029: Why we shouldn’t ban war play

This episode comes to us by way of a suggestion from my friend Jess, who told me she had joined an outing with some children in her three-year-old son’s preschool class. She said some of the slightly older children were running around playing that their hands were guns and shooting at each other, and the teachers were pretty much just ignoring it, which really shocked her. So I thought to myself “I bet some smart person has done some research on this” and so I went out and found us just such a smart person to talk with.

Diane E. Levin, Ph.D. is Professor of Education at Wheelock College in Boston, Massachusetts where she has been training early childhood professionals for over twenty-five years. She teaches courses on play, violence prevention, action research. Her book, The War Play Dilemma, provides a theoretical view of why children engage in war play and how parents and teachers can support the development that occurs when children engage in this kind of play – and do it in a way that doesn’t make us feel queasy.


Dr. Diane E. Levin’s Book

The war play dilemma: What every parent and teacher needs to know – Affiliate link



Dunn, J. & Hughes, C. (2001). “I got some swords and you’re dead!”: Violent fantasy, antisocial behavior, friendship, and moral sensibility in young children. Child Development 72(2), 491-505.

Fehr, K.K. & Russ, S.W. (2013). Aggression in pretend play and aggressive behavior in the classroom. Early Education and Development 24, 332-345. DOI: 10.1080/10409289.2012.675549

Ferguson, C.J. (2007). Evidence for publication bias in video game violence effects literature: A meta-analytic review. Aggression & Violent Behavior 57, 348-364.

Hart, J.L., & Tannock, M.T. (2013). Young children’s play fighting and use of war toys. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. Retrieved from: http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/play/according-experts/young-childrens-play-fighting-and-use-war-toys

Holland, P. (203). We don’t play with guns here: War, weapon and superhero play in the early years. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press

Levin, D.E. & Carlsson-Paige, N. (2006). The war play dilemma: What every parent and teacher needs to know (2nd Ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Lober R., Lacourse, E., & Homimsh, D.L. (2005). Homicide, violence, and developmental trajectories. In R.E. Tremblay, W.W. Hartup, & J. Archer (Eds.), Developmental origins of aggression. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (n.d.). Website. http://www.truceteachers.org


Read Full Transcript


Jen:  [00:30]

Hello and welcome to today’s episode of Your Parenting Mojo, which is called The War Play Dilemma. This episode comes to us by way of a suggestion from my friend Jess, who had told me that she had joined an outing with some children in her three year old son’s preschool class and she said that some of the slightly older children were running around and playing, that their hands were guns and shooting each other and the teachers were pretty much just ignoring it, which really shocked her.

Jen:   [00:54]

So I thought to myself, I bet some smart person has done some research on this. And I went out and found us just such a smart person to talk with today. So Diane Levin, Ph.D Is Professor of Education at Wheelock College in Boston, Massachusetts, where she’s been training early childhood professionals for over 25 years. She teaches courses on play violence prevention and action research and her book, The War Play Dilemma, provides a theoretical view of why children engage in war play and how parents and teachers can support the development that occurs when children engage in this kind of play and also do it in a way that doesn’t make us feel queasy. Professor Levin has a BS in child development from Cornell University, an M.S. In special education from Wheelock College and an interdisciplinary Ph.D in Sociology of Education and Child Development from Tufts University. Welcome, Professor Levin.

Dr. Levin: [01:42]

Hello. It’s a pleasure to be with you and being able to talk about this issue.

Jen:   [01:46]

So let’s set the stage here. So war games aren’t found in all cultures, but they are found in many, both today and also historically. And I read in your book that archeologists have found the remnants of what might have been toys used for war play by the ancient Egyptians. So I’m wondering if kids had been playing at war for ever, apparently, why the sudden concern what’s changed recently?

Dr. Levin:   [02:07]

Well, I think there’s always been some concerns from parents who were thinking that they didn’t want their boys to be aggressive, didn’t want them to focus on violence, wanted them to grow up and be humane citizens. But I, I think one of the things that’s happened in our culture in the last say 30 or 40 years as media has become a bigger and bigger force in children’s lives, in as marketing of toys has become a bigger force in children’s lives, violence is one of the one that the items that’s used to market to boys war toys, guns there, there were. They used to be cowboys and Indians; that was one of the first ways they were marketed and some people worry about that and the messages that taught about Indians, but it was a big…I grew up in Texas and count cowgirls and Indians was something I played.

Dr. Levin:    [03:02]

It’s always been an interest of children to figure out what does it mean to be a boy? What does it mean to be a girl? Violence and weapons has been something that’s been marketed to boys and I’m sure we’ll talk about that more, but children look in the world around them to figure out what to play and how to play and they’ll look for some of the things that seem the most dramatic, the most confusing, the most exciting, and when they see violent weapons and things, that’s one of the things that boys find for them

Jen: [03:36]

Hm. And so why is that? Why are boys more attracted to war play than girls?

Dr. Levin:   [03:41]

Because boys learn already by around a year and a half that they fit into one category, the male category and girls fit into the female category. Children tend to think in dichotomies when they’re young, good and bad, right and wrong. Boy and girl, mom and dad, they tend to think that way and what’s for me and what’s not for me, and so when they learn, I’m a girl, I’m not a boy, or I’m a boy, I’m not a girl, they then start looking at what goes to me, what doesn’t go to me, and they see very quickly. I mean they might start at immediately thinking princesses because that’s what already girls will see pink and you know, and rosy colors and princessy things. That’s what’s there for me because that’s what they see in their environment often in their rooms and the toys they get. And boys will see, you know, tough and red and blue and green and and tough and fighting and superheros and so forth and so that’s what they’re drawn to. And in part our culture has created that and in part marketers do that because they do make it very different because they can market more things to have a whole culture and a whole boys culture and if you have a girl and a boy child will end up having to get solely different things.

