This week’s blog comes to us from Hannah Mislan, Head Teacher in the Sea Lions classroom. Hannah has been teaching at WNS since 2014, and holds a B.S. in Early Childhood Education from the University of Vermont.
Young children explore power play in a variety of forms in their early years. Power play is an umbrella term to refer children exploring being strong and dominant. Often, it involves pretend weapons, but also good guy/bad guy scenarios and chasing games. Given our current climate, it can be hard to watch a child engaging in weapon play and the desire to set a zero tolerance policy for gun/weapon play is easy to understand when play begins to feel inherently political.
In the Sea Lions classroom, we are constantly working to make sense of this play: how to create environments that allow children the space they need to explore concepts of power, how to make all children feel safe, and how to respond to the curiosity while still cultivating a classroom culture of empathy and consent. We are also aware of the fact that the larger world may be affected by guns/weapons in notably different ways than our community, and want to be sensitive to that in the choices we make for our own classroom.
One of the things all the teachers have found is that trying to ban gun play only makes it go underground. It encourages children to hide what they are playing and can even go so far as to make children feel shameful of their desire to explore power through weapon play. Power play can also help children to:
- problem solve
- learn limits and practice consent
- work together
- feel empowered and capable
- process fears and anxieties
- make sense of the world around them and their place in it
- engineer materials to represent their thoughts
Recently, the teachers in the classroom have seen an increase in this type of play in the classroom, and we found that it was a topic that came up from parents repeatedly at conferences. Today we sat down with the children to have a conversation about the use of weapons and power play in our classroom. We began by telling the children that we had noticed this type of play was happening in the classroom. The children immediately began to contribute their own thoughts.
“We watched the parade to keep guns out and it needs to change. We had a gun sign.”
“There are no pretend guns in school, because “pew-pew” is not allowed.”
Hmm… is that true? Are we allowed to use “pew-pew” in school?
“Not everyone wants to get shoot at. Tell them no thank you.”
“If they shoot at me I don’t like it, because I say stop. It feels not okay, but not scared.”
Yes. It’s okay to play those types of games at school, but we need to remember to listen while we’re playing. If someone says they don’t want to play, we have to respect that so everyone feels safe. What do we do to keep people safe?
“Naomi is small and I have to keep my small toys away so she doesn’t eat them and choke.”
“No hitting or scratching.”
What are things we DO to keep people safe?
“We hug people. Or kiss them.”
If they want a hug or a kiss, yes, those are kind things to do.
“We can give them high-fives.”
Right. So we can use pretend guns in our classroom as long as we listen and respect other people if they don’t want to play too. We all have the right to feel safe here.
The children agreed that this was a fair plan to enact. Then, the teachers felt like it was important to talk about peace. None of the children remembered ever hearing the word, nor did any of them know what it meant. We read a book Peace is an Offering, and began to think about the word peace. Peace is calm and kind, and can feel like a big deep breath. It feels good to be peaceful.
A few things to note about this type of play:
- Aggressive play is not indicative of an aggressive child, and children who engage in aggressive play tend to show increased social competencies later in life (Sandseter, 2011)
- Often times, what looks to adults like a gun is actually a “shrink-a-lator” or a “gun that shoots snowballs.” It’s important to remember to look at this type of play through the children’s eyes, rather than putting adult context on the play.
- This is not to say that we will be offering any type of toy that looks like a gun, but that if/when children are engaging in this type of play, we will facilitate it and address it in safe and respectful ways.
Sandseter, E. B., & Kennair, L. E. (2011). Children’s Risky Play from an Evolutionary Perspective: The Anti-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences. Evolutionary Psychology, 9(2), 257-284. doi:10.1177/147470491100900212