Many child care programs ban any play that involves guns, fighting or killing, “bad guys,” or anything that resembles physical aggression. And I understand the intent of those restrictions. We all want a peaceful classroom. We all want to encourage children to compromise and negotiate with one another instead of using force to solve conflicts. We’re afraid that if we let children pretend to fight then they will become more aggressive in real life. I understand the desire to steer children away from aggression, and enforcing a simple, firm rule is admittedly the easiest and most popular strategy for getting there.
But having a hard-and-fast “No War Play” rule can do more harm than good when a child has a parent in the military. For these children, pretending to be a soldier is about so probably not about aggression at all.
War play allows them to identify with their parent. A hallmark of early dramatic play is pretending to be like Mom or Dad – it’s what young children do as they try on the roles of the people they know best. For children with a parent in the military, part of developing and expressing the bond they have with their parent is taking on the role of that parent at work. Telling a child that he or she can’t play that role conveys to the child that something is wrong or shameful about the work that his or her parent does, a message that creates enormous conflict for a child.
War play helps them to cope with their emotions. One of the many benefits of pretend play for young children is that it allows them to imagine themselves in frightening or intimidating circumstances. In play, the real-life fears and worries that a child is experiencing internally can be brought out in the open where she has control. Perhaps she’s feeling abandoned after her father is deployed or fearful for his safety. In play, she creates a scenario where she is powerful and courageous in the face of those feelings, where the ending is entirely up to her. And when the feelings get too intense, she can stop the play or change it to something less frightening. Children in military families have very little control over the circumstances they must live in. Pretend play gives them a place where they have complete control and serves to ease their powerful emotions.
War play enables them to communicate what they’re thinking and feeling. There is no better way to learn what a child is thinking or feeling than to observe him in pretend play. When young children are fully engrossed in pretend play, their words and actions are more uninhibited than any other time. So when children who have a parent in the military are pretend playing, it’s very likely that a good observer will see and hear what they are thinking and feeling about the situation. Are they angry? Proud? Confused? Excited? Afraid? Alone? Listening to their play can reveal volumes about their unique, child-like perception. It’s especially important to pay attention to their play around the time of important transitions: the deployment or homecoming of the parent, an upcoming relocation, etc.
So am I saying to remove all restrictions on war play and allow unbridled aggression toward one another? Not at all. All young children need to feel safe in their classroom. Any play that causes children to be afraid of getting hurt or that treats others or the play environment disrespectfully needs to be off limits. What I am suggesting is that we be willing to consider how to allow military children the opportunity to use play about war situations to fill their emotional needs without compromising the emotional and physical safety of other children.
That will take some effort, some thoughtful conversations with parents and other teachers, and some careful observations of children at play. Personally, I think the benefits to military children are well worth it!
- What do you think? Do you agree or disagree?
- How have you dealt with war play? What has worked well for maintaining the balance between the needs of the military child and the needs of the classroom as a whole?
- What suggestions would you offer other early educators who are new at allowing war play and are a little nervous?
For more thoughts about military children’s war play and how to keep it safe for everyone, we’re written two full-length articles:
- Reflections of Military Life in Children’s Play
- Ensuring that Children’s War Play is Healthy, Safe & Positive
Other resources on pretend play in general:
- Dramatic Play in Child Care
- When a Child Pretends: Understanding Pretend Play (DVD)
- “Role Play in the Early Years,” by Sally Featherstone (2009, A&C Black Publishers Ltd)