Children Need Gun Play

Children Need Gun Play

Whether we like it or not, children see and hear about guns regularly. However much we try, it’s virtually impossible to prevent our children from witnessing weapons.

Television (even on kid’s channels), cinemas, electronic games, the internet, toy figures, newspapers, magazines, books, advertisements that surround us (often for violent movies/cartoons), images on many items (including the use of characters especially for children), radio and some songs include references to war-scenes, murders, fights, attacks and weapons of all kinds.

Children often see guns firsthand with police, security guards, hunters, farm staff, hobbyists and armed forces (in parades, on military bases or in war-zones) among others. The guns could be legal or illegal, in holsters or being used – children notice them.

Why Do Children Need To Play?

  • To assimilate what they’ve experienced, witnessed or heard
  • To understand what confuses them
  • To process and heal from fears, worries, anxieties, anger and powerlessness
  • To practice skills of all kinds
  • To try out roles (which aids perspective and compassion for others)
  • It’s enjoyable and engaging, as long as it’s child-led and kept safe
  • Its accessibility and flexibility can fit in all types of learning styles

Children understand the power of play therapy and naturally use it. Incorporating the scariest, confusing and taboo topics, like wars, is often a misunderstood need among children.

Children re-enact in their fantasy play everything they hear about or observe. […] It is therefore not at all surprising that children will want to pretend killing games as soon as they learn about killing in the real world.

Many play therapists provide toy guns for the children they see because there is such a great need for children to play with guns (Schaefer & O’Connor, 1983). Others prefer not to provide guns but let the children create their own if they wish.” ~ Aletha Solter

Children play at what concerns and worries them. They play at what causes them anxiety. Quite understandably most children will be anxious about the idea of particular types of gun-users in their world and consequently need to play at keeping safe and solving the problems that gun-use throws up.” ~ Diane Rich

Doesn’t War Play Encourage Violence?

Some people think that children’s war play serves only to promote wars because it prepares children to be violent. There isΒ no indication that this is true. Many pacifists admit to having played with guns as children. The cause and effect between war play and real wars is actually the other way around, because wars create a need for children’s war play. If there were no wars or violence in the world, we would not see children playing at killing each other. They would have no need to do so.” ~ Aletha Solter (Emphasis added)

How Can We Keep Gun Play Safe?

First of all, banning all pretend weapons actually makes war play riskier. Children often have such a burning need to resolve their mixed up feelings about violence, that they will get sneaky if it is not allowed. My experience as an early years educator is that banning gunplay is a losing battle, however much we try to re-enforce the rule! I used to hate seeing children playing with guns, but I’d much rather children play with their created guns, under direct supervision, than do it hidden.

Julia's crew in '12 + '13 026Clear safety boundaries, communicated in a calm manner, focusing on what the children CAN do, is the most effective way I’ve found to keep pretend weapon play safe. Of course, responsible adult supervision is advised during war play too.

Seeing pretend gunplay can create great turmoil within ourselves. If children sense our discomfort and ask us about it, maybe we could explain generally why this is so. We need to try to be sensitive to the level of answer they’re ready for.

Personally, I’d rather children didn’t play with toy guns, mainly because many look too realistic. Of course, all guns should be stored locked up and unloaded, with the ammunition locked up separately. But what if a child accidentally finds a real gun and mistakes it for a harmless toy? What if that child has a burning unfulfilled need of gunplay, to calm their confused mind about the taboo topic? Remember, children are often taught how guns are used by society in general. Sadly tragedies like this do happen, so let’s try hard to prevent any more. It’s helpful to point out the differences between real guns and toy ones to our children and the different rules for both.

Letting children pretend to kill people with their finger or stick, could actually help them gain enough understanding, empowerment and emotional stability to have fulfilled their need to use guns (WITHOUT using a real gun).

What do you think about children pretending to use weapons?


Solter, Aletha, PhD., Helping Young Children Flourish Shinning Star Press, Goleta, Califirni. 1989

Rish, Diane, Bang! Bang! Gun play, and why children need it. This article was first appeared in Early Education, Summer 2003, which now can be downloaded form

20 thoughts on “Children Need Gun Play

  1. There’s a lot to think about here. I was always against gun play but however hard I tried to tell children not to play with them, they would just use something else to create a gun from.

    I wish I’d known about this years ago when I was teaching little ones.

  2. this is fascinating. I had never considered some of the aspects to gun play that you mention. I’m quite laid back about my son and gun play – I won’t go and buy him a toy gun but if he wants to make one out of every single thing he picks up then I don’t mind. I’ve actually been working on a post about gun play and finding this post is such great timing, I’ll link to it if thats OK. I’m sure like me many of my readers will never have considered some of the positives of gun play.

