War Play: Balancing Children's Needs and Adults' Concerns
by Nancy Carlsson-Paige
First published in Early Childhood Education: An International Encyclopedia
Rebecca New, Moncrieff Cochran, Eds., Praeger Publishers, 2007
I visited a kindergarten classroom recently at recess time. The teacher came up to me (Carlsson-Paige) and the first thing she said was, "I hate Star Wars. It has taken over the classroom. It's all the kids can think about--they're obsessed with it, mostly the boys. They turn everything into a light saber and start fighting. But they're clever and tell me it's something else, not a weapon. It's all they talk about and all they play."
Later, I went into the classroom and sat at a table with three boys. They were drawing and talking about Star Wars. One of them said, "I love Star Wars!" He pointed to his head and he said, "I can never stop thinking about it!"
"War play" is a form of play that has seemingly engaged children for centuries and across many cultures--artifacts of what look like war toys have been found from ancient Egypt and the Middle Ages. But in the United States today, teachers often express concerns about this kind of play. They try to understand the developmental needs the play can meet. And they worry about how its themes, props, and scripts are increasingly shaped by the media and marketing forces that influence much of childhood culture today (Katch, 2001; Levin and Carlsson-Paige, 2005).
The Value of War Play
War play can help children work on a number of important developmental issues. Perhaps more than any other form of dramatic play, war play allows children to feel powerful as they play. Children can experience a sense of power and competence in war play--as they pretend to be superheroes with super powers, for instance, which can help them feel like strong people who can take care of themselves. It can also assist children who are struggling with separation from home and other challenging life issues.
War play can also help children gain control over their impulses as they assume the roles of powerful fantasy characters. As they "pretend fight," children learn to stay within acceptable boundaries. This also provides them with a special forum for learning about the difference between fantasy and reality. And as children take up contrasting roles in war play (e.g., "good guy" and "bad guy"), they learn about how their actions affect one another and begin to understand other points of view.
And finally, young children see and hear about violence in the world around them -- in their homes and communities and in the media they see, and war play can be a helpful vehicle for integrating and making sense of this violence. For example, a child might see soldiers fighting on television news and bring this image into "war play" in an effort to understand it or make it less scary.
Threats to Healthy War Play
Children's war play began to change in the mid-1980s, and teachers began voicing concerns about it (Levin & Carlsson-Paige, 2005). This was just after the broadcasting industry was deregulated by the Federal Communications Commission. Deregulation opened the floodgates for marketing TV-linked toys and products to children, a practice previously prohibited. An abundance of shows, products, and toys linked together around a single theme, usually a violent one, began to saturate the childhood culture. Both the quantity and quality of violence children saw increased dramatically. Many children were left confused and scared by what they saw (Cantor, 1998). And increasingly over the years, videos, video games, movies, and fast-food outlets have joined in these marketing campaigns.
By the late 1980's, large numbers of teachers were worrying about the war play they were seeing. They described how children were imitating TV "scripts" in their war play and acting out the violence they had seen on the screen instead of inventing their own stories (Levin & Carlsson-Paige, 2005). Children's war play began to look more like imitation than play (Piaget, 1951). Many children seemed unable to use their war play as a means of actively transforming their own experience, especially the violence they had seen, and thus meeting their developmental needs. The deep meanings that young children construct when their play flows from their own needs and experience were being replaced at least in part by content seen on the screen. And this undermining of creative play continues to be a serious problem today.
Finding an Approach to War Play Today
In a society where children are exposed to large amounts of pretend and real violence, it is not easy to find an effective approach to war play in the classroom. There are no simple or perfect solutions for approaching children's war play that fully address both the needs of children and the concerns of adults. Teachers who ban, allow, or facilitate children's war play can all find difficulties with the approach they have chosen.
Banning war play altogether can alleviate many problems for teachers but it also denies children the opportunity to work out developmental issues and violence they have been exposed to through their play. It can leave children to work out these issues on their own without adult guidance; they can learn lessons that glorify violence that are unmediated by adults. They are also left to feel guilty about their interest in the play. And even when they try to ban war play, many veteran teachers say that this approach does not work very well. Children have a hard time accepting limits or controlling their intense need to engage in this kind of play. They find ways to circumvent the banby denying the play is really war play (i.e., learning to lie) or sneaking behind the teacher's back to play (i.e., learning to deceive). So while banning war play can be an easier choice for teachers, it can have a worrisome negative impact on children.
