Gun Play


In our Family Inventors class last week, we had giant tinker toys for the kids to play with. A group of boys designed and built three identical “blasters”. From a tinkering / creativity perspective, I thought these were great examples of working to create and replicate something cool.

But once kids build guns, what comes next? Gun play.

They were pretending to shoot them at each other, and some kids were having fun, but one child was upset about being shot at. I could sense that asking them to stop pretending to shoot the blaster was not going to happen, and asking them to take apart their new inventions would not go well, so I suggested target shooting. I went to draw a target on the white board, but my husband had the even better idea of drawing asteroids on the white board that the kids would “blast apart”. He would draw, erase, re-draw and so on as they blasted asteroids in their defense of the earth.

It was a very fun game. And it re-framed guns. Instead of being tools to hurt other people with, they were tools used to destroy dangerous objects in the distance before those objects could hurt people.

I think that no matter what your views are on guns and gun control, it is inarguable that guns are very powerful tools. The question is how do we talk about appropriate use of this powerful tool. And about harmful uses of this tool.

Does gun play increase aggression?

In this era of appalling incidents of gun violence, parents worry that if children play with guns they will become violent. The research shows this is not true. In fact, just the opposite may be true – playing with aggressive toys as a child may make it less likely to be aggressive as an adult.

I know this from my own experience. I grew up in Wyoming in the 60’s and 70’s. We played with cap guns, BB guns, squirt guns, toy bow and arrows, toy swords. I loved shooting all these things at siblings and friends! Yet, as an adult, I am an extreme pacifist. I have never touched an actual gun, by conscious choice, despite many opportunities. (My siblings and childhood friends from the same environment vary in their choices: some keep guns in the home for self-defense, some own rifles for hunting, others, like me, avoid guns. But none of us are aggressors – no cases of gun violence or gun accidents among the group of us.)

But, I also know this from research. Research does not find a connection between play aggression and real aggression. (Note: It is important to differentiate between play fighting and serious fighting. Serious fighting is motivated by anger and a desire to harm, and must be handled differently. Play fighting has no intent to harm and is enjoyed by all participants. It is important to monitor play fighting, as sometimes a child will accidentally hurt another and the harmed child may strike out in real physical anger as a response.)

Researchers Hart and Tannock say “If playful aggression is supported, it is highly beneficial to child development. The act of pretending to be aggressive is not equivalent to being aggressive. Role reversal, cooperation, voluntary engagement, chasing and fleeing, restrained physical contact, smiling and laughing are common characteristics of playful aggression.” (Young Children’s Play Fighting and Use of War Toys by Hart and Tannock.)

What makes gun play so fascinating? Why are kids so interested in it?

  • Guns are powerful. Kids often feel powerless, so the idea of power is intoxicating.
  • One way that children learn about and make sense of adult experiences is to play at them. So, if they watched a cooking show, they might play at cooking. If they watch a show with guns in it, they’ll want to play with guns.
  • Guns are a way to vanquish bad guys, or monsters. (Note: girls may use magic wands or pixie dust to accomplish the same goal. In both cases, it’s about vanquishing a foe.)

Given all these motivations toward weapon play, it can be hard to successfully ban it. Often attempts to ban it make it even more appealing as the “forbidden fruit.”

Ways to Manage Gun Play:

Re-Direct: You can try white board target shooting like we did, or if children are shooting  actual missiles (like Nerf guns) you can set up empty cans or some other object for them to try to hit and knock over. Or think about what type of energy the guns might shoot out – Teacher Tom tells a story of children firing “love shooters” at each other. Some parents make the rule that you can’t shoot your gun at people, only at imaginary bad guys.

Talk about the power of guns and other options Talk to children about other ways to defeat (or reform or escape) “bad guys” or other creatures that frighten them.

Set Limits: It’s fine to limit the times and places where gun play is allowed. Maybe it’s an outdoor only thing, or only with one particular set of friends, not at school. It’s also important to teach kids to notice the impact of their play on others. How do they know if someone else wants to play the shooting game or would rather not participate? (Encourage them to use words, listen to words, notice body language, etc.) If the play is making you feel uncomfortable, you can say that. “I know you guys are playing, but it made me feel bad when you said you wanted to hurt your brother.”

Ask the kids to help make the rules: In a neighborhood squirt gun battle, not everyone wanted to play. I called the kids over and asked them what they thought fair rules were. One said “Only shoot at people who are playing.” I said “How do you know if they’re playing?” “If they have a squirt gun, you can shoot them.” We all agreed that seemed fair. One child had a smart phone in his hand, and said “don’t shoot people with phones!” I had my laptop and agreed “no shooting anyone who is working with electronics, because the water would ruin them.” That was all the rules we needed for a while, till one child blasted another in the face with a super soaker. New rule: no shooting in the face. Then a car pulled up and kids asked if they could shoot it, and we agreed (with the driver’s permission) that it was fine to squirt water at any car, but FIRST they needed to make sure all the windows were rolled up so no water could get inside.

Check In: When kids are engaged in weapon play, occasionally check in and ask: “Are you all having fun? Is anyone feeling worried or scared?” If anyone feels unsafe, the game needs to change.

Don’t buy toy weapons that can only be used as weapons. But, when they use open-ended toys to create weapons (like tinker toy blasters, or sticks as swords), realize that is just one of many ways they play with those open ended toys. Do safety proof checks: make sure toy weapons can’t cause real harm. If you do buy toy weapons, choose ones that look nothing like a real weapon.

Reduce exposure to media violence. And talk about media violence with your child in ways that reinforce your family’s values. Also, choose toys that don’t tie into violence. (If you choose action figures of a superhero or soldier or someone who always does battle, that is how your child is likely to play with it. Think instead about how a child plays with the action figures from “Paw Patrol” who have adventures as they rescue people.)

Note: If a child actually hurts other children, and either seems to enjoy that, or shows no empathy or remorse, that is concerning. and you may want to consult with a professional about the situation.

Talk to your children about real guns

Children need to know about real guns. We need to talk about them. But we also have to understand that no matter how many times we tell a child not to touch a real gun, if they see one they are likely to touch it. So, we also need to talk with other adults about how to keep real guns away from our kids. This article in Slate does a fabulous job of addressing this topic. Also, check out advice from Seattle Children’s Hospital about gun safety:

Read more on this topic:

Best source: It’s Fine for Kids to Play with Pretend Guns is a great overview of this whole topic:

Weapon Bans:

Keeping Kids from Toy Guns: The author writes “since living abroad … I’ve come to believe that one of the secrets of Asian boys’ self-regulation is the way aggressive play is seen as a normal stage of childhood, rather than demonized and hidden out of sight.”

Superheroism and War Play in the Classroom:  The author says “Working with three, four, and five year olds, the “good versus bad” interaction is constant. War like play is not going away, As educators may we create places understanding of our young “superheroes,” with more attention on the internal needs then what is occurring on the surface. As there is much more going on then meets the eye.”

Beyond Banning War and Superhero Play:
Try to reduce the impact of antisocial lessons that children learn both in and out of play. It can be helpful to encourage children to move from imitative to creative play so they can transform violence into positive behavior. Then talk with them about what has happened in their play (“I see Spiderman did a lot of fighting today. What was the problem?”). Help  children to connect their own firsthand positive experiences about how people treat each other to the violence they have seen (“I’m glad that in real life you could solve your problem with Mary by . . .”). These connections can help defuse some of the harmful lessons children learn about violence. Talking with children about violence is rarely easy, but it is one of our most powerful tools.”

Gun Play: (long but interesting academic discussion)



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