Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Difficult Question of Weapon Play

I am currently grappling with the question of Weapon Play in my homeschool co-op at recess time. I have been giving this a lot of thought and wanted to share some resources here. I welcome comments on this topic!

Tonight I'll be reading to my four year old son "The Sword of a True Knight" by Elizabeth Stubbs. This is a pedagogical story for early childhood for those who need to be inspired to elevate their weapon play; it is on page 196 of Tell Me a Story.

Tell Me a Story:
Stories from the Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America

Weapon play is not necessarily aggressive play. For example, pretending you are fighting a dragon to save the princess is surely weapon play but it has a more noble quality than children pretending to kill one another with guns.

The problem that I am struggling with is that some of this play makes me uncomfortable, but trying to communicate what that specifically is to the children is difficult. So I am trying to craft some kind of clear and consistent policy and in order to do that I need to think it all through.

Overall, I believe that free play is extremely important and so my policy is to have as much open-ended creative play as possible. The yard lends itself to this (the magnolia tree which is for climbing, a pile of landscape timbers for fort building, sticks and other nature items from the ground, a few balls, walking blocks, a Frisbee, child-size rakes, a mud kitchen with pots and pans, a digging pit, and a lot of room to run). The length of recess lends itself to this (a full hour). Playground Politics: Understanding the Emotional Life of Your School-Age Child by Stanley Greenspan is a wonderful resource, which I recommend. Children in this elementary age group will spend at a minimum of 45 minutes simply negotiating the rules of their game each day; if their recess has ended by then, they have had NO time to play!

Playground Politics:
Understanding the Emotional Life of Your School-Age Child

So, clearly, I want to interfere in the play as little as possible.

Research by Peter Gray (who does his work at democratic schools, which allow children from age 5 to age 18 to play together) strongly supports mixed age play and he also notes that this would have been the most natural kind of play from hunter-gatherer times. Of course, in hunter-gatherer times, there would have been real working smaller versions of weapons like bows and arrows or spears so that children could practice hunting game.

It is also important that boys and girls of all ages should feel free to do all different kinds of play. Dolls are an important toy for boys to have access to, in practicing their future role as healthy nurturing fathers, uncles, etc. My favorite picture book about this is William's Doll by Charlotte Zolotow.

William's Doll

by Charlotte Zolotow

If I'm going to support boys playing with dolls and girls playing with trucks, should I be more open to girls doing weapon play?

Over the Autumn Break I've spoken with many parents and homeschoolers about this issue. At Dayempur Farm, where several of our co-op students go for the weekly Wednesday Farm Day, weapon play is neither discouraged nor encouraged. If the staff sees that there's an intense interest, they try to put the energy in a more productive direction, such as having a Carpentry class at the wood shop and allowing sword building. If it is a question of too much excess energy, they simply redirect the children to some farm task that involves heavy work. They also teach Archery at the farm, which is a way of taking the interest in weapons into an athletic direction.

Kim John Payne, noted parenting guru and expert on play, has started a companion website to Simplicity Parenting called Simplicity Parenting Essential Goods. I thought it was very interesting that the first few articles he sent out were about how to use knives correctly as tools.

#1 - He wrote,

    "To get us started, we want to talk a little about knives. Yes, knives. For kids. If you’re thinking “why on earth would I get my kid a knife?!” bear with us.

    "Both Kim and Tara have seen incredible results when you get a knife - safely - into a kid’s hand. The sheer focus and determination that comes with working on a super simple project with a knife is remarkable. “Theres nothing like a child feeling that sense of competence and confidence,” says Kim.

    "Of course, knives designed specifically for this purpose are best and a firm understanding of safety is crucial. So check out this video we made on knife safety to get a sense of how to introduce your child to a knife and what to keep in mind when working with a tool like this."

#2 - And followed that email and video up with

    "You’re probably wondering: now what? Your child won’t be whittling chess sets or intricate figurines right off the bat. Instead, it’s important to build their skill and confidence with simple projects that - while they might not seem like much - completely engage and empower kids.

    "So we created a brief video tutorial on how to help your kids use a knife to create a pointed stick, and how to peel a stick. It’s awesome because it’s an engaging, skill-building activity for your kid."

#3 - And, lastly,

    "Now that we’ve been through basic knife safety and a whittling project to get you and your kids started, how are you feeling about putting a knife in your kid’s hand? We hope it’s starting to seem doable.

    "For kids who want to go a little further with their first whittling project, feather wands are another basic project we love. They make an awesome extension to the peeled and pointed stick we showed you last time. Here’s a video tutorial on how kids can make their very own feather wands."

Sign up for this email list here. Our Parent Book Group is just beginning to read Kim John Payne's Simplicity Parenting. He also has a brand-new book out (September 2019) called Being at Your Best When Your Kids Are at Their Worst: Practical Compassion in Parenting, which I'm eager to read.