  3. Or we could try harder to protect them from violence. We don’t own a TV in my house and my grade school kids do not often see guns in use. They do like to rough-house, but they do not make guns or swords out of things. They ask questions when they are confused and they do not have much “violence” to process. And we focus on emotional intelligence, not weaponry, to try on roles, practice new skills and deal with big feelings. Saying, “kids will make a gun out of anything” is simply an excuse to allow yourself to walk the slippery slope of allowing toy guns.

    • Limiting the violence your children see is well worth the effort! It seems like your children may not have any need for gun play Sheena. I agree that not all children make guns, because not all children need gun play. Many other child-carers, teachers and parents witness that many children do make guns out of anything, displaying their need to use play’s theraputic power.

      I’m a fan of supporting emotional intelligence too. This is a major reason why I allow children to play with their created guns. I believe it respects their harmless and effective attempts at processing and understanding the emotions which are bothering them at the time. I would love to protect children from all violence, but it’s near to impossible really. The fact is millions of children have already been affected by seeing many weapons, so it’s helpful for us to understand their natural way of healing.

      • I would add however, that although they may not need to process violence now, it will rear its head at some point in their lives and just as the child who never has the opportunity to swim, they will be unable to cope with the situation effectively because they have never been exposed to it. Worth thinking of.

  4. I have had all the thoughts and worries that you have …that I’m convinced we wouldn’t have had if we were men (who had successfully navigated war and weapon play without mistaking a toy and real gun) – we do need more men in childcare to provide balance, and for us women to work on our strategies to support (and feel OK about supporting) weapon play. If anyone wants further reading I really recommend ‘We don’t play with Guns here…’ by Penny Holland. Great Post Many thanks

  5. Thanks Fiona, your point that men find gun play easier, kind of make sense now I think about it. However, I’m sure there’s some exceptions. Yeah, men bring different benefits to children, so it would be nice to have more balance of both genders in childcare and early years education.

  6. “Number of murders seen on TV by the time an average child finishes elementary school: 8,000” ( – I think it stands to reason that even if your child has a lower than average TV exposure, you can expect that they will still see some guns used on TV during childhood, and therefore will have a need to process that, as this article explains. Great post, I will be sharing it!

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  9. I use to play with guns with my cousins when I was a pre-school and I end up not using any real guns as of now that I’m in the child care field. We allow children to have fun playing with guns as long as we give them boundaries. We believe that children are very smart, capable, curious and creative in our child care centre.

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  11. As a preschool teacher of many years, I would say that at least one child in every class has “needed” to create guns from something- lego, playdo, paper, twigs, you name it. I have no control over the TV watching in their family homes and have always said to a gun-making child: we don’t have guns in school. A response only this week was that it wasn’t a gun , it’s a lazer! My first reaction to the post was that this had to come from the US. I see that I was mistaken and it’s from the UK. This article is certainly food for thought. Still not convinced either way though, so I will have to read up more on this subject.

  12. I’ve been teaching children and parent education for 35 years. I’ve read and talked about this over the years. So many good opinions. I have finally resolved for myself, that in the classroom, we don’t have guns unless they’ve made their own, and they always make their own or use their hands. So, the one rule I insist upon is that they can never point them at people. Never. They can make targets, and they do. They can shoot at their targets.

  13. I see valid points to consider with children in supporting there understanding of such tools. (Guns). However, the research related to therapy that is sited is from the late 80’s. Approaching 30 years old. It’s hard to say that this collectively aligns with current situations, children see “war” but it is often in or around their very own front yard. Violant play, supported by adults who are unaware of how to guide the therapitic aspect could have negative consequences. I work with children, where the misuse of guns in their very on front yards is astonding! We also live close to a military base, where children may see parents/guardians, who carry to protect themselves and our country. This is hard for the littles to understand. Some people it’s ok, and others it is not?

    I teach and support other adults in helping children to understand that they are tools. Just like some people have shovels, computers, saws, they are all tools of someone’s trade. They are trained to use the tools. This particular tool, needs a license to use, since it takes a lot of time to learn to use this tool safely and correctly. All legal gun owners should be able to produce their license to show children this element. This helps children to differient the difference between someone with a tool for purpose, and someone making a NOT good choice, or a tool they are not allow to use.

    Gun play is important for understanding, but requires a thoughtful support network to help understand.

  14. Very interesting read, thank you for sharing your thoughts, I personally don’t like real life looking “toy guns” and would rather our children; like you say, create their own… I’d rather they create their own play gun under supervision and direct simple boundaries of the teachers.. my nephews see guns all the time as my brother goes hunting ALL the time and have gone out with their father, i have noticed majority of their play is gun play pretending to shoot animals they hunt for; deer, boar, rabbit, duck….. This may open up another can of worms for readers as people may not like this because my nephews may pretend to shoot pet animals; cats, dogs etc… But if we’re there with them teaching alongside our children they will eventually understand and not sneakily pretend to shoot inappropriate things…I really appreciate this article as this will create meaningful discussion between staff and families to gain a better understanding around this play, creating an outcome for our children..

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