Gun Play and Kids: Dangerous or Harmless?

Although some child psychologists are of the view that gun play is not dangerous, as a parent and an early childhood teacher, I have my concerns in relation to toy weapons and gun games. Considering that it is a generally accepted mainstream children’s toy, banning it all together for my child may be be futile. However, I will not actively encourage its use and will educate my son on appropriate play, as well as the dangers of real guns.

Introduction

Letting our children play with toy guns may seem like a very harmless activity. After all, many of us grew up playing gun games. Massive Nerf guns are displayed front and centre on shelves in toy stores, and online shooting games are common. Yet, with the rampant gun violence and mass shootings that we see on the news, where do we draw the line between gun games as just an innocent child’s play and gun games enabling a culture of violence? Knowing when Gun play is already harmful for the development of children and their overall understanding of the world is not always clearly identifiable. The following article provides parents and educators with some key information to help them differentiate when gun play is harmless, and when it is already dangerous for the child’s well-being.

Gun Play
Water pistols, Nerf guns, toy guns – it all involves gun play. The question is, is it dangerous?
Any unsupervised play can be dangerous.

Why do kids like to play with guns?

Whether you’re raising boys or raising girls, kids enjoy pretend play. Role play. Playing with toy guns, through various gun games, such as cops and robbers, online shooting games, Nerf guns, water pistols and foam blasters play allows that role play and helps children to make sense of the world around them, as well as allows them to experiment with feelings of control and power. Gun play is usually quite active (except as part of video/online games), it can involve teamwork, a degree of risky play and can involve a fair bit of strategy, as well as imaginative play, which most children will enjoy, as well as is critical for their healthy development.

When asking my 11 year old son Andy why he likes playing with Nerf guns (at his father’s house) for example, he replied, “I like trying to shoot at a target because it’s like target practice and if I hit the target, it’s satisfying. I like running around with friends and I like playing hide and seek with the guns sometimes. Sometimes we play on teams, so it’s like teamwork. And we always laugh a lot and run a lot when we play Nerf guns.” While I don’t like the idea of ‘shooting’ and ‘killing’ in children’s games, this response from Andy didn’t seem malicious, harmful or sinister.

Is Nerf gun play safe?

Nerf is one of the companies capitalising on this advocacy for gun play. Nerf guns are so commonplace and readily available all over the world that they are oftentimes synonymous with foam blasters. They even have tie-ups with popular online games such as Roblox, which has a massive following with child gamers. Although generally safe, Nerf guns can cause serious eye injuries when children direct their shots to their playmate’s eyes as seen in this news article. Children may be unaware that if not handled properly, these seemingly harmless toy guns can actually be very dangerous.

Gun Play
Many children love gun play because it involves active play, teamwork and strategy play.

Does gun play promote violence?

Educating our children about guns is very important to prevent gun play being used to promote violence. I believe that there is a delicate balance that will have to be put in place to ensure that gun play does not lead to violence later in the child’s life.

If a child is unable to process the difference between real and make-believe, allowing the child to run amok under the guise of playing ‘baddies’ and ‘goodies’ may end up promoting an environment that lacks calmness and is instead filled with noise and disorder. Children who are unable to practice self- regulation may be further encouraged to lean towards aggressive behaviour if gun play is used in the context of friendly roughhousing.

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Gun Play
Some Australian states have actually banned the sale of toy guns that look like real guns

What age should I teach my child about guns?

As a parent and early childhood teacher, I have been uncomfortable when it came to exposing my child to gun play. I know that throughout their childhood, children are bound to receive at least one gift of a toy gun from well-meaning friends and relatives. When this happens, should I hide the gift and wait until they are older before I sit them down for a talk about guns? Or should I allow them to play with the gift as soon as they unwrap them?

There’s no one size fits all answer to this million-dollar question – what age should children be taught about guns? It will have to depend on the child’s level of comprehension and maturity. The questions below can be used as a guide:

–          Is your child already able to understand the difference between real and make-believe?

–          Can your child follow instructions and knows how to cooperate?

–          Does your child understand consent?

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–          Can your child understand and follow rules on safety?

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–          Is your child aware of their limits and know when to stop?

As a parent or as an educator, you are well placed to determine whether the child is mature enough for that big talk about the dangers of guns and how make-believe toy gun play should never be equated with the use of real guns. Having discussions with your child with a dialogue along the lines of, “This is just a game. It’s just pretend. In real life, guns are dangerous. They hurt people. We don’t want to hurt our friends and we can play lots of other games where we play nicely together and nobody has to shoot, and nobody gets hurt” can be a good start.

What are the dangers of gun play and other weapon play?

Allowing unsupervised gun play, and a lack of parent/child discussion regarding gun play may prove to be dangerous, especially nowadays when the appearance of some toy guns can no longer be differentiated from the real thing. Some states in Australia have even made the use of these toy guns illegal in a bid to prevent violent behaviour, as some of them have been used to commit actual crimes. In Victoria and WA, some toy guns such as gel ball blasters have been made illegal as seen in these news article for Victoria and for Western Australia.