Dr. Levin:   [04:59]

Even a boy’s bike and a girl’s bike. They can’t have the same bikes, the same baby carriages, which you get a pink one and a blue one. It affects parents, it affects children, but children are drawn to the things that they very quickly learn of their colors or their objects are their toys and so forth. It makes a big impression on them when they are looking for concrete things that are for them and even when kids get to preschool or to toddler school that they’ll look in the environment to the things that are for them. A former preschool teacher, it was something, you know, we thought a lot about his teachers. I entered the field at the beginning of the women’s movement when we first started thinking about these issues and first started studying these issues and we saw at very young ages, kids where we received the great divide and we started documenting it.

Dr. Levin:    [05:54]

And that’s when suddenly when I was interested in this topic, the war play dilemma gotten written when I was already teaching a little bit about this topic and how to help teachers encourage girls and boys to play together more. And suddenly teachers were saying they started having boys obsessed with war play and shooting. And why was that happening? And they had taught for many years and thought they were making progress with having things less stereotyped and suddenly it had gotten worse and we couldn’t figure out why. Nancy Carlsson Paige, who I worked with on this book, we started trying to figure it out, why would we, why are teachers saying this? And what we found out was television had been deregulated, children’s television had been deregulated under the Reagan administration. Sounds like a long time ago well it was, but within one year of deregulation, nine of the 10 best selling toys had a TV show before that time you were not allowed to market products that are exact replicas of TV products.

Dr. Levin:   [06:59]

You could do it with movies and Star Wars had done it and it was a huge success and it was all products for boys and it was mostly fighting toys. TV wanted to do it. They managed to get the Federal Communications Commission to deregulate television for children and within one year of deregulation, nine of the best selling toys had TV shows. And it was like power rangers, GI Joe Transformers; all fighting things. For girls it was Care Bears and My Little Ponies. They use gender to do the marketing and the teachers started seeing the effects. Boys going around karate, chopping, pretending to shoot; much harder to get girls and boys to play together again and more and more kind of let less gender neutral play became a big problem for teachers who really were trying to have gender neutral classrooms or as gender neutral as possible. And teachers started trying to ban war play.

Dr. Levin:  [08:00]

They family had guerrilla wars in their rooms where kids were sneaking around, know gradually know things… I haven’t done direct research lately, although I teach a lot; I hear a lot from teachers about what’s going on now and you know that they’re still being the gender divisions going on, but things have changed around play as kids spend more and more time glued to screens and less time playing teachers are finding different problems she’s play rather than just the fighting and the princesses. So that’s what they focus on more.

Dr. Levin:    [08:35]

What are some of those different problems? Some of the different problems are now they have children who just aren’t interested in play as much. Maybe not when they’re two, but sometimes even then they come to the classroom and look for screens, if there’s a couple of screens, that’s what they want to play with.

Dr. Levin:    [08:53]

One teacher even talked about, she put out Play Doh and a kid poked it and said, what does it do? Like they were trying to push a button, you know, they, they just didn’t know where the, you know, what the Play Doh was all about. But you know, in the days that I was talking about earlier on when kids were not as screen dependent, even though they were getting more and more involved with screen content like power rangers, teachers would have children, boys taking the Play Doh and making toy guns and going pow pow, pow. And helping teachers and parents think about how do you deal with that was something that we had to deal with a lot. Now that you know, two year olds, three year olds like in the story start running around shooting. A lot of teachers haven’t thought about it as much now. It’s not part of teacher training, it’s not part of the standards the teachers have to meet when they’re being trained to be teachers and it’s not an issue I hear talked about that much, but people will then like you come to me when they suddenly see problems, and have questions and concerns and um, I think it’s a really important issue for us to think about what lesson, you know, kids, if they’re not playing it still very quickly get involved in violent video games.

Dr. Levin:   [10:14]

There’s all kinds of messages about violence being fun, violence is exciting, Violence is what you do to have a good time that children, boys especially are getting. And it’s really important that we think about it and it’s great you’re taking on this topic.

Jen:   [10:32]

Thank you. What you said brings up something: you said that teachers are not trained on how to deal with children playing with pretend guns in a school environment. And I had no idea. I assumed someone was talking to teachers about this stuff and what that connects to is the idea that well, why of course we wouldn’t want our children to play at guns. And so would that sort of, it reinforces something I read elsewhere that was a book by Penny Holland out of the UK I think wrote hers just before you did. And she talked about how there were pretty much blanket bans on playing at guns in the UK and nobody really had any idea why nobody had put any thought into it or done research on it or based on any kind of theoretical grounding. It was just a “common sense” thing as, as it were. And so you’re saying that teachers are not trained in any way on how to deal with this? It makes me feel as though were where we are where the UK was, you know, a decade or so ago.

