Sunday, February 12, 2012

Please help! My Very Own War Play Dilemma

I have been doing some reading and research this weekend on war play.  I just finished The War Play Dilemma by Nancy Carlsson-Paige as well as other articles on line.

I do agree with the author that “play, even war play, is a primary vehicle through which children work on developmental issues.” “As children work on their needs and incorporate new experiences into their play, they encounter information that does not quite fit with their current understanding.  This, in turn, causes them to modify their thinking to take into account the newly tried-out information.  In this ongoing manner, the content of the play gradually evolves and changes as mastery and understanding progress.”

One of the developmental issues children can work on with this type of play is impulse control.  As children assume the roles of superheroes or bad or good guys, they often engage in “pretend fighting”. In this context they are learning impulse control as they struggle to stay within the acceptable boundaries of their social group while receiving feedback from their peers and caregivers.

At about four years old children are beginning to move beyond egocentrism and are starting to take points of view other than their own.  As children negotiate the roles of the war play; good guys vs bad guys, they are formulating an understanding of how their actions affect others and are learning to confront and understand different points of view.

The sense of power and control that this type of play provides is very comforting and reassuring to children as they grapple with experiences of separation from home and primary caregivers.  Young children often seek out roles that give them a sense of strength and power as they realize their independence and autonomy.

As adults we have to keep in mind that the content and concepts used in war play have very different meanings for young children.  While we connect shooting and killing with permanent damage and death, children do not fully understand the continuum of time.  They can pretend to shoot an enemy “dead” one minute and then interact with that enemy moments later. 

Children also tend to think in dichotomous groupings in the early years- right and wrong, good and bad, boy or girl-someone cannot be good and bad at the same time. The characters in this type of play tend to embody this type of thinking. 

So if this type of play is comforting for some young children and also is allowing them to develop concepts according to their development, what is my role as the teacher in a classroom where this is occurring?

The author suggests it is to “actively facilitate war play.”  “The teacher is there, insuring that the war play is serving to foster children’s optimal development.  The teacher is helping the children to gain control over their impulses, to take points of view other than their own, to distinguish between fantasy and reality, to work out in their own understanding about what they have heard about the world around them, and to experience a sense of their own power and mastery through play.”

The last section of her book discusses the guidelines for working with this type of play.  The first is to observe for purposes of understanding what individual children are working on in their war play.

The second is to help them develop the quality and understanding of their play.  This can be done in several ways including asking questions or making comments about the play, being careful not to place adult value judgments on them.  For example, “If a child is making a potion to kill a bad guy, do not say, ‘you shouldn’t kill’, or ‘I do not like killing’.  Say something like, ‘wow, that stuff looks really powerful! What’s going into the potion? What else do you need to make it?’”  Questions about the play can also lead children to solve problems and make new connections, such as “what can the bad guy do now that he is trapped?” or “tell me how you created that trap?”  

Third, she suggests working with war play and the themes it arises outside of the play.  Having a dialogue with the children at a time when they are not actively engaged in the play can help them to expand their concepts and provide them with input that will later help them develop their play in more appropriate and effective ways. 

Developing strategies that will keep the play safe and manageable in the classroom is her fourth guideline.  Our classroom rules are we take care of our classmates, we take care of ourselves and we take care of our classroom. If the war play violates any of these rules, we have a context to discuss it.  Even if Johnny is being a bad guy, he is not actually allowed to hit another child because it is against one of our established rules. 

Guideline five is to establish your policy of what role you will allow war toys and weapons to have in your space.  I have been spending a great deal of time reflecting on this during this particular year, and am experimenting with allowing weapons to be used outside if they are created with natural materials and do not actual touch another child. Sticks on our playground have been Indiana Jones whips, light sabers, guns and bows and arrows. 

The sixth guideline is the area I am struggling most with this year.  Carlsson-Paige suggests helping children to expand beyond the stereotypical sex-role behavior that arises in war play.  It is important that girls have opportunities to feel powerful and strong.  She suggests that we try and find ways for the girls to become more involved in the play.  Conversely, it is important to help the boys that are not as interested in the war play feel supported and to find ways for their less violent ideas to be incorporated into the play.   I will comment at the end as to why this is a particular area of concern for me.

Guidelines seven and eight relate to continuing research and communication with parents about these issues.  I know it is very disconcerting to parents when they see this type of play occurring and are often unsure of how to respond.  This blog post is one of the ways I hope to open this discussion with the parents of my students on this issue.

Lastly, guideline nine is to reflect on your own issues and feelings regarding war and violence as separate from the needs of children.  We need to understand ourselves to be able to be sure we are not confusing our own feelings with the perspective of the child. 

Reading this book and reflecting on my practices has helped me to see more areas where I can help to develop this type of play with children to further engage their thinking and foster concept development.  What I struggle most with is that I have a group of boys this year who are consistently interested in the game, “kill the girls!”  They spend each outdoor time and many of their discussion inside developing elaborate traps and weapons to kill the girls.  We do a lot of work on establishing boundaries and if someone says, no or stop, it must be honored.  If a child does not want to be chased, we empower the chase to stop, stand firm and say no.  We have discussions about how these boys have friends who are girls who they enjoy playing with at other times.  I feel we are implementing the guidelines suggested above, but this constant wanting to “kill the girls” has us frustrated.  Several of the boys who are not as interested in the war games have expressed being upset by this issue and it has come up as a concern from parents. 