Some teachers find that the war play in their classrooms, especially media driven, imitative war play, is so unproductive that banning seems to be the only choice, at least for periods of time. When this happens, teachers can still provide alternative activities such as drawing, storytelling, writing, and building. This will allow children to work out their ideas about violence and war play-related themes and connect with adults about their needs regarding them. And at the same time, teachers can provide alternative themes to those offered by media that address the same developmental needs that are met in war play. They can encourage dramatic play based on children's books, for example, that touch the deep developmental themes such as mastery, power, and separation that are expressed in war play.
Teachers who decide that they want to allow children's war play almost all find that in order for children to work through their deep issues and needs in a meaningful way in this play, they require direct help from adults (Hoffman, 2004; Katch, 2001; and Levin & Carlsson-Paige, 2005). How teachers decide to help will depend on the quality of the play children are engaged in. Taking time to watch the play and learn what children are working on and how they are working on it, can give teachers the information they need to facilitate war play in ways that will help children get beyond narrowly scripted play that is focused on violent actions. Often children will need help reducing their dependence on highly realistic, media-linked “fighting” toys and learning how to find interesting ways to use open-ended toys. Some children will need help bringing new and interesting content into their play that expands the focus of the play beyond violent themes and actions. And many children will need help keeping the play safe and from getting out of control. Teachers can work with children to develop rules for this play that ensure the safety of all of the children in the classroom. Facilitating war play in these ways can provide children with skills to work out the violent content they bring to their play, work on important developmental issues, learn valuable lessons from war play, and be able to move on to new issues rather than stay obsessed with their war play.
Whether teachers partially ban war play or actively facilitate it, talking with children about their war play and the related themes in their drawings, stories or buildings is one of the most important ways we adults can help them work out the violence they see and even learn alternatives to that violence. It often helps to begin with an open-ended question. If a child draws what looks like a bomb or an explosion, a teacher can point to it and ask, "Can you tell me about this part of your picture?" Then the teacher can respond based on what is learned about the ideas, questions, and needs a child has. Keep in mind that children do not understand violence as we adults do. They may need help clearing up confusions ("The planes that go over our school do not carry bombs"), sorting out fantasy and reality ("In real life people don't carry light sabers"), and getting reassurance about their safety ("I can't let you play like that because it's my job to make sure everyone is safe").
Reducing children's exposure to violence, to inappropriate media, and to excessive time consuming media is one of the most important ways teachers can foster healthy war play (Levin, 1998). Through parent workshops and family newsletters that include resource materials, teachers can help families learn more about how to protect children from exposure to violent entertainment and news media and too much time in front of the screen.
Teachers can reach out to community after-school programs and family day care providers to share materials on creating safer, more violence free, less media-saturated situations for children. Working to minimize the influence of violent entertainment culture on children will help them restore their war play to its rightful place as a valuable resource for making sense of the violence they see in the world around and working on important developmental issues.
Cantor, J. (1998). ‘Mommy, I’m Scared!’ How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them. NY: Harcourt Brace.
Hoffman, E. (2004). Magic Capes, Amazing Powers: Transforming Superhero Play in The Classroom. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.
Katch, J. (2001). Under Dead Man’s Skin: Discovering The Meaning of Children’s Violent Play. Boston: Beacon Press.
Levin, D.E. (1998). Remote Control Childhood? Combating The Hazards of Media Culture. Washington, DC: NAEYC.
Levin, D.E. & Carlsson-Paige. (2005/1987). The War Play Dilemma: Everything Parents And Teachers Need to Know (Second edition). NY: Teachers College Press.
Piaget, J. (1951/1945). Play, Dreams, And Imitation In Childhood. NY: W. W. Norton.
Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed.D., is a Professor of Education at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA where she has taught teachers for 30 years, and a research affiliate at Lesley’s Center for Children, Families, and Public Policy. She has co-authored four books and written numerous articles on media violence, conflict resolution, peaceable classrooms and global education. Nancy is a consultant for public television, and has worked on shows for Arthur, Postcards from Buster, Zoom and Fetch. Her latest work is a book for parents and all adults concerned about children today called Taking Back Childhood.