Dr. Levin:  [11:38]

Actually, if you read the second edition of my book in the first edition came out about 15 years and I actually was in England and studied the issue there and compared it to the US when I was finishing up that and in England they were much further along. I mean they didn’t have to think about it in the same way television wasn’t deregulated there in the same way that… It was just beginning. They were just beginning to bring American television over there, so it was just beginning to be an issue and I studied it there as it was beginning to enter the lives of children in schools and families and I interviewed teachers about suddenly then becoming aware of it as an issue which I couldn’t study here; it had already taken over when I became aware of an issue here. So when will it help me a lot come to understand it, but what I say about it here is teachers have never had a lot of training in children’s play, but now they don’t impart because what they need training in is how do you teach the alphabet and reading to four year olds, you know, how do you, there’s much more testing, the common core standards, I’m so forth and there’s more and more pushed to get accredited as a teacher to get more and more formal courses on testing, evaluation, skills teaching, math literacy and so forth. And so there’s, it’s harder and harder to fit it in. I’m even more. I teach, which is known for training developmentally train teachers for over a century now. We worked very, very hard to be able to fit into a students courses given all the other mandates for them to be able to pass the state certification tests that our teachers have to take. So it’s very hard. So that it’s very unusual for it to happen. But the issue of gun play, a lot of people think, oh, it’s bad and I don’t think, oh, it’s bad. I think, oh, well it depends on the nature of the play.

Jen:   [13:42]

All right, let’s, let’s not get into that yet because I know we have a ton to talk about on that. Um, and I know that that your position and opinion is going to be so different than what parents might assume is the default position, but I want to lay some groundwork first in terms of thinking about theory so that your position is well understood by the time we get to it. So first I wonder if you could just tell us a little bit more about how children’s brains are wired. You talked a little bit about how they tend to perceive things as one or the other. Are there other characteristics of how children’s brains work that have implications for their war play?

Dr. Levin: [14:21]

Well, when children are exposed to something that’s new and different or powerful and dramatic, they want to try to figure it out, but when they do that, they use what they already know to try to make sense of it. And as they do, they may adapt what they already knew to accommodate to the new things they’ve incorporated into their thinking. But also, they don’t do it the way we do, because when they’re preschoolers preschoolers they don’t make logical causal connections in their thinking. So they, you know, they may hit somebody because they saw it happen in a fighting show and when you start to cry because they hit you, no, no, you’re not supposed to cry because in the show that didn’t happen, you know, so it’s so that they have all kinds of ways of thinking that make the fighting look fun and exciting and the way to be strong and powerful and they may feel weak and then they get into trouble.

Dr. Levin:   [15:24]

And so there’s all kinds of issues that can make the fighting appealing or it can get very scared because they see something happen and you can figure out all the special effects that were use to make it happen. But they can’t. So then they may have, you know, they may end up being scared and afraid and even have nightmares and you may not know all that’s going on for them as the parent or the teacher. Um, so the fact that their thinking is one way I find helpful to think about it, they’re thinking can be more like a slide then a movie. They see the, they don’t make the movie of where the pow came from, where the goes, and often kids learn best by making the movie themselves through their actions. So there’s a whole set of issues around children’s thinking that make war play issues a real challenge for adults to think about how what’s going on for them, how to help them deal with it, and what appropriate solutions might be.

Jen:  [16:24]

Yeah. Okay. So if we think about exploring the links between violent play and committing actual acts of violence, I think that’s something that scares a lot of parents. Say it’s the idea that if I let my child play at violent things, then he’s going to grow up thinking that actually being violent is okay. And it seems from the literature that maybe those things are actually quite different. So I read one study that matched children who were engaged in pretend play with violent themes with children who didn’t do that, and they found that the children who did engage in that violent play had poor skills related to understanding other people’s thoughts and poor performance on executive function tasks and also poor verbal skills. Although that study was conducted among low income children and it also, you know, it showed a correlation. It didn’t show that one causes the other and then there was a separate study on factors predicting homicidal behavior in adults that included things like unstable childhoods and physical punishments and living in a disadvantaged neighborhood. And there was nothing about violent play. But on that front I’m wondering is it possible that were are they engaged in violent play, but just the researchers forgot to ask or nobody thought it was important. Or can violent play lead to things like domestic violence that is far less likely to lead to a prosecution. So how, how does all that fit together in your mind?

Dr. Levin:    [17:50]

Well, you raised about 50 issues.

Jen:     [17:53]

I know. I’m sorry.

Dr. Levin:  [17:55]

Let’s try to think about how to make them fit together and make sense for your. I’m listening to what I would say. Is it just two, two big issues to look at. One is, it depends on the nature of the play and, and how we worked with kids on it because that, that affects the meaning kids are making and what they learned from it. And the other piece we need to look at is, um, uh, it depends on the kind of violent media and violence they’re being exposed to in the world around them. Because what we do know from the research on violence, the more media violence kids see and the kinds of violence kids see. Well, if you think of a kind of like a pyramid. If kids are seeing a lot of media violence, that it’ll make them a little more violent than they otherwise would be.

Dr. Levin:   [18:50]

If they, if they start seeing violence in the news that get lots of that can contribute to being even a little more real world violence. But then if they see it in their lives, in the world around them, that can make them even more violent. It doesn’t mean then if they see something really, really, really terrible violence in their lives, they’ll go do the same things, but they may be more violent in their lives than they otherwise would have been. So it’s like this pyramid that keeps going up, you know, if they are more likely to be more violent and more, um, more both in quantity and quality as the quantity and quality violence they seek goes up. But they’re always below the amount they’ve seen are likely to be below the amount they’ve seen. But when we talk about war play and how it contributes, some war play is more like imitation where they’re just going around imitating what they’ve seen.