When it comes to video games and online games, some of these can be terribly violent and inappropriate for younger players so it’s vitally important that parents look at the rating of various games before allowing their children to play these. It’s also important to remember that excessive screen time can also have dangers of its own, which you can read about here.

There is of course the obvious danger of physically hurting other children who are involved in this type of play. Accidents can happen with any kind of unsupervised play, but particularly if children are becoming aggressive, if toys are used as actual weapons against other children, or if active play becomes too boisterous and out of control.

Can gun play lead to violence later in life?

In spite of these common concerns in relation to gun play, many child psychologists are of the view that gun play is not dangerous and does not promote violence in later life. One research study has shown that there is very little connection between toy weapons and aggressive behaviour. You can learn more about this research here.

What are the benefits of Gun Play? 

Many parents, educators and researchers are of the belief that it is just the adults that are channelling their fears and prejudices on what should just be deemed as harmless child’s play. These pro-gun play advocates even espouse gun play as beneficial for a child’s growth and development, seeing it as just another phase in a child’s development, as part of the child’s experimental stage.

According to these advocates, as a form of pretend play, it can widen a child’s imagination allowing them to use role-play as a way of making sense of the world around them. Gun play is also often used in the context of physical games. Children run around and play hide and seek while doing their gun games, which assists in lessening childhood obesity. Oftentimes they form teams where some children join one side while others join the other side, as described by Andy above. This promotes teamwork. The game then commences with them running to hide in their bases while shooting their “enemies”. This allows children to learn cooperation as they progress through the game, with natural leaders being born as they give instructions to their teammates. In many instances, this may be the case, but for some children pre-disposed to violence, they may not necessarily see the good in the games they are playing.

Do child care centres ban gun play?

This great debate has advocates espousing both sides of the gun play coin. With many individuals and institutions very much divided on this topic, perhaps this is the reason why there is to date, no state-wide directive in New South Wales or law in the whole of Australia banning gun play in childcare centres. The decision to ban or regulate gun play and any kind of weapon play is still up to the discretion of the childcare centre, based on its own policies.

Given that there is still no consensus as to whether the good outweighs the bad (or vice versa) when it comes to gun play and gun games, many child-care centres have put it upon themselves to implement a zero-tolerance policy and ban gun play and all kinds of weapons play in their centres. Institutional policies such as these bans on toy weapons are being implemented not only in day cares in Australia but also in early learning services in the United Kingdom.

In my time as an early childhood teacher and Director, we have always made a centre policy and decision to discourage gun play and weapon play. It is so often the case that older pre-school children tend to use this type of play to display aggression towards their peers, often resulting in incidents and injuries. Children will often turn a block, a bat, a stick, a wooden spoon, into a pretend weapon, and whether they intend on using that to strike another child or not, it is the aggressive play we discourage and the use of words to resolve conflict that we encourage. Children under 5 are still learning how to resolve conflict with peers and need lots of guidance when it comes to self regulation, the use of words to express their feelings, and how to cooperatively play with their peers. We do however encourage rich imaginative play and advocate for fostering and encouraging children’s interests, which brings me to my next point.. can gun play actually be harmless?

Gun Play
Many child care centres across Australia have either banned gun play or have low tolerance policies for gun play

Can gun play be harmless?

Other parents, educators and child-care centres are leaning towards low tolerance policies instead of complete bans. Although allowing gun play and gun games, they are advocating for proper supervision and getting involved, when necessary, to enrich the play experience with valuable insights that children can learn from. These kinds of interventions can range from explanations to children about not hitting animals, and explanations about not tolerating violence. With this, children will hopefully get a more positive experience out of the gun play instead of the experience fuelling any dark and negative behaviours of the child.

To read more about how we as parents and educators can safely undertake gun play for our children, check out this website.  If you are an early childhood educator, you may also be interested in further reading on the various research done on the effect of early childhood low tolerance policies on gun play as seen in this review of related literature.

Gun Play and Kids – My verdict

Personally, I am against children playing with toy guns at such an early age. With my son, I make it very clear to him that guns are violent weapons and that I prefer him to play in another way, preferably with games that do not involve violence. Although I will not completely ban it, I will also not actively encourage it. Whilst gun play may appear to be a very harmless activity, for me, allowing children unchecked gun play is still a recipe for disaster. The soft skills, growth and learning that children acquire via gun play can be taught to them through other means and other kinds of play that do not necessarily involve gun games. However, if gun play becomes difficult to avoid, such as when he has friends over and they play with water pistols or when he plays with Nerf guns at his father’s place, proper supervision should be in place, with enough explanations given for children to fully understand the difference between using toy guns in pretend gun games and the dangers of live guns in real life.

How do you feel about toy guns and gun play?? Let me know in the comments!

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