflected many of our concerns: that children, some through the media and others through life experiences, are exposed to a striking level of violence, that it is in the best interest of children to teach them skills to solve problems without violence, that guns are scary, that children prosper when they feel safe at school. However, the research we encountered suggested an opposite solution to the one we had been attempting so far. By allowing children to engage in gunplay, they have the opportunity to work through ideas and concerns about violence. Modern media has made violence, both real and fictional, a very real presence for children. Play, then, becomes a tool for them to make sense of that part of their world as they do so much else. Shooting pretend guns on the playground, then, does not mean children will grow up to live lives of violence any more than pretending to be a dragon means they will grow up to breath fire. 

So as a group of teachers, we decided to simply say nothing about it when we heard the yells of “pew pew pew!” When a child who was bothered came running over to tell us that people were shooting guns, I practiced offering up neutral answers like “Oh, are they?” I also began to have productive conversations with children about their feelings. Before, the conversation ended when I told children “We don’t shoot guns at school.” Now that the play was out in the open, I had the opportunity to talk to children about how they felt when they were shooting, or what they could do if they wanted someone to stop. By not openly disapproving of something that was clearly important to them, I could resume my role as a trusted consultant for children to turn to when their play challenged them. 

Play is a tool that belongs entirely to children. In play, they can be the captains of their own ships and the leaders of their own expeditions. By watching children play, it’s clear how much they already know about the world. It’s also humbling. There are things I want children to know that I can never teach them. Fortunately though, I can step back and give them the space to teach themselves. I can work to create a safe space for them to learn in. And while there are times that it can be powerful for me to speak about my observations of an individual child’s learning, ultimately they are the only one who can fully account for what an experience has meant to them.

Hillary currently teaches second grade in Hopewell, Virginia. She is a former Breakwater preschool teacher and holds a Masters degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education from Sarah Lawrence College. 

Don't forget to register for Guns, Weapons, and Power Play: An Exploration Workshop for Educators with Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW