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Should 2 Year Olds Be Allowed to Pretend to Play With Guns?

Columnist Christine Wolf learns that an Evanston preschool created a "gun play" area for 2-year-olds, in hopes that they would grow bored and move on to a different sort of play.

Legos as guns. (Photo: Christine Wolf)
Legos as guns. (Photo: Christine Wolf)

If you read only one paragraph in this column, please read the last one and share it with anyone you know who hopes to put a stop to gun violence.

Earlier this month, I received a Facebook message from a concerned Evanston citizen, who told me that the 2-year-old classroom at The Child Care Center of Evanston, 1840 Asbury Ave., has an area devoted to gun play.

“A teacher in this classroom reached out to me as another early childhood educator in Evanston, for my opinion. She is appalled, as are most of the staff at the Child Care Center. The Executive Director Lindsay Percival, however, has sanctioned this area in the classroom. This school has a long history with the African American community, Dajae Coleman was a former student. The # of subsidized families here is 70% of the total enrollment. The board is unaware of this and last I heard, parents had not been notified,” this citizen wrote.I am shocked and saddened that this is happening to a classroom in our community. If my children still attended here, I would be pulling them out immediately.”

I contacted executive director Lindsay Percival to get her opinion on the matter. As we played phone tag, I took to Facebook and posted this question: 

What are your thoughts about having a dedicated gun-play area in a 2-year-old classroom? Click here to read over 40 Facebook replies within a few hours.

Finally, I connected with Lindsay Percival on the phone. She told me that her classroom teacher had noticed some students engaging in gun-play activities. The teacher, having recently attended the an early childhood education conference, decided to address the issue in a manner other than simply declaring, “No guns,” particularly since some children continued “shooting” behavior even when they were told to stop. The teacher tried, instead, to create an age-appropriate situation to discourage the behavior. She put a piece of tape on the floor and told the children any “shooting” was restricted to the tiny, out-of-the way area of the classroom between the tape and the wall. Percival insists the intent was to create an area to discourage violence, not for gun-play. In fact, she added, after just a few minutes, children in the area grew bored and began jumping over tape on the floor used to mark the area. The teacher encouraged them to join the rest of the class and the gun-play stopped. Most importantly, she said, was that this issue is one that deserves a lot of discussion, that it’s behavior that happens in classrooms all over and needs to be addressed.

What to make of all of this? Here’s my opinion – and I hope you’ll add yours.

When I was a new mother, I forbade toy guns for my first child, a boy. No squirt guns. No Army guys (unless the weapons were twisted off). No TV shows with any violence. If the news was on, you can bet my child was either napping or playing elsewhere. 

But as his curiosity and voice grew, I came to realize that my child is a part of a world that can and always will contain guns. He idolized police officers. Stared from the living room window at the older neighborhood boys having squirt gun fights. Listed neon-colored nerf guns at the top of most wish lists. I didn’t want a gun to be the impossible itch under a confining plaster cast – more important in its inaccessibility than it really was. I wanted him to understand that real guns are dangerous and never to be used by anyone other than people trained to use them. 

There was no denying it: good guys and bad guys existed everywhere in my young son’s world. Power Rangers fought bad guys with laser blasters. During the annual stroll through Evanston’s Custer St. Fair, we’d linger as he watched the “lucky” kids who took home the wooden rubber-band “shooters”. I realized that saying “no” to guns made him want them even more.

I still remember the first time I bought him a toy gun. We were at Target, and I had all three kids with me. My older son was seven and my youngest boy was two. None of my kids at that time got along. I was at the end of my rope. The younger son pointed to a Power Rangers laser blaster and I put two in our cart -- one for each boy. I was elated that they’d play together but horrified that I’d caved.  

 I taught them that toy guns had a time and a place. Never pointed directly at anyone, never used to scare anyone. There were many moments when my rules were broken, and the guns were taken away. The concept of “play” and guns was never easy for me to justify…until I noticed how many meaningful conversations we’d have about them. Why do you think your brother got scared when you pointed that gun at him? What if that had been a real one and you’d shot him? What if you couldn’t bring your brother back? How does it feel when someone points a gun at you? What would you say if you saw someone pointing a toy gun at someone else’s head?  What else would you want for Christmas that doesn’t include a Nerf gun or bullets?

We have an arsenal of toy guns in our basement, but they come out less and less as the boys have grown (they’re now 16 and 10). These days, they’re rarely used unless the younger male cousins or the neighborhood boys are looking to play outdoors. Once, as a noisy Nerf war raged in front of the house with sponge bullets and boys hiding in bushes, my neighbor’s wife called and asked if I’d bring the boys in; her husband couldn’t bear to see young children engaged in gun-play after the recent Sandy Hook shootings. I could hear the neighbor’s husband sobbing in the background. I brought the boys in and talked to them about how upset our neighbor was. “You didn’t do anything wrong,” I said. “I’m the one that allowed toy guns. But,” I’d said, “you need to know how dangerous real guns are. Children were killed when someone used a real gun for a bad reason.” The boys were confused at first, then grew very quiet. They processed the situation and ask questions about gun violence in their 9-year-old words. I knew that their play had led to meaningful discussion.

Children see and hear more than most adults realize. We hand them our smartphones to play on with news stories in the search history about shootings. We leave the newspaper on the table with lead stories of Blackhawks victories and Chicago’s new tagline of “Murder Capital of America.” They’re around televisions and video games and toy aisles and they see and hear the things older siblings and friends and neighbors say and do. Images and discussions about gun violence do not go unnoticed -- no matter how old a child is. Like it or not, children are aware of guns and it’s our responsibility to help shape their understanding of them. From the earliest age, a child needs to understand that certain issues are unquestionable:

Wash your hands.

