"One of the best ways to help children counteract the glorified or harmful lessons about violence they may be learning in their play is to give them strategies for problem-solving in their own lives. This will help them learn what it means to solve problems without using violence. You might say, 'When you are playing your hurricane game, your little brother looks scared. What can you do to let your brother know he is safe?' Let your child come up with solutions, only offering suggestions if necessary."
Diane Levin, Ph.D.
Professor of Education, Wheelock College. Co-Author, The War Play Dilemma.
Young children will frequently incorporate what's happening in the news into their play. This could be global news of natural disasters, mass shootings, terrorism, and war as well as local news about crime, accidents, and fires.
Because the content of the play can be quite disturbing, a parent's first impulse is frequently to tell kids to stop playing. However experts actually recommend you allow the play within reasonable limits. And they say it's important to "check in" with children about the play and discuss the lessons they may be learning.
These tips will help you understand and then discuss your child's news-related play.
Start by watching the play unfold without interrupting. By silently paying attention, you can find out more about what your child knows, is struggling to understand, or may be worried about.
Gently intervene if a child gets scared. It's important to keep the play feeling safe. If it gets scary or out of control, pause the play, and initiate a discussion about what feels scary. Ask kids to describe the rules of the game and come up with some revisions to make everyone feel safe. "A good question to ask is, 'How can we play this game so it will still be fun, but Suzy won't be too scared?' Allow the children to problem-solve on their own. In my class kids made up rules like 'you can only kill bad guys but not good guys' to help others feel comfortable," says teacher Jane Katch, M.S.T., author of Under Deadman's Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children's Violent Play.
Extend the play if it becomes repetitive. At times children may imitate acts they've seen in the media over and over again. If this goes on for long periods without evolving, you may want to introduce new objects and characters to turn the play into a positive and new direction. "Offer simple objects, like toy cars, airplanes, dolls, or plastic figures that relate to an event that has occurred — so kids can act out some of the things they might need to express," recommends Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed. D, co-author of The War Play Dilemma. "If the play gets stuck, you might ask how people can help each other, or provide toys such as rescue vehicles and medical equipment."
If you join the play, don't take over. Try to follow your child's lead as she acts out her story, rather than telling her what to do. Remember that play is reassuring and satisfying in itself.
Talk together. When the play is done, you might talk with children about what they acted out, if this seems appropriate. Discuss the news stories and issues addressed in the children's play and answer kids' questions simply. This discussion is an opportunity to clear up confusions, revise the rules and talk through conflicts that may have come up.