Dr. Levin:    [19:46]

They go around karate chopping, pretending to shoot, pretending to be the violent characters they’ve seen. And they’re just imitating all that they’ve seen on the screen. They may have toy weapons; their play, kind of looks the same day after day. They take in new violent actions because they see something new. They changed characters because they’ve seen a new character and that’s one of the things we did a lot of research on what teachers said after deregulation happened with television as kids were going around karate chopping and shooting every place around the country when we started interviewing teachers and surveying teachers, the play sounded exactly the same and that’s when we started calling it imitation and that’s when the, um, theorist Jean Piaget, he talked about play versus invitation and he said, children need play, not imitation to develop, learn and grow. A child may see a ball bounce and they may imitate the bouncing of the ball, but eventually they take charge and start bouncing it fast, bouncing it slow, bouncing it high, bouncing it low, throwing it, trying other things with it and that’s when they really kind of keep learning new things and evolving and growing with them as well. He said the same thing has happened with more with dramatic play and they take experience…. They start imitating with it and gradually they incorporate into what they know. They make it their own. They expanded and it becomes play. And that’s what kids need to learn to develop and grow. No to kids will work out the same experience in quite the same way because they have different experiences to connect it to and to build onto and evolve it around so that that’s what’s true with war play. And that’s what we found in our work to doing the book that some children take something they’ve seen on the screen, it’s violent and Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers, whatever we were studying then, and they incorporated into more creative play so that then, you know, so we would help teachers figure out Oh, so the now the parents are hungry. No, let’s go to the housekeeping area and make them dinner and here’s some play and you can use this to make food. And the kids who were good players, the kids who weren’t going around karate chop and that’s all they could do with it. Or how do we help the kids who would only karate chop say “yes, I am tired now. So come on out for, let’s eat and let’s find a bad word. Can we make beds for them? And it’s, here’s a clock, we can let the alarm go off so they can go off and defend the world again,” you know, so that we would help them turn it. And they started Gee, yes, that’s fun. And help them transform it. And they would start doing things, well, I’m going to take the teddy bear to bed.

Dr. Levin:  [22:28]

To me, that’s what me, that’s what I do at night. And start transforming it into more creative play. So then they’re working out some of the scary things they’ve seen on the show that they start imitating scary, dramatic, salient things that they’re imitating, but then they gradually transform it into something that no longer… The violence is no longer the focus, but now the things they know are, and it’s almost like it’s, it’s therapeutic play. It’s not play therapy. Where they worked through the violence, they no longer obsessing about it, they no longer need and now they can move on and that’s when kids are being exposed to violence. What they need in order to not just incorporate imitative violence into their behavior and be more likely to become more and more violent as they see more and more violence. That’s when they’re young. That’s what they need. So that’s why we need to look at the kind of play that they’re doing when they have seen media violence and bring it into their play.

Jen: [23:39]

OK. And so I know that you have two potential theoretical approaches to why children engage in war play and the function that it serves for them. And as I was reading through them, it seemed to me is there a part of the reasons why parents and teachers find this issue so difficult is that we see some value in both of those two approaches and we just feel stuck in terms of figuring out which one is the right one. Can you tell us what are the two approaches?

Dr. Levin:    [24:08]

So there are two views that we tended to organize a lot of the thinking about around more play. One is the child development view and the child development views as children bring to their play whatever they need to work on so we need to look at what they’re playing and understand that developmentally, that’s what play is for, for children to work on their needs and our responsibility is to see what it is respected and learn from that and support it. The other view is called the socio political view and the socio-political view says children learn from their play. They learn lessons from their play about the world, how the world works because what they bring to their play is what they’ve seen and observed in the world, and as they do that, they learn lessons about the world, so if we let them bring violence and and violence they’ve seen on the screen to their play and allow war play, then we’re saying violence is okay; violence can be fun and exciting; violence as well you can do to have a good time. And so we’re teaching them harmful lessons about the socio-political world. We feel like we want to find an approach we felt in our work that incorporates both those views. We need to think about what lessons are the children learning and how does it connect to their level of development, what their needs are, what they’re working on at that level of development in order to understand the world.

Jen:    [25:39]

Yeah. And to me that really gets at the heart of this issue and in some ways I’m fortunate not to be the parent of a boy, but I know I’ll have other issues to deal with, but it’s the idea that I want my child to have the experience that he needs to have, but at the same time I don’t want him to learn that violence is acceptable. So, so the two theoretical approach is really create a dichotomy for me and I think a lot of parents as well. So what we’re going to do next is talk through some of the options as to what we can actually do about this. And Diane’s book,The War Play Dilemma goes through five different options and we’re going to talk about each of them in turn because I think it’s really important to work through, what are the ones that we might consider to be the, the common sense ones that may not actually end up working.

Jen:    [26:28]

So option number one is banning war play. And before we get into this, I just want to say that I found Diane’s work through Teacher Tom’s blog and Teacher Tom is a teacher up in Seattle whose work I greatly respect and I’ll put a link to the particular blog post that read in the references. Teacher Tom describes how the children in his school make their own rules, which invariably involves banning gun play, but it isn’t really actually totally banned because he says that if it’s just a small group of children who were doing it and they’re handed during off in a corner and they don’t involve anyone else who doesn’t want to play, then he actually kind of turns a blind eye and let them do it. And I also wonder what would happen if a class of his decided not to ban gun play because he says the teachers would make the same decision to ban gun play, but for all the wrong reasons. So it’s almost like he’s going along with the decision that the children make because they happen to make the “right decision.” And so this, this idea seems to make the adults really comfortable, but it also leads children to think is there are some things to hide from adults. So can you talk us through why banning gun play and war play has become kind of the default option and your thoughts on why that might not be the best route to choose.

