Got Preschoolers "Playing Guns"?

I got this question recently from an Instructional Coach and I KNOW she is not alone in wanting help with a situation like this so I wanted to share it in case you have a similar situation or know anyone who does...

"Barb, Any suggestions on a preschooler who's only interest is playing with guns? 

He is one that one of my teachers is having a lot of behavior issues. I suggested implementing a behavior plan but first determine his interest. 

Playing with guns is PROHIBITED within our district."

I want to urge you all to recognize that gun play is NOT a behavior problem. 

I understand it can be "challenging." 

Honestly, I don't love it either.

It's not my favorite kind of play to deal with (second least favorite for me is when they start roaring and smashing the dinosaurs into each other).

I understand that if its against the rules of the school and the child insists on doing it anyway (as most will) it functions as a "challenging behavior" for you as the teacher and is in fact an instance of the child not following the rules. 


Gun play functioning as "challenging behavior" is essentially an adult-created behavior problem.

Now let's back up a bit...

I understand the rationales behind prohibiting it (it seems violent, it can sometimes result in a child getting actually hurt when they get riled up, some of the other children don't like it, many - though not all - of the parents and families get upset by it), and we want to keep kids safe and we want them to engage in peaceful play. 

I understand in the example above that the system that this coach and teacher are working in prohibit gun play so that makes things very difficult.  I also am not saying that you should allow it (though ideally in the long run it might be worth examining where these rules come from, why they are there, and are they serving the best interests of all involved). 

But here's the thing, young children are fascinated with powerful you know!

Dinosaurs. Superheroes. Trucks that destroy buildings and throw piles of dirt around. 

They love magic and pretend and power.

And, when they are exposed to powerful things - for some children perhaps especially things forbidden by adults - they like to explore them in their play. 

Plus, some children have guns in their lives.

Their family or community hunts. They have a family member in the military and/or guns in the home. 

In some cases guns could be presented children (or are in the background of their lives) in a positive and recreational manner.

For others they've actually been exposed to gun violence and its been a negative or even deadly exposure.

Children who have experienced any of the above naturally want to explore this in their play.

It's 100% developmentally appropriate for children to pretend to make guns or to play out gun-related themes.

Therefore, to view this as a 'behavior problem" is not really fair to the child. Pragmatically speaking, viewing gun play as a behavior problem is simply a misunderstanding of what's going on and not all that helpful.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If there is more going on with this child in the above scenario then a behavior plan may be totally necessary and be helpful. 

I'm not gonna tackle how to prevent or address gun play in this email. I think each program and teacher have to find their own way with this and there is no universal approach that's going to be right for everyone. My purpose here is to increase the number of early childhood educators who understand gun play as it relates to children's development and developmentally appropriate practice.

To that end here's a great article that elaborates on some of the ideas I've introduced here as well as some others. It's from the National Association for the Education of Young Children's (NAEYC) publication, Young Children, so you know it's from a trusted source:

Here's a list of more resources and reading, also by NAEYC:

Read up! 

Be curious.


Then, please, I'd be overjoyed if you shared your thoughts, struggles, experiences in the comments below...tell us how you deal with this issue.