Early Childhood Education

War Play

 

“War play,” play with violent content and themes, is a form of play that has seemingly engaged children for centuries and across many cultures. Artifacts of what look like war toys have been found from ancient Egypt and the Middle Ages. It has always been a controversial form of play, with some adults seeing it as part of the normal repertoire of content children (especially boys) bring into their play and others arguing that merely letting children play this way can teach them harmful lessons about violence. But during some periods in history the differing points of view have led to more controversy than other periods. For instance, during the Viet Nam War in the United States, many parents and teachers who opposed the war worked hard to limit children’s involvement in this type of play. Theories of child development also provide different perspectives on the meanings and consequences of this type of play on children’s development.

 

Finding Value in War Play

Beginning with Anna Freud in England during World War II, researchers have identified a number of developmental issues that may be addressed through war play. Some argue that war play, perhaps more than any other form of dramatic play, can help children feel powerful as they play (Freud and Burlingham, 1943; Jones, 2002). Children can experience a sense of competence. As they pretend to be strong characters and superheroes with super powers, for instance, their self-images as strong people who can take care of themselves may be enhanced. This can help them with separation from home as well. As they assume the role of powerful characters and “pretend to fight,” they can learn to gain control over their impulses to stay within acceptable boundaries. War play also can be a special vehicle for learning about the difference between fantasy and reality. And as children take on contrasting roles (e.g., “good guy” and “bad guy”), they learn about how their actions affect one another and begin to understand other points of view. Finally, war play can help children make sense of the violence they see and hear about in the world around them—in their homes and communities and in the media. A child who sees soldiers fighting on television news might bring this image into “war play” in an effort to understand it or make it less frightening (Levin and Carlsson-Paige, 2006; Jones, 2002).

A new phase in war play history began in 1984 when the United States Federal Communications Commission deregulated children’s television. Deregulation opened the floodgates for marketing TV-linked toys and products to children, a practice previously prohibited. An abundance of shows, products, and toys linked together around a single theme, usually a violent one, began to saturate the childhood culture. Both the quantity and quality of entertainment violence children saw increased dramatically. And increasingly over the years, videos, video games, movies, and fast-food outlets have joined in these marketing campaigns.

Adults in the United States began to see children’s war play begin to change during this same period in the mid-1980s, soon after television was deregulated. Teachers, especially, voiced concerns about the war play they were seeing in early childhood and elementary settings. They described how children were imitating TV “scripts” in their war play and acting out the violence they had seen on television and movie screens instead of inventing and evolving their own stories.

I visited a kindergarten classroom recently at recess time. The teacher came up to me (Carlsson-Paige) and the first thing she said was, “I hate Star Wars. It has taken over the classroom. It’s all the kids can think about—they’re obsessed with it, mostly the boys. They turn everything into a light saber and start fighting. But they’re clever and tell me it’s something else, not a weapon. It’s all they talk about and all they play.”

Later, I went into the classroom and sat at a table with three boys. They were drawing and talking about Star Wars. One of them said, “I love Star Wars!” He pointed to his head and he said, “I can never stop thinking about it!”

Children’s war play began to look more like what Jean Piaget (1951/1945) called imitation than play. Many children seemed unable to use their war play as a means of actively transforming their own experience, especially the violence they had seen, and thus meeting their developmental needs. The deep meanings that young children construct when their play flows from their own needs and experience were being replaced at least in part by content seen on the screen. And this undermining of creative play continues to be of serious concern to parents and early childhood professionals today, especially in relation to war play.

In Great Britain, similar concerns began to be voiced when violent TV programs and toys from the United States started to arrive in 1986. By the early nineties, at a time when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles program was being aired in over 100 countries, concerns about media-linked war play and toys were raised in such other industrialized countries as Canada, Germany, Greece, and New Zealand.

 

Finding an Approach to War Play Today

In a society where children are exposed to large amounts of pretend and real violence, it is not easy to find an effective approach to war play in the classroom. There are no simple or perfect solutions for approaching children’s war play that fully address both the needs of children and the concerns of adults. Teachers who ban, allow, or facilitate children’s war play can all find difficulties with the approach they have chosen.

Banning war play altogether can alleviate many problems for teachers but it also denies children the opportunity to work on the violence they have been exposed to through their play. It can leave children to work out these issues on their own without adult guidance; they can learn lessons that glorify violence that are unmediated by adults. They are also left to feel guilty about their interest in the play. And even when teachers try to ban war play, many say that this approach does not work very well. Children have a hard time accepting limits or controlling their intense need to engage in this kind of play. They find ways to circumvent the ban—by denying the play is really war play (i.e., learning to lie) or sneaking behind the teacher’s back to play (i.e., learning to deceive). So while banning war play can be the approach of choice for teachers, it can have a worrisome negative impact on children.