Dr. Levin:   [27:47]

Well, banning war play may work in some classrooms and it may not, but it may not be the best way to help children work through all the violence they’re being exposed to. And now it is mostly in the media, but also in toys. There’s so much of it that at very young ages, they usually start seeing that we need to think about how are we going to meet their developmental and sociopolitical needs when they’re being exposed? What lessons are they learning as they’re seeing it? Does it just seem like it’s fun and exciting and but they can’t do it here, you know, so that they just kind of are left with their own ideas and their own thinking and they sneak around. We argue that it doesn’t meet their developmental needs because they don’t have a chance to work it out and work out meaning and feel better and feel safe and secure. We argue in the book that one of the most important things is the kids’ need to feel safe and secure and when they’re seeing violence around them and you know, in the fighting and everything, there may be things that are scary and when they play it out, we can see what’s making them feel scary and we can help them feel safe, but that doesn’t necessarily happen. If they would just say, no, you can’t do what they’re left with the fear,

Jen: [29:09]

And so what would you say to parents of maybe girls who might say, well, my child has a right to be at school and not be around people playing as if they’re using guns.

Dr. Levin:  [29:20]

I would say then then if parents are worried I would work with the children to find a way we can do it so that the kids who want to play have a place where they can play and the kids who don’t like to have a place where they can play so everybody can feel safe so that you know, that the children, the parents who are worried about if their kids in a place where they… But if the kids whose parents are where I’d say, “but I want to play even though my mom doesn’t want me to.” Then when you to, you know, try to work something out with the parents and tell them what their child is saying and figure out a way to do it. So try to negotiate a way and that’s where the children are learning all kinds of very good sociopolitical lessons about how you come up with solutions and how you find a way to negotiate at a child’s level to make things work out. And that’s really the opposite of fighting, which is the opposite of what war play, violent lessons are teaching. And that’s really the ultimate goal of what we’re talking about here. We’re not trying to teach children to violence is fun. Violence is exciting. Violence is what you do to have a good time. So I want to be clear about that.

Jen: [30:26]

Yeah, for sure. And I wonder if that has links to the fact that it’s often women that are making these decisions, it seems… When I was reading Penny Penny Holland’s book at, she kind of walks us through the process of relaxing as zero tolerance on gunplay ban in the schools that she’s working in and the resistance of some of the teachers, which were, I believe all women because, you know, there’s this idea that women are exposed to a lot of violence. It’s sort of a fact of our society, and it seemed to feel very uncomfortable to the teachers that the boys would be and not that the girls wouldn’t be, but the boys could run around and shoot fake guns with their fingers at the female teachers and the other students in the class and you know, at home maybe, maybe its often the mother who’s making these decisions as well. So I’m wondering if there’s an issue there about, uh, the fact that it is often women making the decisions about whether or not this thing is allowed, and that is often the boys who are the ones that want to engage in this kind of play?

Dr. Levin:  [31:36]

That’s a good question. I mean, clearly there are many, many, many, many more women than men working with young children in school settings and that clearly is going to be a part of it. But another part is I think that it’s hard to make it work. It’s just that we want everybody to feel safe and we need to figure out ways that the kids who were worried about it can feel safe. And I think one of the most valuable parts of allowing more play is working things out. Even with very little children. No, no. When you come over here and look how worried Susie is, we need to find a place where you can play with nobody’s worried. So remember when you were playing off of there, it was working good. I need to send you back over there and you need to remember to be there.

Dr. Levin: [32:20]

So it doesn’t mean no you go to timeout because you forgot about where you were supposed to go. But it’s kind of helping kids learn peaceful problem solving, conflict resolution, limit setting. So that gradually, they can learn the kind of self regulation they need. So even in war play, learning regulation is the way that…. But the banning where play doesn’t allow children to work at any of the content. It doesn’t allow them to deal with any fears they may have gotten from things they’ve learned. And it basically means that has to be kept inside and snuck around or done outside of school where people who could really learn something about it to help them could really help them and influence the lessons that they’re learning. So both the developmental needs aren’t met and probably not the sociopolitical needs either.

Jen: [33:09]

Yeah. Okay. And that reading your book and having that epiphany that banning war play is not the thing to do was something that I wanted to share with my listeners and why I asked you to be on the show.

Dr. Levin: [33:20]

Did it seem to you like I was off the wall or did it make sense?

Jen: [33:22]

No, it made me want to hear what was next. So let’s do that. So that was your option one. Option two is to take a very laissez faire approach to war play and just say as long as nobody’s getting hurt than the adults don’t get involved. And when I was reading around on that, I realized it was a very Freudian approach to kind of getting it out of your system. And I found a study that did show that children who are engaged in more aggressive pretend play actually showed less aggressive behavior in the classroom. But then that seemed to contradict a lot of the examples that were given in your book where the teachers are saying, you know, violent play is just taking over. It’s all the kids want to do. So can you help us to understand, you know, is, is the laissez faire approach a good one to use? And if it is why, why are the children doing it so much?

