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A teacher’s perspective: “Bad guys” and weapon play at school

Q. Why are children fascinated by “bad guy” and weapon play? Why do they engage in aggressive behavior?
A. They are trying to feel powerful. Young children have little power in their lives. Adults tell them when they can eat, what they can wear, where they go to school, and whom they can play with.
Because children are so powerless, they are attracted to powerful characters (“bad guys” in stories, strong cartoon characters, soldiers, and superheroes). What’s more fun than pretending to be a carnivorous dinosaur that would eat your teacher? Through their aggressive and violent pretend play, children try to work through frightening subjects. By taking on the role of a powerful character, children are able to feel strong and more able to cope with their fears.
“When your child acts out good and bad roles, he is actually trying on power from both perspectives: the frightening negative aspects of the “bad guy” and the heartening positive aspects of the good guy. He can actively gain control over the things that frighten him by experiencing both sides of the power play equation” (Church 2003).
Trying on these roles is a natural part of a child’s social and moral growth—necessary in the process of learning the difference between right and wrong.

Q. What about the influence of the media?
A. We can’t blame the media for all of children’s “bad guy” and weapon play. All children engage in play that makes them feel more powerful. But we can’t totally take the media out of the equation either. There is “absolutely no doubt that higher levels of viewing violence on television are correlated with increased acceptance of aggressive attitudes and increased aggressive behavior” (Marion 2002).
After the deregulation of children’s television in 1984, many children’s television programs became 30-minute commercials for action figures, toys, and other products designed to appeal to child consumers. “Half of the toys sold in 1994 were linked to movies or TV programs (up from10 percent in 1984). Children’s cartoon and action programs average more than 20 acts of violence per hour, compared with five acts of violence per hour during prime-time television” (Levin 1998).
Many children’s television programs, videos, video games, and computer games contain violent content. “Most experts agree that media violence has harmful effects on children’s development and behavior” (American Psychological Association 1993).

Q. How does this relate to what you see in the classroom?
A. I’ve been teaching young children since 1985, and I have seen children’s play become much less creative and much more imitative during that time. They imitate what they see and hear in the media. Even children who don’t have direct contact with the media learn this imitative play from their peers who do have direct access. With laptops, portable televisions, video players in vehicles, and hand-held video-game devices, children can be bombarded with media violence no matter where they are.

Q. What are the developmental issues behind this play?
A. Preschool children (ages 2 to 7 years) are in the “preoperational stage” of cognitive development, according to psychologist and cognitive theorist Jean Piaget. From Piaget’s work we learn that preoperational children think in the following ways:
They focus on one thing at a time. Example: Darth Vader uses a light saber. When children think of Darth Vader it is difficult for children to consider Darth Vader doing anything other than fighting with a light saber.
They are egocentric and are limited to their own point of view. Example: There is only one Red Power Ranger on TV. There can be only one Red Power Ranger and “I am the Red Power Ranger!” They don’t consider the fact that their friends all want to be the Red Power Ranger too.
They think in rigid and dichotomous categories (black-and-white thinking). Example: You’re either a good guy or a “bad guy”. You’re either an enemy or a friend. There is no in-between, no gray area.
They focus on concrete and visible aspects of situations, experiences, and ideas. Example: The concept of war brings to mind its concrete, visible aspects (bombs), but the concept of peace is much more abstract. It is harder to conjure up a concrete, visible image of peace and thus more difficult to understand. Resolving conflicts in violent, nonverbal ways (hitting, shooting) is much more concrete than resolving conflicts in nonviolent, verbal ways (talking, negotiating), which is more abstract and complex.
They fail to make logical connections between cause and effect. Example: It is easy for young children to focus on the action and excitement of violence. It is difficult for them to focus on the effects of violence (pain and suffering). TV and movie violence is edited, making it much cleaner and neater than real life violence, which is very messy and unattractive. Young children who find and play with real weapons are surprised and horrified at the results of accidental shootings, which they could not conceive or predict.
They are unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality. They don’t use logical thinking to separate pretend violence from real violence (American Psychological Association 1993). Refusing to play a bad character may indicate that a child doesn’t fully comprehend that the play is “just pretend” (Levin 2003). Example: A child was involved in an aggressive, chase game with pretend weapons. He ran up to me and said: “Tell them this isn’t real!”

Q. Why do you have a no-weapon-play policy in your classroom?
A. Weapon play leads to aggressive behavior and particularly to instrumental aggression. “Instrumental aggression is behavior that is aimed at obtaining or getting back some object, territory or privilege” (Levin 1998). I remember a child playing “guns” with a peer. He shot his friend, but his friend didn’t “die” (fall down on the playground). So he walked over and pushed him down, “You’re dead!”
Weapon play leads to imitative and violent play. Instead of rich, constructive, creative play, children feel limited and tend to imitate action they’ve seen and scripts they’ve heard. I hear them tell each other that they can’t play some child’s idea because it didn’t happen in the television show or movie that they are trying to recreate. This violent and imitative play has little value to the children developmentally, and it can cause havoc in a group setting with children being shoved, kicked and hit (Levin 2003).
Weapon and “bad guy” play is almost always sexist. After reading a first draft of this article, a colleague asked: “What about good girls?” That provocation made me think back and realize that I have never heard children play “bad girls.” My goal is to encourage play that is “anti-bias” and works to dispel all stereotypes and “isms.” “Bad guy” play doesn’t fit in with my anti-bias curriculum.

Q. What can you say to children who are playing “bad guys”?
A. I try to get 4- and 5-year-olds to focus on the humanity of all people. There are many more similarities among us than there are differences. I model and encourage empathy. I make observations and comments that start children in the process of going beyond their black-and-white thinking. I ask them to start thinking about the gray area.
For example, I may ask: “What about the ‘bad guy’s’ mother?” “If I make a mistake, will I become a ‘bad guy’?” “If Ali plays the ‘bad guy,’ will that make him bad?” Stripping individuals of their humanity makes it much easier to justify violence directed at those individuals. I encourage children to think of each person’s or each character’s human qualities.
I don’t want any child to feel like a bad person, so I tell children that all people are good. Even when children don’t make the best choices or follow all the rules, they are still good people. I add that all people make mistakes, sometimes big mistakes, but that doesn’t make any of us bad people.
Some teachers have a policy that all children must play good guys and that “bad guys” are only imaginary. I want children to feel powerful and have the right to name themselves (any character that they want) while playing at school. So Power Rangers, He-Man, Buzz Lightyear and others are welcome in my classroom but they must check their weapons at the door. No matter what character they are pretending to be that individual must conform to established classroom practices—cooperating, sharing, and problem solving, for example.
I talk about my feelings and potential consequences of the play. “I’m feeling worried. I see fingers pointed like guns and I saw some pushing. I’m afraid that someone is going to get hurt. Let’s talk about this problem.”