NO PLAYING WITH GUNS.
|You can play at being a policeman. But|
you can't play with a gun.
I hate it when I see on TV every single night the suffering caused to ordinary people by real-life gun use. I hate the way guns are used to solve problems in books and on screens. I don't want that quick-fix, no-think solution modelled to the world's children. I don't want the world's children growing up with guns being normalised like that. I don't want kids to think guns are toys.
So when my son was young, I had a rule. (Lots of urban parents have this rule in Australia, though it's probably different in other demographics.)
No toy guns in this house.
I started out my Early Childhood career as a no-guns teacher, too. I fitted right in; nearly every centre where I worked had a rule about that.
No guns at school.
We don't shoot our friends, not even pretending.
All very well in theory; but as I've discovered over time, our homes and our care centres exist within the real world, not in some fairy-floss land constructed by well-meaning adults. There are guns included in the spy and soldier and cowboy costumes at the toy shop, and guns used in superhero movies and cop shows and cartoons, and real guns on the news. There are guns in the hands of police on the street, guns in the hands of soldiers and in the holsters of security guards. There are dads who play Paintball with paint guns, and there are big brothers who play shoot-'em-up video games with virtual guns.
This is the real world, and in the real world children copy what they see others do. That's what children are hard-wired to do; it's one of the ways they learn.
I started my turn-around on gun play when I started reading a blog by a mum whose partner is in the navy, Momma in Progress. One day when I was thinking about gun play I put myself in that mum's shoes, and I thought hang on. In her world, a gun may well be part of daddy's tool kit. I expect that this mum, and many other parents with military connections, deeply believe that weapons are a legitimate part of daddy's positive role as a keeper of the peace. Why wouldn't a child of a military family want to play at doing daddy's job sometimes- just like the child whose dad is a truck driver, or a builder, or a farmer?
And then I thought, what happens socially when the children of the military go to preschool and are told that using guns is bad? And what about the children of the police, security guards and other 'good guys' who use a gun? Is banning gun play a form of discrimination against these children? Will these children feel a sense of belonging to their school community if gun play is viewed as intrinsically bad?
Why do we always frame gun play as bad, regardless of the context of the children's play? We always seem to think the worst of children who want to run around with a fantasy gun. We're quick to apply labels. Why is that?
These are questions that I certainly never thought about when I first started working in Early Childhood. I think it's important we do think about them, because the definition of insanity is to go on doing something that's not working, expecting a different result.
And making rules about gun play is not working. Here is a run-down of your average day in a preschool room full of energetic, four-year-old boys where there is a 'no gun play' rule.
You start off with a rule that the kids aren't allowed to have toy guns. You don't supply them, and the kids aren't allowed to bring them from home.
The moment you turn your back, Johnny and Jimmy have made L-shapes out of a few pieces of building kit and they're pointing them at each other. P-chow!
Oops; immediately, we need another rule.
No making guns with the Lego. No making guns with the Mobilo. No building guns, full stop!
But the desire is strong. Where there's a will there's a way. Maybe they'll go round the corner, or wait till you're not looking, to play with their make-do guns.
Or maybe they'll just get devious.
"It's not a gun. It's a magic wand / laser stick / invisible-making-shape-shifter-space-rocket-blaster / (fill in each child's favourite fantastic truth-bender)."
|"It's not a gun, it's a|
bow and arrow."
What to do then? Believe them, or call them liars? You know in your heart that they're just trying to put you off the scent, but probably you'd rather believe these children are essentially not deceitful... and you can't prove they intended the toys to be guns...
Of course, you could always put away the Lego, and the Mobilo, and the paper towel tubes, and every-other-possible-thing-you-can-make-a-gun-from.
But it doesn't matter what you do or say. Take away their creations, turn around twice, and they've picked up sticks and are pointing them at each other. P-chow!!
Oops. Time for another rule.
No playing with sticks. No pretend guns out of sticks.
Ban that, turn around twice, and they're shooting their fingers at each other. P-chow! Tchoo! Tchoo!
What are you going to do now? Ban pointing? Ban saying "p-CHOW!"? (Good luck.)
What a lot of rules. What a lot of negativity. ECTs know we're supposed to allow the children to follow their interests, yet here we are making a whole string of restrictive rules about an obvious interest. Some of the children are ignoring those rules completely, because their interest is so strong.
Is there another way?
I believe there is. I believe we can forge a middle course between encouraging mock-violence and banning gun play. (And remember, I hate guns.)
If we've done our reading and research, we'll know that children need to experiment with power and control; often they do this through role play. This is one of the ways that children learn empathy.