Dr. Levin: [34:09]

Well, I think the laissez faire approach in play for any kind of play isn’t really the best approach for teachers even though some people advocate for it because I think teachers should know what’s going on, should learn what the kids know and how they can facilitate and promote additional learning in the children, both from a developmental perspective and from a sociopolitical perspective. But when we think about war play and pretend fighting, I think the laissez faire approach doesn’t try to influence the lessons they’re learning. Doesn’t try to think about, you know, from a sociopolitical… Just lets them think, gee, violence is fun and exciting and it also doesn’t meet their developmental needs. It doesn’t help them think socially about what’s happening to other people. It doesn’t help them think about how do I take other points of view into account. It doesn’t help them really grow and develop in any particular way. It leaves to chance what kind of development would happen and as I have said before it’s often imitative most so they’re just imitating what’s going on and it’s not really quality play, so they’re not particularly learning anything. So I just think the laissez faire approach when we know so much of what their war play is just imitating violence they’ve seen. It’s not a productive way to allow play for both the content reasons and the process reasons.

Jen:  [35:35]

Okay. That makes. And do you think that it could potentially allow children to get it out of their systems and and so it sort of becomes a non issue if you use this approach or is that not what you’ve seen?

Dr. Levin: [35:49]

Well, it might live that get it out of their systems, but it doesn’t affect what they learned. So they might still end up learning harmful things. They may kind of move on until the next time they see more violence. Well, we’re leaving to chance and what they’re learning. So in terms of the socio-political perspective.

Jen:  [36:08]

Okay. All right. So option two is a nonstarter as well then. So option three is allowing war play with some predetermined limits and those limits might be when and where the war play can occur and the fact that everyone who’s involved in it needs to be a willing participant. What’s your thought on that?

Dr. Levin:  [36:25]

I think that’s definitely a way can lead to more potential safety in the classroom. Kids not getting hurt, kids having more choice about whether they’re involved and it may end up meeting children’s needs to work on the play more, but it still isn’t thinking about the quality of the play, what they’re learning from the play with specific goals in mind in terms of the lessons that they are learning. So they still can learn harmful lessons about the violence so you can end up finding way to keep it safe. So kids aren’t hurt, you can only play in one place, so other kids aren’t worried so you can make it more manageable within the classroom, but you’re still not taking the role of the adults should take in trying to deal with the content and the quality.

Jen:  [37:22]

Okay. So let’s give it away a little bit here and say that both option four and option five, are potentially viable options and like the first three. And so option four, and this is, I think this is going to be a bit controversial, but your proposition is that adults should actively facilitate war play. Tell us what you’re thinking.

Dr. Levin:  [37:39]

Need to understand what I mean by facilitated doesn’t come on. Kids today, the topic of the day for play is war play. It’s one kid steps playing it and say they’re running around karate chop and you make well, who are you being today? You look really excited. Oh, I’m being Blahbidy Blah. Oh, tell me about him. What does he do? Well, it looks like he’s trying to hurt people. Why does he try to hurt people? Always trying to a little. Is there anything else you could do besides that, you know, so that you start helping to expand his character? No, that’s all he can do. Really? So what if he ends up hitting Johnny like he did yesterday when he does that? What’s going to happen then when Johnny starts to cry and then we can’t play it anymore, what else could we do? So, so that you’re helping kids really think about the character, what he does.

Dr. Levin: [38:33]

So, but that’s what he does on television. So how on television you thinking ends up not making the character, the other characters cry, you know, so you’re really being interested, and you’re helping them to think about it. Or you’ve been that character for really, really long time and I bet you’re tired now. So let’s say you’re helping them expand their player. I see that there could only be four people playing and there’s two other kids waiting to play. What could we do so that they can have a turn? So you’re doing things to make the play more humane, bringing more social things in. You’re having them at meeting…they were several kids watching you play today and they had some ideas about what you could do instead of running around. So let’s hear what they have to say so that you’re helping them get more ideas.

Dr. Levin: [39:22]

You’re expanding it. You’re saying, you know, you’re getting them to be more involved. Let’s write a story about it so that then we can read it at meeting tomorrow and we can add to the story every day when you do new things in your life. So that they built the rituals and routines about how the play is an important part of the classroom. They make pictures for it. They see that it fits into their learning and what’s going on. And you can make it be, you know, the, the political lessons that are affected, you know, when they think about things they could have done to solve that problem besides fighting. And it also can meet their developmental needs in terms of making their play be more expansive and more elaborated and so forth.

Dr. Levin: [40:07]

So you’re moving beyond that imitation and into the…

Dr. Levin: [40:10]

Yes, you just, um, yeah, so that they, so that their facilit…at both levels. But that means that the teacher takes a very different role. But it means the children’s play becomes what we think of as creative play and the teacher takes responsibility and it doesn’t mean she’s there all the time either, but she’s kind of watching, um, at the back of her mind so that, you know, like one day when my son was young and I was beginning to study this stuff, one day I took him into his classroom and there were boys in the block area, this was in kindergarten building something and my, someone in and someone said, you know, Eli, we’re building the Power Ranger or something. And he said, oh, I want to help with the road. And someone said, no, you can’t play here.

Dr. Levin:     [41:00]

And another child said, White, there can be for four people and kind of one, two, three, he’ll be four. And someone will say, well, he can’t work on the road, and someone else said we’ll put his arm around. My son looked like he was going to cry and someone said, we’ll go to the Play Doh, we’ll make the Power Rangers that can come in and go on the road. And you know, it was just, you felt like it was a classroom where… And I knew it was worth the teacher. I mean, that’s in part where I learned some of these ideas where the teacher had really helped some of the kids anyway, learn how to problem solve, work together and see it as a group activity. And so that was much more important to me than that they were getting involved and you know, we’re going to address that on the playground later and start karate chopping because they had been developed this whole placing that they were going to bring outside with them. So that was important. Yes.

