the Bank Street Family Center
Teacher's Journey to Understanding War Play
year, the children in my preschool classes have engaged in some
kind of “war play.” They act out the same scripts and dialogue:
bad guys and good guys, a chase, and then it always ended with
the good guys “killing” the bad guys with guns, lasers, etc.—weapons
they had made from the materials in our classroom. This year,
it became increasingly difficult to engage them in a different,
more creative kind of play. After trying many approaches—banning,
then policing the play—I finally came upon the solution: to facilitate
their play. I was amazed at the results.
I thought that not allowing the play in my classroom would solve
my problems, but what I was doing was just avoiding the issue.
Banning war play did not stop the children from engaging in it,
they just did it in secret. I ended up policing, which was ineffective
and did not help to move the children’s play beyond these same
scripts day after day. I finally gave in to their role-play, hoping
that after a while, they would meet their needs and move on. But
I noticed that they never changed their scripts. There was nothing
creative about the children’s play, no problem solving or scaffolding,
especially when they brought in toys from the shows they were
watching on TV. These toys promoted play that was scripted.
Finally, after researching the topic, I found that war-play met
a developmental need in children, and therefore should not be
banned, but facilitated. Children around the ages of three and
four are suddenly realizing that there is a big world out there,
one they are still learning about, one that goes beyond the realm
of their family or classroom. War play allows them the opportunity
to feel big and powerful in a world where they may not feel that
way. After I understood that, I was able to facilitate and scaffold
their play, moving it beyond the scripts that they knew.
Walking to the park one day, a couple of the children picked up
sticks from the ground and started talking about them as lasers.
I intervened, asking them what their lasers did, and they told
me that they cut off the heads of the bad guys. I asked whether
their lasers could do anything else besides hurt people, which
started conversations and creative thinking. Their lasers turned
into “net shooters” that shot nets over the heads of the “bad
guys” to capture them until the police arrived. When we were in
the park, there were many more problem solving conversations about
who wanted to be caught with nets and who did not, and everyone
was able to participate. I know that if I had told them there
were to be no lasers, I would have spent the whole time redirecting
them from laser play to other activities.
For children, war play is not about killing or hurting people
but about being powerful and feeling competent in the world. After
I began to facilitate the play, I began to understand and respect
that need. Although this play was happening in the classroom,
the basic rules, such as not hurting others or destroying their
property, were still enforced and continued to be respected by
the children. Through facilitating their play, I was able to teach
about social responsibility and respecting others. #
more information, refer to The War Play Dilemma by Nancy Carlsson-Paige
and Diane Levin. Judi Gentry is a preschool teacher at the Bank
Street Family Center.
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