Guns, Swords & Fists: The Truth About Violent Play

Have you tried (probably unsuccessfully) to ban toy guns and swords? Do you worry that your child’s rough-and-tumble games will lead to violent behaviour? This blog is for you.

Wrestling, play punching, pretending to shoot someone, wielding a toy sword: these are all behaviours commonly banned by parents and teachers alike. It’s easy to see why; violent behaviour can cause harm, and you want to correct it while they’re young. However, extensive research in the field of play strongly suggests that this may not be the best course of action.

So, today, we’re going to take a look at what constitutes healthy ‘violent’ play, what to look out for, and how to encourage the best learning experiences for your little ones.

First up, what is ‘violent play’?

Really, this encompasses two main areas of play: rough and tumble play and war play.

Rough and tumble play might include wrestling, pretending to fist-fight, and other, similar activities. War play utilises toy or pretend weapons, such as foam or wooden swords, toy guns, or even weapons made by children with construction toys, sticks, or their own hands (think finger guns).

What’s important to note is the difference between these forms of play and genuine aggression. When playing, children may have moments of imitating aggressive facial expressions, vocal tones and body language, but they will quickly return to laughing and smiling. While minor injuries may occasionally occur, they will always be a byproduct of the play, never the intent. The moment physical or emotional harm becomes anyone’s intention, children are no longer playing. 

Studies have found that the majority of children can easily tell the difference between the two. And, in one study, researchers found that rough and tumble play only turned to actual aggression 0.3% of the time - so they really are quite separate from one another!

Why shouldn’t I ban violent play?

Banning violent play seems to make sense. Many parents and teachers worry about its similarity to real violence; it’s loud and chaotic and hard to regulate - and what benefit can whacking each other with foam swords or rolling around on the ground really have?

Well, as it turns out, all that noise and chaos is actually vital for children’s social, emotional and cognitive development (as well as their physical development).

Firstly, as much as we may wish it wasn’t true, children witness violence on a regular basis. Whether it’s on TV, in a history lesson, or in the street, whether it’s real or scripted, children see it. Now, combine this with the fact that children use pretend play to understand the world around them. Violent play can help them to understand and work through what they have witnessed: what happened? Why? How might those involved have felt? Play can offer a therapeutic experience, as well as helping children to understand that the actions they witnessed were harmful and should not be repeated.

Secondly, rough and tumble or war play can be a useful way to burn off energy and healthily express aggression. All children, at some point, feel the urge to shout, throw a punch or make an angry face. Play allows children the space and freedom to do so in safety, knowing that it’s all just ‘pretend’. As Michele Elliott, founder of anti-bullying charity Kidscape puts it, "if children explore their aggression in this way, there is less chance that they will go on to use it in non-productive ways”.

Thirdly, war play especially can help to give children a sense of strength and power. Throughout the day, children are told what to do and how to act. They are sent to nursery, given meals they probably haven’t chosen, and told when to go to bed: in other words, children have very little power. Pretending to slay a dragon, on the other hand, can make you feel pretty powerful! This can help children feel more satisfied with the power balance in their lives.

Lastly, violent play provides opportunities for important social development, encouraging children to practice controlled and cooperative behaviour.

For example, say two toddlers are play-fighting, and one accidentally hits the other a little too hard. The hurt child will stop the play. They may cry and will probably leave the play space, possibly to find an adult. The child who hit them will learn that hitting with that force is not OK - that if they do it again, their friends may not want to play with them. They learn to empathise, understanding how actions can hurt others. Thus, in future play and social situations, they will moderate their own behaviour - and, of course, this applies to using hurtful words or body language, too.

Now, as they get just a little older and more able to communicate clearly with each other, children will learn to not only moderate their own behaviour, but agree on rules to moderate the behaviour of their peer group, too. Anyone who has witnessed a playground game of pretend will know that they operate with a long and complex set of rules, usually with one, nominated child who has final say (you may remember hearing sentences like ‘it’s Alice’s game, you’ll have to ask her’). These rules are created via discussion and compromise (important skills for children to learn), and ensure that no one gets hurt.

