We spend a lot of our time around here playing heroes and villains. It seems like from the moment my son wakes up to the moment he falls asleep (and probably continuing into his dreams), he is fighting a battle between good and evil. Usually he is good. Sometimes he plays evil. Whichever side he chooses, he fights fiercely and imaginatively for his goal.
I know a lot of people these days are really uncomfortable with play weapons and play violence. It is certainly understandable if you turn on the news for 2 minutes and see how many young people are committing violent crimes. Our children can see so much violence—real violence in the news and in documentaries, graphic imaginary violence in TV, movies, books, and games—and it can be disturbing to see them act out the things that they see. We can limit how much of this our children see, but it seeps into their from all kinds of unexpected places. It is easy for the line to blur between play violence that serves the purpose of processing challenging new ideas and emotions, and violent play that is practice for enacting real violence and can really hurt other children. The PBS series on Understanding and Raising Boys does a pretty good job of explaining the difference.
I've noticed some things that tend to happen when gun/weapon/fighting play is forbidden. For example, when my son was in preschool, all weapon and fighting play was off limits. But because it's not off limits in our home, he felt free to share with me the games he was learning at preschool. Pointing hands and fingers like guns was not allowed, so the kids came up with other ways to symbolize a gun, like crossing their fingers and holding a hand up. I think with toy weapons, and so many other things in life, a simple formula applies:
natural interest + forbidden mystery = obsession
On the days that I was the classroom helper at preschool, I saw the play that was happening. And it was quickly evident that the kind of secretive play they were engaging in while no one was looking happens very differently from the play that goes on at our house. By allowing play fighting, and getting involved in it, there are a lot of social skills that my son has learned that can transfer to other interactions throughout his life.
- gaining consent to play fight before you start slicing and shooting other people
- reaching some agreement about the ground rules (i.e. no pointing/squirting guns at faces, swords only hit swords not bodies)
- making sure that the play isn't interfering with the peace and/or play of others around you
- learning to set limits with other people
- learning to hear and respect other people's limits
- continually adjusting the play and rules as needed
- deciding to fight against each other or together, and renegotiating as circumstances change
There is a lot of negotiation, self-regulation, advocacy and self-advocacy, reading of social cues, self-expression, listening... really rich social interaction that can happen when you get involved and offer a little guidance with weapon play and play fighting.
Getting involved in the play has also given me a chance to take some advice from Lawrence Cohen's Playful Parenting, to influence and rewrite common scripts so that they fit with my values. Whenever we are rescuing a princess, we free her and help her find her weapon, then she helps us rescue the prince and fight the bad guys. When we are at war, we offer opportunities to negotiate a truce or to work together toward a goal. Sometimes we are successful at making peace and sometimes we are not, but either way it's good practice. When we are battling dragons or other creatures, we usually discover that they are attacking because they are protecting their young or their food sources and we are usually able to end those conflicts peacefully. Dealing with conflicts like these is a huge part of life so it makes sense that it would be a huge part of play too.
Plus, I really liked playing these kind of cops and robbers, heroes and villains, superheroes and supervillains, kind of games when I was young, and I still do enjoy some good swashbuckling. Neither I, nor any of the neighborhood kids I played with, have grown up to become violent people. And I'd like to think we are actually good people who stand up for what we believe in, help people when we can, and try to do what is right when we are faced with difficult situations and decisions. And all that practice playing good guys and bad guys—I think it helped.