Friday, May 31, 2013

Not a Book Review--A Look at Gun Play

About six months ago, I read Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super-Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence by Gerard Jones. It was a fantastic book, and I learned a lot from it. I began taking notes, like I normally do, but I soon realized that it was too time-consuming, so I began highlighting instead. In fact, I found so much of the book important that I probably literally highlighted a full third of the words in the book.

And that was my trouble. That's why I never posted a book review of it--I wanted to take so many clippings from it that when I imagined finally finishing the post, I almost feared I'd be arrested for copyright infringement. You know, for publishing so much of the book online that it doesn't even seem to be a review anymore, but rather an abridged copy.

Anyway, I lent the book to my boss at the day care, hoping it would spark his passion as much as it did mine. He seemed to be excited for it, but then he gave it back to me, partially read and stained from a coffee spill, saying that he didn't have enough time anymore. (And yet I saw a copy of Ayn Rand on his desk. Yep.) I told him that it was fine, but what did he think of it? He replied that, while he certainly didn't agree with everything in it, there were some things that made him think. I let the issue drop, deciding to be happy with that at least.

I've always allowed gun play in classrooms that I've been in at the daycare. My Montessori background leads me to believe, and my reading now supports, that whatever children play is something that their mind is trying to make sense of, and thus beneficial to their development. I always try to observe closely and watch for children that are made uncomfortable by it, but actually, that's never come up. The other children either play along or ignore the gun-player completely.

The only time it's ever an issue is when another child remembers rules that adults have enforced upon them and looks to me to see if I will enforce consistent rules. And then I ask the child why we have that rule, to which they reply with something like, "Guns are bad." Again, I ask, "Why is that?" Usually they shrug and wander off at that point, but if they reply with, "Guns hurt people," then it seems that they have a clear concept of a gun as a weapon and I bring the other child into the conversation with something like, "X says guns hurt people. Are you trying to hurt people?" and so forth until we establish that the play is pretend.

But honestly, I prefer gun play to a lot of other types of play, especially horse play. (What a silly term. It's absolutely fine to pretend to be horses!) There was one class of two-and-a-half-year-olds that played guns more frequently than the others. (They have since been broken up into separate classrooms through the natural progression of aging in a medium-sized daycare center, and a couple of them have termed, dropped out for various reasons.) They were a rambunctious bunch of boys and girls, but when they were standing, pointing their fingers at each other, and then falling over, I didn't have to worry that they were tackling and physically harming one another. (Not that bumps and bruises aren't a natural part of childhood, but, as I learned in Killing Monsters, adult women are less comfortable with physical play than adult men and the children themselves are.) Plus, I saw a lot of compassion in that play, led by a certain female child. When someone would fall over after being "shot," she would rush to their side, smush their chin between her palms, and coo sadly, even if she was the assailant! Sure there was a lot of, "Get 'em!" but there was also a lot of, "Help me!" and friends running over to comfort an "injured" buddy.

Once while I was in this class, a neighboring teacher looked in, saw gun play occurring, and reprimanded the kids. My kids. Okay, they weren't really "my kids," because I'm a float teacher, not the lead teacher in that classroom. Aaaand, technically, a few of them were drop-ins from her classroom, so they were more her kids than mine. But still! She was undermining my authority while I was in charge of the class and confusing the children with mixed messages about what was allowable and what was not. So I told her, still with the shy and polite manner I have, even though I was frustrated, that we have different philosophies on this topic. She proceeded tell me about a child in a public school where there was a no-tolerance policy for guns that got expelled for pointing a breakfast pastry, fashioned into the shape of a gun, at a friend. "We have to stop it here," she explained. "These kids will be going into the public schools," though, admittedly, perhaps not the ones with no-tolerance policies, "so we have to stop it here." I was at a loss for words. What? What about all the amazing things I had just read in Killing Monsters? What to say? What to say? Had I learned nothing? Seeing as I didn't have a reply, she left, smugly.

Another time, I was in a preschool classroom with four-year-olds. It was nearing the end of the day, and a number of children had decided to play guns with Legos. One of the boys' mother came in and saw the play. Visibly shaken, she addressed her son, "Are you playing guns?" She roughly took the blocks out of her child's hands and threw them on the ground. "You better not do that again." I have to say something!, I knew. I couldn't let this turn out like last time. "Children absolutely know the difference between pretend violence and actual violence," I offered, not quite as firmly as I could have. She addressed me for the first time, "Well, I don't know. I'm a gun owner, myself, but I don't know... Come on, we need to go tell [boss's name] about this," she told her son passive-aggressively, taking him by the hand. There was nothing else I could do.

A few minutes afterwards, an expected appearance from the boss, but not, by the way, the one who I offered the book to. He confirmed that the child was in my class, first, then told me that his mother had made a complaint about gun play in my class. "It's a policy here that we don't allow gun play of any kind. No weapons at all--no guns, no knives, no swords," he told me. Huh. Well, I had seen a number of teachers disallow gun play, but it was never discussed, not in any manual I read upon hire, nor on any signage on the walls. "Really? I've never heard that. Is it posted somewhere?" I asked. But instead of responding to politely as I had done, he chose a snippy reply, almost hostile, complete with finger pointing, "I'm posting it to your brain right now. Don't. Do it." He left, leaving me to finish out the day in my tearful frustration.

Whatever, I decided. At that point, I only had about two months left to work at the center before leaving for Montessori training, so I decided to play by the "rules," unposted or not, rather than ruffle any more feathers. I heard later from a coworker in the office that said boss actually thought the complaint was silly. He sure didn't act like it when he spoke with me. Since then, every time a child has mentioned a gun in their play, I've told the child compliantly, "No guns."

Gah, what happened to all the facts and insights I had read? Had I not internalized it? Perhaps I really had highlighted too much. And, definitely, not going over the notes again by posting them here wasn't helpful. So.. actual book review of Killing Monsters to come.

But on the day that I was spoken to, after the boss left, the remaining children still wanted to resume the game. I told them, "No guns," a couple of times, but one child was adamant. Eventually, after a few trials of what he could play without comment from me, his gun turned into a "flower wand" that turned everything it shot into a flower.