What To Do About Children Playing Guns

Today we are continuing the discussion on what to do about kids "playing guns."

If you missed the last email about this you can read about how children wanting to make guns out of Legos and pretend to shoot is 100% developmentally appropriate HERE. (There's also some links to NAEYC resources).

On to the question of: what do we do about gun play? 

Well, some of you have some GREAT ideas and practices around this and so with permission I want to share some of those:

" Gun play is as natural as playing with your food. There are lots of available foods, and lots of available ways to play. Gun play is only one of them, and like all food, it will pass." - Rudy, Early Childhood T/TA Specialist 

That wasn't exactly a how-to but more further food for thought on the naturalness of the urge to engage in pretend gun play, said in a way that made me giggle. 

But never fear, April has some very practical advice on how she talks to children about gun play...

"The more upset you get and make a big deal about gun play with your kiddos the more they will want to play it.  It makes it even more forbidden and then appealing. I'm always very real with kiddos and give them the honest facts that they want to know, answer their questions and then give them the reason for the decisions that the adults around them have made.  Something like "I know you enjoy playing with guns, you see them all around you on TV and in games and maybe in your houses.  Lets think about what guns do......   We talk about being kind to others and treating people with respect (hopefully you have brought them over to that mindset just by "Preaching" this to them everyday in your classroom) now where do guns fit in that kindness picture.  Lets talk about it - how could they be used for good?" I find that usually talking things through with kiddos and giving them the reasons why others around you are upset about something is so much better than just telling them they can't do it.  You teach them to problem solve in their everyday lives and situations so you should do the same with them when it involves them.  -April, (sorry, April I didn't get your job title! But it sounds like you're a teacher.)

You could also build some curriculum around this interest and take it to a really productive an educational place...

"I really think if a child/children are wanting to play with guns or express an interest, why not have a group discussion on gun safety? Bring in a professional, such a cop, to discuss gun safety. Why some people carry guns, why some people use guns, and so forth. Introducing safety at such a young age is valuable. That way a professional can not only talk about safety, but encourage a curious child to stay away. It's the "not knowing" that causes children to explore." -Karen, Disabilities Services Coordinator, Universal Pre-K

Ok, and then we have Linda's story on how she used to be anti gun play and what changed her mind on it. This is seriously worth a read. I was just exclaiming YES YES YES in my head as I read it...

"Thirty-two years ago when I was just beginning my early childhood teaching career, my husband and I had many discussions around gun-playin preschool settings.  He believed that gun-play should be allowed. I did not.  He grew up around guns (his father was a police officer) and he insisted that children need that type of play to learn and understand the power of guns and develop a respect for them.  He also insisted on teaching gun safety at the same time.  I was sure I was right in not allowing gun-play, after all, I had an early childhood degree.  Nine years later my son was born.  He was fascinated with guns from a very early age and seemed to always have something in his hand that represented a gun (even if it was his finger and thumb).  Fast forward to preschool 3 1/2 years old.  His teacher told him he had to keep his hands in his pockets if he insisted on them being guns.  As you can imagine, he had a hard time doing anything else when his little hands had to be in his pockets.  This frustrated me, as his mom, but I could not think of another solution that would satisfy both sides.  

Last April at the MiAEYC conference, Dan Hodgins spoke about children's need for gun and superhero play.  He went so far as to say maybe we need to consider the possibility that not allowing gun/superhero play is causing the increase in violent crimes in our schools.  I find myself agreeing with him on an intuitive level.  My son, who couldn't stop gun-play as a child, but as a teen would not even go hunting with his dad because he couldn't stand to see him shoot the deer.  My son still loves to go target practicing with his dad, but killing something is out of the question.  Gun-play did not make him want to use real guns on any living thing, especially people. 

I am now an early childhood specialist for GSRP classrooms.  This idea of gun-play comes up in our discussions frequently.  Our county is very rural and some public schools even close down for the opening day of deer hunting season.  Many of these children want to be able to reenact what they see their fathers do, bring home the food for the table.  But our response is, "no we don't do that at school".  Little girls are allowed to reenact what they see their moms do, but little boys can't reenact what their fathers do?  Are little boys supposed to think there is something wrong with what their fathers are doing?  I have pondered this often over the years.  I believe we need to allow children to have gun-play and superhero play and use them as a tool to teach children positive social behaviors.  An interesting thought just occurred to me, we don't take a toy away and say no one can play with it because children are arguing over it.  We teach positive social interaction using conflict resolution.  Why are we not teaching these same skills while children are having superhero interactions or "cops and robbers" fights?  Instead, we have taken away the toys and the teaching!  

I will continue to hope for this type of play to be allowed in preschools again!" - -Linda, Early Childhood Specialist


"Thanks Barb, great information, and a good time of year to receive it.  It’s hunting season in Michigan.  I agree with everything you shared." - Liz, Quality Improvement Consultant/IT Specialist

I pretty much agree with everything all these professionals who took time out of their busy days to respond have to say.

To me there is no one right way to talk to kids about this. We each have to find our own way. What's important to me is that we're not shaming kids for their interest or just saying no without explanation.

I like to tell kids, "some people don't like it when you pretend to make or use guns." If that's a school rule I will tell them that and explain that we can talk about guns but not act it out and why. It's also important to let children know that the "some people" who don't like their play are the other kids; it's not just adults. I'd have a firm boundary that we can't shoot at anyone who says stop or didn't agree to play the game and I'd give the kids who don't like it the words to use to tell the children with pretend guns, "I'm not playing," or "don't shoot at me." 

I think its a great opportunity to focus on learning and building your relationship with the child and not just focusing on shutting down the play. I'd ask questions like, "How did you learn about that?" "Where did you see guns?" "How do you know what people with guns do?" "Who uses guns?" These are genuinely open-ended questions where their are no right answers and I want to get to know how the child thinks, what they've been exposed to and what they know. 

For children who don't answer these questions (and even for those that do) you can also get inside the play with them and discover how they think about these things and maybe ask the questions after some co-playing when they will be more likely to trust you as someone they can speak to about their interest in guns.

What are your thoughts? And, by the way, I don't think we have to all agree. We certainly don't have to all respond in the same exact way. 

Please share your thoughts in the comments below…