"Many parents worry when their children play with pretend weapons. But this kind of play is one way children meet their needs to feel strong and powerful. Not all weapons play is the same, and it is important to look at the nature of the play to figure out whether it is harmful to children.
"For this play to have a positive effect, it needs to be controlled by the child, show creativity and imagination, and change over time. It then becomes important for adults to find ways to discuss the issues that come up in the play to help their children deal with the issues they are working on."
Diane Levin, Ph.D.
Professor of Education, Wheelock College. Co-Author, The War Play Dilemma.
Children — particularly those between the ages of three and eight — frequently bring events they've heard or seen on the news into their art and play. Watching this play gives adults a window into children's thoughts and feelings and opens the door for specific discussions.
"Young children play about anything they hear in the news that interests, puzzles or worries them," says teacher Jane Katch, M.S.T., author of Under Deadman's Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children's Violent Play. "If they hear about a bombing, they may make imaginary bombs and drop them on bad guys. If they hear about a school shooting, they may take turns pretending to be shooters and victims. If they hear about adoption, they may want to see what it feels like to be adopted. If they hear about endangered animals, they play games about hunters and their prey. Children play about issues that concern them in order feel safe and in control. It's similar to the way adults use conversations with colleagues and friends to help them understand events and put them in perspective."
While many parents and teachers find it fascinating when children act out their reactions to events, they worry when the play becomes filled with violent images and actions. After 9/11 parents wondered if they should let their children play-act the Twin Towers falling down. After Hurricane Sandy, some parents worried when their children pretended to be hurricane victims in puddles at the playground. And there are ongoing concerns when children play with pretend guns, knives, and swords. A big fear is that if children's play is violent then kids will learn lessons about becoming violent. Many parents wonder if they should stop kids from play-acting in this way.
"There is no simple answer," says Diane Levin, Ph.D., co-author of The War Play Dilemma. "Like it or not, children are exposed to violent images on the news and they bring these images into their play. And in these violent times, this means the play often turns into war play. Parents' and teachers' attempts to limit this play are frequently met with difficulty. Teachers who ban it talk about an underworld that develops anyway, just out of the teacher's reach. Therefore it's very important when this happens to watch the play, discuss its content, and make sure everyone is safe."