Gun Play - "Bang, bang! You're dead! ... My turn!"

It can be unsettling and disturbing for some of us to hear this phrase during play time, but this kind of “gun play” is a familiar sound around groups of preschoolers. Children will turn anything and everything into the shape of a gun, including their jelly sandwich. If questioned about the shape, they might take a bite and change the shape. Regardless of personal opinions about guns in society, “gun play” has a completely different meaning and purpose than “playing with guns” does.

There are many theories about children’s need for gun play. Gun play comes from a deep inner core of need. Preschool age children, especially boys are searching for power; it is a deeply ingrained need in young children, particularly children beginning at age 4.

Many schools have implemented zero tolerance policies in response to aggressive gun play, and the consensus among the schools across the country is that zero tolerance is not successful. YES, schools can ban guns, playing with guns and realistic replicas of guns, but “gun play” continues to flourish. The question is: Why do children continue to explore gun play in spite of all the rules, teacher talk, and moralizing conversations? In fact, zero tolerance policies often give gun play more power. Children need power so when they don’t get it in appropriate ways, they seek power through negative behaviors. They will increase gun play when zero tolerance policies are instituted.

We know we can’t stop children’s need for power and gun play, so how do we guide it?

We can guide children’s “gun play” by having conversations with children and engaging in their play. When a child says, “bang, bang, you’re dead,” my response can be, “I am uncomfortable with that kind of play.” We must also support children in our classrooms who are uncomfortable with “gun play.” It can be the foundation for rich conversation and dialogue with children, helping develop core values, such as respect, empathy and compassion. We can respect a child’s need for “gun play” while supporting a child who is uncomfortable with this type of play. It is our responsibility to help children understand the importance of learning how to engage with others appropriately, which give children power. When children have the language skills to engage, it supports their social competence.

Preschool age children use “gun play” as a tool to understand their own power, they need our non-judgmental guidance and support to understand their emotions and appropriate ways to express them.

Ways to support children’s appropriate sense of power:

  • Explore quality children’s literature, such as Where the Wild Things Are and other classics
  • Give children appropriate power by giving them jobs or responsibilities
  • Encourage positive social interactions through specifics descriptive vignettes, “What strong muscles you have, you opened the door for your friends.”
  • Use Circle Games that support positive interactions

Example supportive conversation that can redirect “gun play:

Jennifer: Joseph is shooting me!

Teachers: Do you want to play his game?

Jennifer: No.

Teacher: Well, tell him, "I don’t want to play."

Jennifer: I don’t want to play.

Joseph: Bang, bang you’re dead, Jennifer!

Jennifer: I don’t like it.

Teacher: Joseph, Jennifer said, she doesn’t like it and she doesn’t want to play that game. You need to ask her first, if she wants to play.

Joseph: Jennifer, do you want to play?

Jennifer: No (and walks away)

Teacher: Joseph, it looks like Jennifer doesn’t want to play that game. You did a wonderful job asking her; would you like to build blocks with me? We can build a big strong tower.

Joseph: No, I want to play with Matt.

Teacher: OK, Joseph, if you need help asking him to play, let me know.