Jen:  [41:54]

All right. So if it’s controversial, but it’s also, I mean, it, it seems to meet both of the needs, right? It meets the developmental needs, it meets the socio-political need. It seems to do everything we ask of it, even though it feels kind of strange.

Dr. Levin:  [42:11]

And it doesn’t mean there aren’t limits, doesn’t mean you can’t say, It can only be in this part of the room. You can’t bring those toys in here. No, when you start doing that, other kids look like they’re scared. Did you see how they looked? We need to figure out some other thing you can do instead and that’s helping them learn how to self-regulate and it’s helping them learn to, to kind of see how to make good decisions gradually, you know, you, they may not learn everything you say at the first time, and you’ll say remember what we talked about yesterday, you know, but if it’s helping them become much more, kind of take more factors into account in their behavior and it’s making their play more elaborated. So it’s something that I think we will do it with other kinds of play, well we should. And I think now, especially as kids are playing less, they need help, you know, with all of their plan with this kind of play them they’d have more skills when they got to it.

Jen: [43:15]

Yeah. Okay. So alright that’s option for a viable option and option five is limiting war play, but providing other ways to work on the issues. What do you mean by that?

Dr. Levin:  [43:26]

Well, you may say, you know, we’ve tried to have more play, and there are some kids who just get really upset when we have it or we’ve tried and kids get hurt when we’re doing it. I think we really are not going to be able to do it anymore. And here we need to figure out some other way. You can talk about this thing you’d like to, you know, to do and that thing you like to do. Does anyone have any ideas what we could do or maybe we could start making pictures today. I’ve put red paint green paint and blue paint there because I know those are the colors of the characters you really like. Does anyone want to do pictures there today? I’ll be over there to help you write your stories, doing things that help them know that it’s okay to still talk about it or we can’t do it inside anymore.

Dr. Levin:  [44:09]

But if you want to try outside, let’s think what the rules should be so we could try it out there and see if it can work out there so that we can, you know, thinking about setting limits, giving them alternatives. We can talk about it every day. I’ll take the group who are excited about it and we’ll have a meeting. Well, if we’re in the reading corner when nobody’s there so we can talk about it. You can tell us what you’re excited about and we can so we can do it. But we can’t play because we’ve really tried to have a way and it’s not working for this and this reason. So, you know, I think in the first edition of the book we didn’t have that option. But after working with teachers and hearing where the choices and lead to, a couple teachers have gotten to this point where they felt like five really worked well and that it really helped children. So then said, so then they sometimes talk about we played, we just talked that about what they played at home so they still would play it but not at school.

Jen:   [45:10]

Okay. I do want to think through what are the, what are the things that could go wrong with this. And one of the things I thought through would be, what if a child was to find a real gun and it happens, you know, there was a news article making the rounds recently about how somebody has been shot by a toddler every week in the U.S. For the last two years. And so I’m wondering if, you know, this approach to allowing gunplay might result in a child who, if they found a gun would be more willing to handle it and it could result in doing somebody some harm. How do you address that?

Dr. Levin: [45:43]

There’s several ways to address that issue. One is we need to deal with violence. Children are seeing on television if we’re going to take it on at all. When real guns that children are seeing constantly being used and they’re having no help working through. What does it mean? They look fun, they look exciting, they look powerful. What does it mean? Why are they being used? What are the harm that can be caused and then a child sees one. Well of course they’re going to want to pick it up and see and imitate. Based on what I described about how children think, no, they don’t think about the logic. They don’t think ahead. They don’t know. They think in slides but not movies. They don’t think about what’s gonna happen with the gun. If they pick it up and use it, it looks fun and exciting and powerful and they seen it before. War play is where we can help work through some of those issues, you know, not that we’re going to say, well, if it’s a real gun, blah, blah, but, but I mean that’s not how we’re going to start working with them, but when they go around, you know, and if few, I’ve seen classrooms where a child pretended to make a gum with their finger and pretended to shoot someone and another child said, no, I don’t want you to shoot me. And I said, no, I’m going to shoot you on. Someone else said, no, I don’t want you to, to suit you. And the teacher said, let’s talk about that. And the child said, I don’t like guns. The one who’s been shot, the teacher said, well, what do you know about guns? Well, so it was a real gun. It could really hurt me, so then they can have a conversation, but the way it is now, we don’t connect with kids around it and just saying put it away and pretend it doesn’t exist.

Dr. Levin:   [47:25]

That’s not the way we’re going to help children make meaning and work out. So they’ll know to be worried. And I would also argue that having done safety for three year old let you know, lessons, gun safety programs for three year olds isn’t going to help hugely to just say no, don’t ever touch it and just pretend that they’ll understand all the dictates and mandates. But I do think we should be thinking more seriously as a society, how can we help children when they’re, when they’re being exposed constantly and frequently to this violence even when we don’t want them to.

Jen:  [47:59]

Yeah. Alright. So that kind of leads into my last major bucket of questions, which is what advice you might have for parents and teachers who might be considering lifting a total ban on war play. Maybe until this point they’ve just said, I don’t want to see it, you know, don’t, don’t do it. And you know, knowing that potentially it can increase after, after you lift a ban because the kids are like, what really I can, I can do this now? How does that process work itself out and what can parents do to support their children through that process?

