Smoking gun?

What is the current thinking among child care professionals on
how young children are affected by exposure to television violence
and play with toy weapons, asks Mark Hunter.

Shortly after the 11 September tragedy in 2001, nursery school
staff noticed a disturbing element creeping into the play of the
children in their care. Four year olds had begun building towers
out of wooden bricks, then knocking them down with toy aeroplanes.
Three year olds were running around imitating ambulances while
their friends fell down and pretended to be dead. These were not
noticeably disturbed children, nor did their new games seem to be
having any damaging effect. Nevertheless, a number of nursery staff
were worried enough by the trend to approach the Early Years
Curriculum Group for help on how to respond.

It is too early to say whether or not the war in Iraq has had a
similar effect on children’s play. But clearly the 24-hour
coverage of the hostilities will have exposed them to violent
images even though few young children will be watching CNN all day.
Unfortunately, there is little consensus on how harmful this
exposure may be, or how to respond when the children incorporate
these images into their play. Early years specialists remain
divided on whether nursery staff should ban such “unhealthy” role
play or encourage the children to express their feelings and
discuss the issues involved.

Indeed the question of how to deal with violent themes in young
children’s play has vexed early years practitioners for
years. In the 1970s research was published that suggested children
who were allowed to play with toy guns were more likely to develop
antisocial tendencies than those who weren’t. This was backed
by a study in 1992 showing that toy gun play was second only to
violence in the home as a predictor of childhood aggression.

Findings such as these have led many nurseries to adopt a policy
of zero tolerance. Toy guns are banned and children are not allowed
to come to nursery dressed up as cowboys or the latest superhero.
Even play using “guns” constructed from bits of Lego is

But more recently doubts have grown as to whether such a strict
policy is enforceable or desirable. Research carried out by Penny
Holland, a lecturer in early years education at London Metropolitan
University, suggests a more relaxed attitude not only encourages
children to take an imaginative approach to play, but can improve
their social skills and result in a long-term reduction in

“Zero tolerance often tends to be directed a small handful of
boys who show a persistent interest in gun play,” says Holland.
“This constant negative attention can result in a loss of
self-esteem and the boys may not be able to become absorbed in
their play activities because they are constantly being

But if these children’s play is allowed to develop
naturally, what begins as a game involving war, a weapon or a
superhero, will often turn into something completely
non-aggressive, she says. The result is enhanced self-esteem,
improved social skills, a greater ability to make friends and
involvement in a wider range of activities.

Holland stresses that her tolerant approach does not extend to
manufactured toy weapons, which she would like to see banned from
nurseries and toy shops. However, children who use their hands or,
say, a stick as a pretend weapon should not be discouraged, she

By relaxing zero tolerance policies in this way, Holland
acknowledges that nurseries risk seeing an initial rise in the
incidence of aggressive play. However, she claims this is likely to
be short-lived. “Over time many practitioners have noted there is a
reduction in real aggression from those children with a persistent
interest,” she says.

Research due to be published in May by the Early Years
Curriculum Group also seems to suggest that children should be
allowed to explore their feelings towards the violence they see
through the media.

According to Anglia Polytechnic University’s professor
Janet Moyles, one of 10 early years specialists involved in the
study of three to five-year-olds at the university, the results
show that young children are constantly trying to make sense of
what they see on television, posters, newspapers and on the

“We began the research after September 11 because practitioners
were approaching us saying that children had been acting out these
scenarios and asking how they should respond to it,” she says.
“After looking through the evidence we feel there’s actually
no point in banning toy guns or war play. This just drives the
games underground. Children may get a better understanding of these
issues if they are allowed to include them in their play.”

Moyles says she can understand why nursery staff might be
reluctant to allow children to play war games or with toy weapons.
However, she stresses that a child does not necessarily see these
activities as violent or aggressive. “Nursery staff tend to have an
innate dislike of toy guns,” she says. “But we see these things
quite differently from a child. A child sees enormous numbers of
massive technicolour images on the TV screen of scenes that he or
she doesn’t necessarily understand but which look terribly
exciting. It’s not surprising that they then try to act them
out. They are not trying to be violent.”

Rather than banning aggressive play themes, Moyles would like to
see nursery staff observing children’s play “to gain an
informed and sensitive understanding of the ways in which children
confront and represent violent images”.

This is fine in theory. But according to Anne Longfield, chief
executive of Kids’ Clubs Network, many nurseries do not have
the time, staff or expertise to conduct such a sensitive exercise.
“To be able to help children through these issues you need very
experienced staff and a supportive environment,” she says. “You
also need the parents on your side.”

If these elements are not in place, then relaxing a zero
tolerance policy towards playing with toy guns might be confusing
for staff, children and parents alike, says Longfield. She also
warns that children who are not involved in the play can become
intimidated by a sudden upsurge in aggressive behaviour among their
playmates. Nursery staff will need to be prepared to cope with
this. “It’s often better and safer to go with a complete ban.
Then everybody can cope with it.” Longfield believes a zero
tolerance policy on gun play can help nurseries drive home a
“consistent and universal message that guns and violence are always

Certainly this seems a message pertinent to our times. Charity
Medicins du Monde recently organised a “toy guns amnesty” in which
children were encouraged to surrender toy guns as an act of
solidarity with the two million children who have died and six
million who have been wounded with real weapons in the past 10
years. Perhaps we should be grateful that, broadly speaking, in the
UK it is only toy guns and TV wars that our children have to worry

1 P Holland, We
Don’t Play With Guns Here: War, Weapon and Superhero Play in
the Early Years
, Oxford University Press, 2003

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