The value of gun play

Take a look at a blog written by Diane Wycherley, Senior area manager at Tops Day Nurseries, in the wake of a survey carried out by, the leading reviews site for nurseries, which found over three-quarters of staff have banned toy weapons in their nursery.

When you hear ‘quick, the baddies are coming’ then see a child’s head poke out of their makeshift den pointing a stick at a friend and making gunshot noises. What is your response? Do you instantly stop the play proclaiming we do not play guns here? Or do you observe the fantasy, child-initiated role play and admire the critical thinking, negotiation, strategy, rules, and planning that is taking place.

I know that this type of play does not sit well with some but I hear regularly when views are questioned ‘they do it anyway’.  How many times have you stated ‘Johnny, is that a gun?’ to have the response ‘nope, it’s a water pistol’ ‘nope it throws nets, it’s not a gun’.  The children become very creative at ‘lying’ or providing an answer that pleases you as an adult so they can continue their play.  What is the difference between children pointing a stick or block structure and shooting the enemy (sometimes you) to a child with a wand casting spells turning others into frogs or granting them their wish of a big slice of cake?

Children may demonstrate expertise, knowledge or experiences in their play which may sometimes shock adults, but they will only be able to play to the limits of their knowledge and experience. In their playing children give signals to practitioners and parents about what they know, how much they know, and what they need to know in order to make more sense of their world and their place in it. Children use play as a necessary tool for thinking, and some children will want to think much more about gun-related issues than others because it may be real to them.  As a child I grew up on a military barracks, I entered and exited the barrack through an armed gate where I showed ID each time, even at the age of 10 years old.   My dad worked in the armoury and I experienced real guns, watched them being fired and understood that these are used to protect or disarm people.  Saying that I used to regularly role-play different combat situations with my makeshift weapons and hunt the ‘enemy’ down.  It doesn’t promote or even accept violence, what this play does is explore and allow the children to be children.

I have been in childcare for many years and worked in several settings, some that were pro-gun play and some that were anti-gun play, the one thing they have in common was children constructed guns from different objects and pretended to shoot others either in secret or in a mass planned ambush.   As I stated before, they will do it anyway as agreed by most practitioners.  The issue is if you ‘ban’ this play it makes it more desirable for some children and you will see that this then presents negative behaviours as it’s used as an outlet.

There is no evidence to support the idea that allowing children to be involved in gunplay promotes them to become involved in violent activities. Children need to make sense of their world around them and they can and distinguish between what is real and what is make-believe.  We have to remember this is role play/ fantasy, not real life; it’s not a real situation and no one is actually getting hurt.  This ‘type’ of play allows the children to experiment with rules and boundaries; pushing them to their limits, it usually has strict guidelines, rules, and outcomes which have been created collaboratively.  It also allows the children to explore the power or status role through play.

Now I do not advocate buying children replica guns but this is only due to the fact it can only then be a gun! If a child chooses a stick, now there are endless possibilities it can be, a gun, a bow for their arrow, a magic wand, a laser shooter and rope whip. Loose parts and open-ended resources provide endless possibilities in this type of play.

We have to remember that making guns involves all!!! You do not need to be the best communicator, best builder, best friend, everyone can make guns for varied resources.  Professor Tina Bruce is a highly respected academic and theorist in the area of play-based learning.  Prof. Bruce explores 12 indicators of play, she explains and expresses the adoption of these when evaluating the quality of children play. If practitioners open up their thought and ideas of gunplay it will enable children to develop:

  • The power of communication,
  • The ability to tolerate others,
  • To negotiate, listen and empathise,
  • To work and function with others,
  • To think things through and consider the effect of possible actions.

These are powerful and meaningful skills to learn and develop, it helps them understand the world around them and the part they play. They are exercising their imaginations, problem-solving- where shall I hide, collaborative working, empathy- learning to think about the perspective of others, provide protection and care as superheroes do good, they keep people safe and help people in trouble, knowing when to stop (sometimes requiring support) when others do not want to play.  Such valuable experience and life skills.

What I am trying to say as that we need to stop imposing an adult perspective on children’s ideas and play. We just need to let them explore, experiment and importantly have fun being in their own world imagining the possibilities…


Posted in: News from our Nurseries