Dr. Levin:    [48:35]

A few things. I wouldn’t have a meeting say “Kids. Okay. From today on, now we can start pretending shoot each and karate chop each other,” but say, you know, you see kids sneaking around pretending to shoot each other. I’m assuming it’s a classroom that has meetings talk about these issues which is the kind of classroom I try to promote. We’ll say at meeting: I noticed something today. You know, I noticed there were kids running around pretending to shoot each other when you thought I wasn’t looking. Did anybody else see that? That’s what we like to do. That’s what little egocentric children will say. You know, someone might say, someone will say, no, no, no. It’s okay. I, you know, no one’s going to get punished. I want to hear. It’s so much fun. Okay, so we need to have a conversation. It sounds like some of you really liked to do it.

Dr. Levin:    [49:24]

Yes we do. And I see you’ve tried to do it before, so let’s see if we can figure out a way where you can do it, where everybody feels safe with the kids who don’t like it. Don’t have to be near it where you can do it in a place where, you know, in a way and in a place where it feels okay. Where I don’t have to worry about the other kids. We can do it over by the tree. Oh, you mean when you’re outside, you think outside it’ll be okay in a place where the kids will know they shouldn’t go by the tree if they don’t want to play that way. Yes, let’s do it that way. So trying to find a way. So the teacher will say, okay, I’m going to make a picture, here’s a tree and we’re going to put an X on it that children, you know, don’t go there except when when they want to play running, you know, running a couple of children running around there and that’s where you can go when you want to play that way.

Dr. Levin:  [50:22]

Yes, let’s try it. So maybe two days later, you know, you’ve watched kids and it’s kind of going on and you say, so how do you think it’s working? Yes, it’s good. Okay. So we’re going to keep that will keep that rule for now. And if anybody starts thinking there’s a problem, tell me about it. So that’s how I will… That’s one, that’s a simple version, but that’s how I started, you know. And, and I might send a note home to parents in the newsletter…you know we had a ban on pretending to have weapons, but the children, you know, we’re all excited about something going on, you know, Blah Blah Blah. So we had a talk and now we’ve made a new rule which is that during recess, during playtime, outside under the tree, children can, can pretend that they have bows and arrows and toy guns and that’s what we’re doing and we’re seeing how it works. So far it’s been okay.

Jen:   [51:16]

Yeah. So the first thing the parent hears about it isn’t how Johnny shot me today. Presumably that wouldn’t be good. And I imagine some parents might have a really hard time with this at first coming from their school.

Dr. Levin:     [51:28]

It might tell parents, you know, if you want to talk to me about it, please do. And then we can talk more about it. We’re having a meeting next week if any, you know, we can make that be one of our agenda items if parents would like to talk about it.

Jen:   [51:42]

Mmmm. What if I’m a parent and I know that my child’s school has a ban on war play and I’ve listened to this episode and, and now I realize that maybe, uh, that isn’t serving my child’s best interests. How, how might I go about dealing with that?

Dr. Levin:   [51:57]

Well, I mean, if everyone, if it seems to be serving your child’s interests, you know, your child is playing at home, you know, maybe with weapons and in school knows they can’t and everyone seems happy. It may be okay, but. And, but then maybe at home you may talk about some of the things we’ve talked about here. So you’re freaking now here. You like to pretend to show Johnny at home and he pretends he’s certainly, let’s make the hospital where you can take him to take care of them when you here, you know, so you can do it at home, you know, so how come you, how come he needs to get hurt? What did he do wrong, you know, so you can hear little bits and pieces like we’ve talked about.. So I don’t, it’s not something that kids have to be able to play all the time. It’s not something that has to happen every minute, every week of their lives to see how it’s more responding to how your child is doing and what you think is going on for your child. If she’s feeling like your child is just constantly going around pretending that they’re there, they have a gun, their hands, the gun and they’re keeping their hand in their pocket and that stuff, they go to school. You may want to talk to the teacher about it: I heard this interesting show. Maybe you want to listen to it too.

Jen:  [53:10]

Yeah. It seems like that a good signal for that conversation could be that your child is getting in trouble at school for doing things that are against the rules related to gun play.

Dr. Levin:  [53:19]

Yeah. Exactly.

Jen:    [53:20]

Super. I learned so much researching and, and uh, talking with you about this episode and it was, there are often episodes that I record where I come out of it with a completely different point of view than I went in with it, but I have to say that this one is probably the most pronounced of that.

Dr. Levin:  [53:41]

I’m really pleased that you wanted to do an episode on this topic because it has been a while since there’s been a lot of interest and I haven’t done a lot on this topic and while for that reason and I think, you know, I shouldn’t have let it just die down as I’ve worked on other issues related to media in play that this is one that continues to go along and it should resurface. It’s time. So thank you.

Jen:    [54:09]

You’re welcome. I did also want to mention that Diane is the founding member of a group called Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment and I’ll put a link to the group and the references. It deals with things like technology for preschoolers and how parents can handle that, which we have actually done a couple of episodes on as well. There is some guides to playing with your child in different seasons and how you can use children’s books to promote play and they also do a toy guide every year at Christmas, so feel free to check that out if that’s of interest as well. Thanks again, Diane, for joining us and we will talk again soon.

Dr. Levin:  [54:43]

Thank you.


Also published on Medium.

About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

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