Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Learning From Play, by Mary O'Connell, LifeWays Director

I’ll never forget the moment when my two boys were young (1 ½ and 3 years old) and I served them a lunch of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. I looked on in horror as my two innocent, beautiful, sheltered little boys each chewed their sandwiches into a shape that looked like a gun and started shooting at each other across the table! Where in the world did this play come from?
This moment was the first time, but definitely not the last, when children’s play has been puzzling to me. Over the years, I’ve encountered many play scenarios that have made me scratch my head, some of which have elicited a reaction in me of wanting to stop the children and make them play something else. Other times, I’ve just watched as a perplexed observer. One time in my home day care, a child attended a funeral of a distant relative. For days after this, all the children played “death”. One of them would be the dead person, and the others would lay him or her out, put flowers around the deceased, sing songs, wail, and sometimes a parade (like a funeral procession, but with performers) would ensue. It felt so morbid to me. I wished they would stop and go back to their usual play scenarios, like mommy, daddy, baby and doggy. And, eventually they did. After about a week, they seemed to be satisfied with the death play and they quite unceremoniously laid it to rest (pun intended!), never to be played again.
What do children get from play like this? As adults, we can never really know. What we do know is that children’s play is like thinking in adults. It’s how they mull things over, process experiences and emotions, and make sense of their world. And as uncomfortable as it can be for some adults to watch their rough-and-tumble little boy go through a pink tutu phase, or walk in on their daughter and a friend playing doctor, or witness their son and his buddy giving birth to their dollies, all of these play scenarios serve a purpose for the child. As adults, we must learn to respect and trust children’s play, guiding when necessary if it becomes obsessive , inappropriate or dangerous, but for the most part becoming observers.
Children are so imitative. Their primary mode of learning is to imitate what they see. This is why a Monday morning after a great Packer game can be a crazy place in an early childhood suite. When our LifeWays center in Hartland was open, we had a number of die-hard Packer families there. The little boys loved to wear their football jerseys to LifeWays, and we noticed that on the day after a game day – with little guys decked out in their Packer gear – it was the perfect storm. They were tackling each other all day! After much discussion, we decided not to outlaw the play all together, because it seemed to be something they really needed to do to process what they had experienced on the weekend. We simply asked parents to refrain from letting their children wear their jerseys to LifeWays, as the sight of the Packer gear seemed to increase the intensity. We also spent even more time outdoors, established clear guidelines about where the football play could happen, and how children needed to respect the space of children who were not interested in their rough-and-tumble play. (We also never actually provided them with a football, but they always came up with something as an imaginary football, or just played without one.) These few intentions on the part of the caregivers were enough to steer the play to a more balanced, healthier and less dangerous level, while still allowing the children to process “Packer Fever.”
Why not just say some types of play are unacceptable? This is sometimes what parents ask about gun play. Guns are violent and the root of much evil in our society, so why not just say, No Gun Play Allowed, Ever. This is a topic that was recently explored in our LifeWays North America facebook group. There were many varied responses of how caregivers deal with gun play, from completely forbidding it to giving it free reign, and everything in between. It became clear that there is no one answer to the question, and our responses are very personal, affected by our own feelings about guns, our life experiences, and the children we work with. Our staff has talked about it quite a bit, and has decided that we do not want to forbid gun play all together. First of all, we feel the “forbidden fruit” syndrome would creep in, with children playing guns behind our backs and lying about it when confronted. Definitely not the sort of thing we want to encourage at LifeWays. Secondly, gun play, just like every other type of play, serves a real need in children, especially boys. I don’t know why. But it’s real. Ask anybody who works with children, and they’ll tell you of an inherent desire for this type of play.
So, as a staff, we have agreed to greet gun play with the following expectations. We will not provide actual gun replicas of any kind for the children here, and if a child brings one from home it will be put away. Children will need to conjure up a gun out of their own imagination, using their hands, sticks, or whatever else they find. We will also not allow children to shoot at each other or any other human beings. This will be enforced less as a rule (once again, the forbidden fruit) but more as a re-direction by the caregivers. A suggestion will be made to shoot at a target instead, or to be hunters. Occasionally, you might overhear a caregiver say directly, “No, you may not shoot me. Guns hurt people.” This is said with as little emotion as possible, for we’ve learned that when we react from an emotional place with children, they can easily absorb these feelings and can become upset or feel insecure.
As adults, we have all kinds of feelings about guns. It’s hard to separate out our feelings about gun violence from a child’s real and innocent need to explore aggressive play. We immediately begin to worry that they will become a violent person, or that they will not grow up to strive for peaceful solutions to their problems. Often, I need to remind myself of my own childhood. Games like cops ‘n robbers and cowboys and Indians were a big part of my experience, as I grew up on a street where all the children my age were boys. And yet, I have not grown up to be a person who feels that violence solves problems. As in any area of life, we serve as healthy role models for our children and they will learn peaceful conflict resolution from us, as we practice it in our daily lives.
With all types of play, I encourage you to become an observer. It’s fascinating to see what play scenarios children come up with, and watch the play as it “morphs” into whatever they need it to be to help them make sense of their world. By limiting their exposure to the media, we can keep their imaginations fresh and their play free. This is important because media images are so powerful. And then, we can simply trust that the children will learn what they need to learn from their play. This is the greatest gift we can give our children.


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Mary. As I was reading, I was reminded of an incident which occurred last summer on a camping trip with a dear friend and her children. As a family, they had been struggling to find a solution to this need in their 9 year son for gun play and hunting. They decided that he could engage in gun play and hunting as long as it was not directed at other humans. Their son then went off to hunt, taking a small pocket knife with him. He was unsuccessful on this trip, but some time later, my friend told me they had been at a party and her son had hunted and killed a squirrel that the hosts had been feeding. She was horrified and mortified, and the hosts were very upset. Thankfully, my friend's son was just as upset.
    My point is that even in suggesting that children not point "guns" at each other and only shoot or hunt animals, you have to know the child you're telling this to, because most probably wouldn't go as far as hurting an animal, but some might, with your blessing.

  2. Thank you for your article. I too had sons who created guns out of a sandwich and since then I have done quite a bit of research on this subject - BOYS NEED WEAPONS!!!! They are the hunters and protectors and as you also said - they need to role play to make sense of the world. How sad that some say guns are bad - gun play is bad naturally follows that this urge boys have is also bad the boy is bad!! I encourage these boys to make bows and arrows - the learning involved in making one that works - for adult and child - is a huge opportunity to explore maths, science, language etc etc. What we also need to remember is that there are many adults who may be family members or friends out there who use/have guns on a daily basis - gamekeepers, hunters, police, armed forces. What is important is that all children are able to say " no thanks, I don't want to play this game" should they feel threatened or uncomfortable but then they should have the 'ammunition' to say this for all games or activities! Common sense as always should be our guide when setting rules.

  3. Thank you Mary, for taking the time to put this article out here. I was really, really looking for a way to find peace with my attitude toward gun play and how I deal with it with my boys and at my preschool. This helps tremendously! I feel at least I have a different approach on how to work with it and I know this article can also help some of my parents who are questioning this kind of play as well. Again, thank you!!