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
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
“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
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
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
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.”