Interestingly, studies have found that children with well developed social skills are more likely to enter into games with rules, and children who regularly engage in rough and tumble play are more likely to be counted as ‘best friends’ by their peers. Conversely, children with more trouble socialising are more likely to turn to aggression during these games, and thus become ousted by the rest of the group.

On the flip side, children who are completely denied violent play experiences can suffer from play deficit. This, in turn, can lead to a range of serious social and emotional difficulties in later life. 

For example, lab tests with rats who were denied rough and tumble play found that they were unable to tell the difference between a friend and a foe - they did not learn the social cues for real and pretend aggression. They also struggled to mate, and were more likely to suffer from PTSD after encountering a stressful situation.

In human studies, Stuart Brown MD, founder of the National Institute for Play, took the play histories of other 6000 people from a range of backgrounds. Doing so, he found that those who, in adulthood, had committed crimes ranging from drunk driving to mass murder, had all been denied rough and tumble play in childhood (among other forms of play). The Nobel Laureates, on the other hand, tended to have had very playful childhoods.

So, rather than denying rough and tumble and war play, we need to allow children the space to engage in it healthily and safely. However, if children are struggling to participate or have not yet developed the necessary social skills, adult intervention should occur.

How can I ensure my children are playing healthily?

From communication to toys to rules, there are a number of ways you can support your child as they engage in violent play healthily and, above all, safely.

Learn what it looks like
Observe your child playing. Are they smiling, or do they look angry? If a child gets hurt, does the other react with empathy and kindness or not? Learning to recognise the differences between pretend and real fighting will help you know when to step in, and when to let play continue.

Model it at home
As with any social situation, it’s great for your little one to get to practice with you. If they grab you a little too hard, or tug on your hair, let them know. Try to explain to them how it makes you feel, rather than simply telling them to stop or assuming they meant it intentionally. 

Similarly, talking about real or potential situations can be really helpful. Come up with ideas for what to do if someone gets hurt when playing, or how you can respond to someone who isn’t playing nicely.

Opt for open-ended toys
A common concern from parents and teachers alike is the effect of media on play. Sometimes, if a child watches a TV show with fighting in - for example, a superhero cartoon - and then plays with toys from that show, they may resort to simply imitating the fights, rather than exploring and playing with their own ideas.

Now, a certain level of imitation is normal and healthy. However, if your little one repeats the same play scenario over and over again, they’re probably not gaining much benefit from it. Where possible, opt for open-ended toys such as blocks, playdough, LEGO/DUPLO, or toys not directly associated to a TV show or film.

Consider swords in place of guns
If your little one wants to engage in war play, why not try to encourage swords instead of guns? Where guns are still ever present in the news, swords are historic. Additionally, where guns are highly destructive, offering maximum damage for minimum input, swords require both physical and mental skill to wield.

On top of this, using swords can encourage children to play as knights, inspiring acts of valour and the development of a knightly code. Consider the representations of sword-wielding knights in stories such as King Arthur, compared to gun-touting characters on TV and in video games.

Set rules
As we’ve already discussed, rules are incredibly important for keeping violent play safe and healthy - and they’re also the perfect opportunity for a little adult intervention!

For example, if your little ones are playing with toy swords, you could create a rule that a sword can only hit another sword, not a body. If they are playing with toy guns, maybe they could only be shot at imaginary monsters, rather than at one another.

Whatever rules you decide to implement, try to ensure they are making the play safe, rather than entirely changing or stopping it - children will always find a way to play the games they want to! Additionally, remember to explain why a rule is being put in place to ensure your child is learning from the experience.

So, of course, violent play is a complex subject, but we hope this blog has given you a few tips and pointers on how to encourage safe, healthy play at home!

Play safe!

Content Creator at MEplace

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