I have always been the kind of educator who has immediately said “No gun play in child care”. I have never allowed my own child to play with pretend guns and always felt that it glorified or promoted violent play and violent thoughts.
Recently I have had to confront my views head-on and really listen to the children’s wants and desire for “gun play” in the outside classroom.
Up on the hills, just above the school’s property, is an area we visit every morning before school starts. In this area there are two sets of tall trees directly across from one another. The children run between the trees and climb them so they can overlook the school.
One morning, what started as adventurous and curious nature exploration quickly shifted into in-depth dramatic play. I observed as sticks transformed into swords. A large group of children shifted into two teams, battling against each other to protect their “fortresses”.
Over the next few days the sticks that were once swords transformed into guns. This made me uncomfortable and spurred me to walk over to the group of children and ask, “What are you playing?”
Sam immediately responded, “We are playing War.”
“You know we don’t have gun play at our Program,” I responded.
Logan then asked, “Why?”
This was the first time I actually paused to ask myself that very same question about this type of play. “Why?” Rather than just stopping the play, I instead reflected on our values at Compass ELC and just listened.
As leaders in early childhood education we believe and live into the principles of democracy. In fact, our organization feels so strongly about democracy we incorporated it into our organization’s vision statement. It states, “Compass Early Learning and Care envisions a place where children are valued as citizens of today; where the principles of democracy guide our relationships with children, families, colleagues and our community”. We strongly believe children deserve a voice in how they spend their time and deserve to be listened to. So I asked the children why playing war was important to them.
Ben – “Because it’s fun! We get to battle and save people.”
Cole F – “We get to protect our fortress and capture people.”
Logan – “We can pretend we were back in time at past wars.”
All of these were very valid responses and I decided to just watch how their play evolved. Sticks became guns, swords, bows and arrows. Rocks were grenades and pebbles were bullets. Our outdoor classroom materials were used both creatively and respectfully.
I observed the children divide by gender into two lines. Logan began to lead the group and said, “Girls are the nurses and boys are the soldiers. Each girl can pick a boy to nurse when they get hurt.” I sat back and observed their play while thinking to myself their play was behind the times! After about 10 minutes of play the children huddled back together, so I said to them, “I don’t know if you are all aware that women can be soldiers just as much as men, and men can be nurses, just as much as females can.” Logan said with a smile, “Don’t worry Linds, we know that! It’s just we are playing World War I and that was how it was back then.” Logan had been learning about World War I at school and had shared his knowledge of the war with the group.
Myah further explained, “The people would hear a bell in the town and that would let them know that a bomb was going to go off and people from other countries were coming to hurt them. The people would try and hide under the ground. I think they were fighting because of this guy that was mean in Germany and he wanted to hurt people. The war was also in England too! I know a lot about the war.”
When I looked deeper into the play itself I realized the play was less about guns, less about the violence, and more about the chase, about the story, about the excitement and about creativity. There was no dialogue about blood or violent context. It was play in its purest form. Questions were asked and answered about the war and what it must have been like to be in such conflict at that time in history. As I looked back on this I questioned, what other play could have provided these experiences and sparked these conversations and allowed them to recreate historical events they are learning about in school?
Guns are a part of our everyday society whether on TV, in a movie, in a book or in the history books found in our classrooms. Some of our children’s parents are police officers and hunters. We can pretend guns do not exist, but that wouldn’t be truthful and children are naturally curious.
Now I realize as an educator the power of listening, observing and waiting. This experience shifted my thinking and caused me to question my own certainties. After reading this, I hope parents and educators will be more open to stepping outside their realm of comfort to see what they can learn from children’s play by truly listening and letting children take the lead.
Lindsay Patterson-Brands RECE, Compass ELC School Age Program – Harold Longworth Public School, Bowmanville
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