Think of an example like this, which I've seen unfold in the playground many times. The child is playing 'policeman' and using his 'gun' to help him put the baddie in jail, because that's what he's seen on TV. Then another child comes into the game and 'releases' the prisoner.
When you look at the whole picture, the policeman-with-a-gun game is a reflection of a pretty normal aspect of our society, and it's also made a stage for another child to practise empathy- he sees his friend 'locked up' and enters the game to set him free. These role plays are good things, not bad things. If the play gets too rough, the other children will protest- you bet your life they will. (And then we can take control on the basis of the roughness, not on the basis of a blanket ban on the fantasy tool.)
Children engaging in gun play are not typically shooting at the good guys, are they? They're trying to control 'the bad guys'. And while we may not like seeing children using 'guns' to do so, they're only copying what's around them; they're only experimenting with power, as seen in the adult and the fictional world.
Putting a negative value on every bit of play involving a pretend 'gun' doesn't eliminate the children's desire. It only puts a barrier between us and the kids- it builds a wall between our personal knowledge of the subject and the children's curiosity. It creates a situation where the children are prepared to defy us to explore their interest, and that's never a good look.
And so my 'middle course' would start with removing the value judgments and knocking down that wall. I've never tried this, mind you. I'm still in the construction stages of this new philosophy. I'll welcome your comments to help me to refine my strategy.
I'd start by sitting down with all the kids at mat time after I'd witnessed the first gun play of the year, and I'd say,
"Let's talk about guns."
(I can guarantee that I'd have the perpetrators' attention right there.)
I'd narrate what I'd seen in the playground, and I'd ask those involved to tell us about the game they'd been playing.
And then I'd stimulate discussion. I'd follow the threads that the children's game suggested. I might throw in some questions, depending on where the children's contributions led.
"What are guns used for?"
"What sorts of people use guns?"
"What do guns look like?"
"Has anybody seen a real gun?"
"Where have you seen pictures of guns?"
"Does anybody have a story to tell about a gun?"
"Do you think guns are a good thing or a bad thing?"
I would certainly ask this question:
"Some people feel safe with pretend guns around, and some people feel scared. What do you feel when people play gun games near you? Do you feel excited? Do you feel scared? Do you feel bored?"
(Note that my first project of the year is always to explore feelings, to help the children increase their vocabulary of 'feeling' words, so they should feel comfortable with this approach.)
And this question may well come up naturally from that:
"Do we need to make some rules about gun games to keep everyone safe and happy?"
Teacher Tom has a very fine post about giving the children agency in making room rules, and I would model what happened next on that. I do recommend that you have a look at that post, if you haven't already done so. (The crux of it is that to be written up on the list, a rule must be agreed on by the whole group, and certainly not just imposed by the teacher.) It is ever so much easier to maintain rules which the children themselves have agreed on.
Perhaps we would end up with a rule that gun play is allowed in a certain area only, or that 'guns' must not be pointed at people's faces, or that if someone says 'stop' you have to listen. But the vital element is that each rule must be put forward by and agreed on by the children; the teacher nudges rather than leading.
This would be a complex discussion. Any teacher leading a 4-year-old group discussion on such a controversial subject would need to be on his or her toes, reminding the children of prior agreed rules that gun play must not break (for example, some classes have a standing rule of 'be kind') without putting a general label on the role play.
These issues are not too complex for four-year-olds to toss around if the teacher has thought carefully about it beforehand. Releasing the lock-down on the topic of guns allows us to share our own feelings and reasoning, and it allows the children to do the same. Once you stop banning something, I also believe it becomes slightly less desirable and fascinating.
If the fascination remains, the interest can be treated like any other interest; perhaps a small area of the room can be devoted to a display related to the army, the police and other gun-carrying 'good guys' and the interest followed up in art and stories and resources. Children can be actively taught that guns are dangerous and that they should tell an adult immediately if they find a real gun- without playing with it, without pulling the trigger. Isn't that a lesson you would like actively taught, especially if you are a family who has a real gun somewhere on the property?
I can imagine a scenario where I might eventually- with the permission of the children's parents- supply some toy guns at circle time and ask the children, before anyone touched one, whether they were really sure that they were toys (and I would supply some very realistic toys). I would ask them what they would do next if I left the room right now, leaving the pile of guns on the floor.
Don't touch it.
Tell an adult at once.
Perhaps our fear of nurturing violent impulses is preventing us from educating children about the dangers of firearms- and perhaps that is wrong. Is prevention better than protection? Is education better than censorship? What do you think?