Some teachers who try to allow war play often find that the play, especially media-driven, imitative war play, is so unproductive and out of control that banning seems to be the only choice, at least for periods of time. When this happens, teachers can still provide alternative activities such as drawing, storytelling, writing, and building. This will allow children to work out their ideas about violence and war play-related themes and connect with adults about their needs regarding them. And at the same time, teachers can provide alternative themes to those offered by media that address the same developmental needs that are met in war play. They can encourage dramatic play based on children’s books, for example, that touch the deep developmental themes such as mastery, power, and separation that are expressed in war play.

Teachers who decide that they want to allow children’s war play almost all find that, in order for children to use their play to meet their needs in a meaningful way in this play, they require direct help from adults (Hoffman, 2004; Katch, 2001). How teachers decide to help will depend on the quality of the play children are engaged in. Taking time to watch the play and learn what children are working on and how they are working on it can give teachers the information they need to facilitate war play in ways that will help children get beyond narrowly scripted play that is focused on violent actions. Often children will need help reducing their dependence on highly realistic, media-linked “fighting” toys and learning how to use open-ended toys. Some children will need help bringing new and interesting content into their play that expands the focus of the play beyond violent themes and actions. And many children will need help keeping the play safe and from getting out of control. Teachers can work with children to develop rules for this play that ensure the safety of all of the children in the classroom. Facilitating war play in these ways can provide children with skills to work out the violent content they bring to their play, work on important developmental issues, learn valuable lessons, and move on to new issues rather than stay obsessed with their war play.

Whether teachers partially ban war play or actively facilitate it, talking with children about their war play and the related themes in their drawings, stories or buildings is one of the most important ways adults can help them work out the violence children see and even learn alternatives to that violence. It often helps to begin with an open-ended question. If a child draws what looks like a bomb or an explosion, a teacher can point to it and ask, “Can you tell me about this part of your picture?” Then the teacher can respond based on what is learned about that particular child’s ideas, questions, and needs. In all of these instances, it is essential that teachers keep in mind that children do not understand violence as adults do. They may need help clearing up confusions (“The planes that go over our school do not carry bombs”), sorting out fantasy and reality (“In real life people don’t carry light sabers”), and getting reassurance about their safety (“I can’t let you play like that because it’s my job to make sure everyone is safe”).

Reducing children’s exposure to violence, to inappropriate media, to excessive time-consuming media, and to media-linked war toys is one of the most important ways teachers can foster healthy war play. The less violent content children have, the less violence they will need to try to work out in their play. Through parent workshops and family newsletters that include resource materials, teachers can help families learn more about how to protect children from exposure to violent entertainment and news media and too much time in front of the screen.

At the same time, while parents and educators can do a lot to reduce the violence to which children are exposed, some violence will continue to get in— and it is the job of adults to help children make sense of what they see. It is by connecting with children in their play and in their drawings—as described earlier when the adult begins a conversation with a child about her drawing—that we can convey to children that adults are there to help them deal with the violence they see. For as children grow up in the violent world of today, they need help to work out what they hear, clear up misconceptions and reassure them of their safety to the extent that we can, and provide lessons that teach alternatives to violence (Levin, 1998).

Teachers can reach out to community after-school programs and family day care providers to share materials on creating safer, more violence-free, less media- saturated situations for children. Working to minimize the influence of violent entertainment culture on children will help them restore their war play to its rightful place as a valuable resource for making sense of the violence they see in the world around and working on important developmental issues.

Further Readings: Cantor, J. (1998). ‘Mommy, I’m Scared!’ How TV and movies frighten children and what we can do to protect them. New York: Harcourt Brace; Freud, A., and D. Burlingham (1943). War and children. New York: Ernst Willard; Hoffman, E. (2004). Magic capes, amazing powers: Transforming superhero play in the classroom; St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press. Jones, J. (2002). Killing monsters: Why children need fantasy, super heroes, and make-believe violence. New York: Basic Books. Katch, J. (2001); Under dead man’s skin: Discovering the meaning of children’s violent play. Boston: Beacon Press. Levin, D. E. (1998). Remote control childhood? Combating the hazards of media culture; Washington, DC: NAEYC. Levin, D. E., and N. Carlsson-Paige (2006). The war play dilemma: Everything parents and teachers need to know. 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press. Piaget, J. (1951/1945). Play, dreams, and imitation in childhood. New York: W.W. Norton.

Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Diane E. Levin