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A teacher’s perspective: “Bad guys” and weapon play at school


Q. How can you intervene in “bad guy” and weapon play?
A. Consider these suggestions:
Set rules for “bad guy” and weapon play. In my class, children may choose to play any character, but the character must not use weapons or behave aggressively while at school. Our primary aim is to keep all the children safe and make sure all the children safe while at school. We don’t allow weapon play at school because we promote solving problems verbally and nonviolently.
Model and teach nonviolent, verbal problem solving. We teach children to solve problems by using words instead of fighting or shooting. Ellen Church (2003) recommends asking questions: “If the good guys lost their weapons and couldn’t fight, how could they still win?”
Get involved in the play. Take on a role and have your character extend the play by modeling powerful, but nonviolent play scripts, actions, and solutions. Your influence can also add a new, creative element to the play. I remember a group of girls who were upset that there were no female Ninja Turtles. I explained that the Ninja Turtles were named after famous male artists. We did some research on female artists and then created two new turtles. Frida (Kahlo) and Georgia (O’Keefe). We even wrote a letter sharing our creative solution to the Ninja Turtle creators but they never answered the letter.
Encourage children to talk about their feelings. “Take a quiet moment (not during play) to talk about what you observed in his play and invite him to share his feelings. You might say, ‘When I see you make an explosion with your toys, I wonder what you are feeling. It’s okay to have angry or frustrated feelings and it helps to talk about them’” (Church 2003).
Find a positive theme in the negative play. One year we made a lot of pizzas and studied artists (Leonardo, Raphael, for example) when the Ninja Turtles were showing up at school on a daily basis. We even had a dramatic play pizza delivery service on the playground after I asked the children how the Ninja Turtles got the money to buy all those pizzas.
Redirect play to safer, more constructive themes. See the TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment) web site for their ideas: www.truceteachers.org.

Q. What else can you do to prevent or decrease violent play?
A. For your own classroom, consider the following:
Listen to children and ask what they think about weapons and “bad guys.” “I think weapons are the strongest things” is a child’s quote from one of the books I read to prepare for this article. If we find out what children think, then we have a better idea how to make them feel safe and to redirect their interests and their play to more positive themes. This year we did a web and asked children to tell what they liked about their play. The most popular answer was pretending to be the powerful characters. After reading , my talented practice teacher followed up by reading many other variations on this theme and talking about how all the characters had different ideas and different feelings.
Read books that help children talk about feelings and conflict resolution. I like the “Selection of Children’s Books for the Peaceable Classroom” from Diane Levin (2003).

Q. How do you help parents deal with violent play at home?
A. Beyond the classroom, it’s important to get support from parents and the community.
Encourage parents to rethink exposure to media violence. Suggest ways to set limits on which programs children watch and reconsider how much time children spend viewing TV and movies with violent content. Mention the potential problems from exposing children to the violence of TV and radio news programs.
Explain to parents the value of watching TV with their children and discussing what the children see and hear. Help children learn the difference between fantasy and reality by talking about how television shows, cartoons, and videos are created.
Suggest that parents look for powerful, nonviolent main characters when selecting TV programs, videos, and books.
Suggest that parents turn off the TV or video game and do something active with their children: reading a book, tossing a ball, dancing to music, going for a walk, dramatizing a favorite story, or playing dinosaurs.
Remember that consumers of children’s products have influence. I have helped many children write letters to the authors of children’s books and creators of children’s television shows. You and parents can send an email message or a letter to the managers of local TV stations. You can also contact the writers or creators of a favorite show and ask about special effects or individual characters. See sample letters on the TRUCE web site.
Look for resources that share your point of view. Educate yourself so you can educate other parents and community leaders. One resource is the Lion & Lamb Project, whose objective is to stop the marketing of violence to children. See www.lionlamb.org. Another resource is Leah Yarrow’s article, “Should children play with guns?” in magazine, January 1983, pages 95-96, available in library back issue files.

Q. What else can I do to help reduce “bad guy” and gun play?
A. Try some of the following suggestions—for the sake of children and families everywhere.
Offer a parenting workshop on the topic.
Organize a Violent Toy Trade-In, nonviolent toy fair, or Peaceable Play Day.
Develop an annual children’s program focusing on different traditions of nonviolence. Tell the children about the lives and actions of nonviolent heroes and heroines. (Many children now think that a “hero” is a violent creature who goes out and kills people, like popular cartoon characters.)
Help children plant a Peace Garden or a Peace Pole as a visual reminder of their desire for peace. See “Teaching children about peace,” , Fall 2002.
Create an art project that focuses on nonviolence and can later be displayed in your school, such as a peace quilt, mural, or sculpture.
Make it a policy not to accept violent toys and games if you are involved in a toy collection for less fortunate children.
—Adapted from “What you can do,” www.lionlamb.org/school.htm.

References
American Psychological Association. 1993. . Washington, D.C.: APA. ED379056.
Church, E.B., and J. David. n.d. “When good kids play the “bad guy”: How power play helps kids feel in control of their world.” , Retrieved October 19, 2003, from www.scholastic.com/earlylearner/age4/social/ goodkidsbadguy.htm.
Derman-Sparks, Louise and the A.B.C. Task Force. 1989. . Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Levin, D.E. 1998. . Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Levin, D.E. 2003. . 2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Educators for Social Responsibility.
Marion, M. 2002. . 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
Salaby, Ronald; Wendy Rodelll; Diana Arezzo; and Kate Hendrix. 1995. . Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

About the author
P.D. Jolley has been teaching young children since 1985 and college classes since 1988. Currently she is a master teacher working with 4- and 5-year-olds at the University of Texas Priscilla Pond Flawn Child and Family Laboratory and an adjunct faculty member at Austin Community College.