My reading and research has not given me something to grab on to either work through the situation with my students or to come to grips with it in my own mind.  So I am turning to you, this cyber community of educators and parents. 

What would you do if you had a group of boys in your class that constantly played this game? I am anxiously awaiting your comments.  Thank you.  


  1. Wow, I think that's a first for me! At least the blatantly identifying the girls as the "bad guys"! First I'd like to say "bravo" to you, Dana, for really trying to understand the developmental reasons they might be doing this (I read somewhere recently that any behavior that recurs so frequently probably has a basis in development) and for trying so hard to find a way to meet all the children's needs.

    With all that you've already done, I think my next step would be to take it back to the kids as a problem they need to solve. I think it will be important to include not only the boys who are play fighting but also some of the children who are bothered by it. Walk kids thru a problem-solving process, providing just enough scaffolding to help them not get stuck. (If it's helpful, here's an article that provides a description of the process for preschoolers. ) The first goal will be to help each "side" to get a glimpse of the perspective of the other side. The second goal is for them to understand that any solution they choose has to be okay with everyone.

    Have you done that kind of problem-solving with your kids before? It's AWESOME to see it work! And, like anything, the more they practice, the better they'll get.

    Do you think that might work in this situation? How many kids you involve in the problem-solving discussion is up to you - if it really is affecting the whole class, then maybe it's a "class meeting". But it might be more effective with just some of the kids who are the natural leaders in the class (you know who they are!) and who have the most advance social and communication skills.

    I hope you'll give an update after you've tried whatever suggestions from the comments look most feasible. This situation repeats itself in one form or another in LOTS of classrooms every day!

    1. Thank you for your response. Those are great suggestions. We have discussed it as a class, but only once. The solution that most kids wanted was for the game to stop, but the core 4-5 players continue to play the game despite being reminded of the class decision. I think it does merit further discussion. I will post again on this issue when I have gathered more feedback and tried some of the suggestions. Thank you!

  2. What if you asked them a question like, 'What would happen if all the girls were killed?' or 'What makes girls so bad that they need to be killed?'. Obviously, answers like 'just because' or 'because it's fun' won't be acceptable. I envision a group (small group, whole group, maybe the play groups) discussion using a mind map or other graphic organizer identifying good and bad, or boys and girls. It may lead to learning about gender identity. It may lead to learning about conservation (or the lack thereof - my mind goes to old whaling practices, ... buffalo, clear cutting forests, fishing) and how our 'fun' impacts our environment. It may lead to learning about heroes, and how they don't go around killing girls. :-) It may lead to government, democracy, and civil protest, the concept of power and how to use it appropriately. It may lead to empathizing with victims of domestic violence and raising money for an organization that helps victims. I know that's pretty deep, but that's where my adult mind is going with this.

    The whole idea of asking them about their play is to understand their game, and for them to understand their game. I think it has to do with steps 2 and 3? When you understand their game then you can steer it in more positive directions.

    Then there is a point where 'no, playing kill the girls is not okay in this group' is the answer and their developing brains won't understand why and they'll have to trust you.

    I really enjoy your blog. I don't think I've ever commented before. Thank you,

    Kevin Harper, elementary ELL teacher for past 6 years

    1. The questioning of why they are deciding things in their play is actually working. I will be writing another post soon. I've been doing some work with are morning questions as well which I will post too. Thank you so much for your thoughtful responses. I am glad you are enjoying my blog.

  3. Boy, this situation sounds extremely frustrating for everyone involved (kids, parents, staff) except the 4 or 5 who want to play this way. I have no suggestions, just wanted to say I'm impressed with the amount of thought you've put into this and wish you luck in resolving it to everyone's satisfaction.

  4. This comes up for us in some form or another every year. One of the tools we have for dealing with it is that all of our classroom rules come from the children themselves. Instead of a short list of broad, general rules, we wind up with a very, very long list that covers every possible and even impossible scenario. Not only do the children make the rules, but the rules are only adopted when we reach 100% consensus.

    I bring this up because the children always propose and adopt the rule: "No real or pretend weapons." Perhaps surprisingly, it is usually proposed by one of the guys who seems the most interested in playing these games, almost as if they're asking us to help them regulate themselves. I've read much of the same information you have and even have many very fond memories of my own childhood weapon play, so there is always a piece of me that wants to rebel when the kids make the rule, but there it is every year.

    This has the effect of sort of driving this kind of play "under ground," and although I often notice some of the boys continuing to secretly play guns, I let it go until it is either brought up by another child or a parent whose child has reported feeling frightened by it. For us the focus is always on the feelings of those who are frightened. We can always all agree that no one likes to be scared.

    Like Kathy suggests, it becomes a problem solving exercise for the kids, trying to figure out how to prevent others from feeling afraid. Typically, we agree to some version of having to ask others' permission before targeting them with our "fire hoses" or "freeze rays" (which is what the boys often creatively call their guns once the no weapons rule is made). Of course, it's rare for someone to agree to be a target, so the solution is often to declare some inanimate object is the bad guy.

    There is never a "perfect" solution, of course, but then again, we adults haven't really solved these problems either and our consequences are obviously far more dire.

    Another thought, one that we've tried with mixed results so far, is to guess that some aspect of this play is an exploration in physics rather than solely dramatic play. By giving children other ways to "target" something (throwing a ball through a hoop or a "spear" at a tree) seems to have taken up some of that energy, but we're still experimenting with that.

  5. perfect post I want to add why not to play video games of war I like war games and also have console skins of call of duty.