Be kind.

Watch out for cars.

Brush your teeth.

Vegetables are healthier than candy.

You are loved.

Guns kill.

While I don’t see a reason to permit gun-play in schools, there are some who do. First, it’s important to understand the concept of “play”. According to an article in Early Childhood News by Jill Englebright Fox, Ph.D, “Although play is a difficult concept to define, it is very easy to recognize. Children actively involved in play may be engaged in a variety of activities, independently, with a partner, or in a group. Because play is closely tied to the cognitive, socio-emotional, and motor development of young children, it is an important part of developmentally appropriate early childhood programs.” And, consider this 2003 article by Diane Rich: Bang, Bang! Gun Play And Why Children Need It. And this UK writer also condones gun play in early childhood settings. Further, NAEYC (The National Association for the Education of Young Children), compiled this Superhero and Gun Play resource list Now, consider this scenario: A child, playing in a housekeeping corner of a classroom, tells her teacher that a banana reminds her of the gun she’s seen in her house – unlocked and accessible. The teacher informs the child’s parent after school and a potential tragedy is averted. In Firearm-Related Injuries Affecting the Pediatric Population, published in PEDIATRICS (The official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics) from October 18th, 2012, “Resiliency-based violence-prevention strategies in preschool children have shown improvement in teacher interactional skills supporting children’s resiliency and improvement in children’s prosocial behaviors.55 Other studies have shown that both family support and early childhood education result in reductions in delinquency56; however, one study has shown that, for seventh-grade children exposed to high levels of violence as victims or witnesses, a conflict-resolution class produced more anxiety, depression, and aggression.57 School curricula aimed at reducing violence should be specific to the population and include evaluation components to determine their effectiveness.58” Look at the 2012 American Academy of Pediatrics policy, which advocates “for the strongest possible firearm regulations. The absence of guns in homes and communities is the most reliable and effective measure to prevent firearm-related injuries in children and adolescents. The AAP supports a number of specific measures to reduce the destructive effects of guns in the lives of children and adolescents, including the regulation of the manufacture, sale, purchase, ownership, and use of firearms; a ban assault weapons; and expanded regulations of handguns for civilian use. To prevent gun-related death and injuries, the AAP recommends that pediatricians provide firearm safety counseling to patients and their parents. It's clearly a complicated issue and I believe we need to make an age-appropriate curriculum a priority for every educational setting to equip teachers and their caregivers meaningful strategies to address guns and violence. When a child points a gun fashioned from a Lego when trying to understand his world, what should a teacher say to the child and to the class? If a shooting hits the news, what are the opportunities for dialogue that teachers can raise? Our children are exposed to guns. They are curious. What should we be telling them? 

geohondro December 01, 2013 at 11:34 AM
Teach kids gun safety, how to safely use them. Not teach them that guns are bad. Don't brainwash kids with your ridiculous political beliefs. These kids will grow up and may want to be responsible firearm owners, don't take that right away from them!!!
Ellen Zervos Fitzgerald December 01, 2013 at 11:45 AM
I don't understand the whole anti-gun toy thing at all. It is a toy. Teach your children the difference between fantasy and realty. Teach your children love and compassion, teach your children not to hurt other, but to seek out ways to help. Then let them play with any toy that they want to play with as long as it does not hurt anyone else. Engaging in play that is essentially putting water on another consenting person is not the same as shooting a person with a bullet. My kids play with squirt guns and nerf guns, but they would never intentionally hurt another child. In fact, they often go out of their way to help other children. My daughter makes a point to be kind to kids that are often ostracized by other children. Honestly, if more parents focused on teaching their kids how to be kind and to be more sympathetic to others pain, instead of worry about the shape of the formed plastic their kids are playing with the world would undoubtedly be a better place.
Jim December 04, 2013 at 12:26 PM
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Jim December 04, 2013 at 12:30 PM
A guy I know left two loaded guns in plain sight outside his front door for a week. When he returned, neither gun had hurt anyone. Amazing! BTW, we are asked not to judge all Muslims by the actions of a few nuts but we are then asked to judge all guns by the actions of a few nuts. What a country.
Tantor December 04, 2013 at 01:01 PM
Jim, the phrase "gun violence" is a smoke screen for what the do gooders dont want to acknowledge, namely GANG-violence. Compared to the occasional crazy who gets hold of a gun and kills some people, the damage caused to this country by the GANG-sters, many of them "youth", by murdering, stealing, mugging, vandalizing, trafficking in drugs, giving drugs to young women to get them hooked on drugs and then prostituting them is enormous. Do gooders want to curtail the ability of law abiding citizens to defend themselves at home and on the street vs the thugs, pretending that such curtailment will reduce the violence because that way the do gooders dont have to deal with the reality of GANG-sters. Do gooders are terrified of being called racists because most GANGS in Chicago and Evanston are black or Latino. In Chicago alone the Chicago Crime Comission estimates 30,000 gang members in the Vice Lords GANG. Look at the results of the do gooders actions in Chicago and Evanston. Do gooders dont publicize the hundreds of thousands of cases of law abiding citizens deterring crime against themselves and others with their legally owned guns by fending off the thugs that the do gooders dont want to put in jail ("ay! because our prisons are too crowded...").

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