Simplicity Parenting:
Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids

by Kim John Payne

Being at Your Best When Your Kids Are at Their Worst:
Practical Compassion in Parenting

by Kim John Payne

Another book has just been recommended to me: The Conscious Parent: Transforming Ourselves, Empowering Our Children by Shefali Tsabary. It is also on my want-to-read list!

The Conscious Parent:
Transforming Ourselves, Empowering Our Children

by Shefali Tsabary

In speaking with other parents, both men and women, during the course of these past few weeks it seems that weapon play is an extremely natural part of childhood (which is why it would be strange to ban it). A parent sent me a WebMD article called Toy Guns: Do They Lead to Real-Life Violence? and the upshot is no. "Studies show no link between playing with toy weapons in childhood and aggression in adulthood." Another interesting article is Bang: The troubled legacy of toy guns from the Washington Post.

In speaking with men about the kinds of play they engaged in as boys, the lifted quality of battling with swords seemed to be just as popular, if not more so, than the gun play. Somehow it seemed to lend itself more to creative and magical fantasy play.

So, I am starting to believe that the discomfort which I and some of the other children are feeling on the playground is NOT about the weapon itself but the aggressive play.

When ANY kind of play isn't fun for all of the parties involved, the children need to be able to say that to one another, and hear that from one another. The biggest challenge here is actually about the social skills involved in negotiations, and this is where we can help our children the most. I cannot tolerate children pretending to shoot ONE ANOTHER with guns. It is not, in my mind, appropriate in this day and age. But I need to re-evaluate my response to other kinds of imaginative play, where they are negotiating a mutually respectful game.

When the issue first came up, and children needed my help with this tricky situation where they weren't comfortable with overly aggressive play and weren't feeling that they were heard by the leader of the play, my knee-jerk reaction was banning all weapons play. We did discuss that the play I was asking them to eliminate was not about a particular item (an egg can be a weapon if you're throwing it at someone) but rather about an intent. If the game had people trying to do harm to one another, or people pretending to be scared of one another, it was over the line.

When children are getting too intense in their play and becoming truly aggressive, instead of pretending, there are some good resources which we parents can turn to. In Seven Times the Sun: Guiding Your Child Through the Rhythms of the Day by Shea Darian, she suggests Simple Rituals to Celebrate Peacemaking.

Seven TImes the Sun:
Guiding Your Child Through the Rhythms of the Day

by Shea Darian

On page 186 Shea writes,

    "When you or your child is grumpy, frustrated, or angry, think of ways to release your pent-up feelings without taking them out on each other. Try to push a big tree down. Take a bag of unshelled sunflower seeds and throw them by the handful across your yard or the park lawn (the birds will be happy). Find someone your size to play a game of tug-o-war. Stomp aluminum cans (wearing a heavy pair of shoes). With a willing partner have a water battle (using spray bottles). Run around the outside of your house or apartment building several times. Sing the world's dumbest song at the top of your lungs. Do anything that is not harmful to someone else. In this way, you and your child can express yourself without being destructive."

There are some great resources about Non-Violent Communication which are written for children. I highly recommend The No-Fault Classroom: Tools to Resolve Conflict & Foster Relationship Intelligence by Sura Hart and Victoria Kindle Hodson (here the ideal mental state is described as calm-alert). I also really like Samantha Snowden's Anger Management Workbook for Kids.

The No-Fault Classroom:
Tools to Resolve Conflict & Foster Relationship Intelligence

by Sura Hart and Victoria Kindle Hodson

Anger Management Workbook for Kids

by Samantha Snowden

I also like the weekly parenting emails from Love & Logic. Last Wednesday's email, which you can view as a webpage here, was on Teaching Healthy Conflict Resolution Skills. So timely! And of course we have to model these for our children.

If something is fun for everyone else and it's not fun for you, I know that is difficult. It is hard to speak up. But having our children learn to tune in, trust their gut feelings, and advocate for themselves is one of the most important things we try to do in progressive education, whether it's Montessori or Waldorf or something else. So the place I'm in right now is 1) NO GUNS and 2) make sure that what you are playing is fun for everyone. If someone is uncomfortable, that's not okay. And, since I'm still uncomfortable with gun play, I reserve the right to eliminate it. To put it in terms of NVC (Observations - Feelings - Needs - Requests), when people pretend to be shooting each other with guns, I don't feel safe. I need safety.

So, what's it really about? And what have I decided?

It is not that weapon play is not allowed; I am going to accept it if it is mutually agreeable to all parties and it is not gun play. The most important thing is that aggressive play which makes other people uncomfortable is not allowed. Not hearing other people when they are trying to tell you how they feel about something is simply not acceptable.

In thinking this over during the Break, I also realized that there are weapons in our upcoming Hawaiian Mythology class play. Hi'iaka, sister to Pele, throws lightning bolts, and she does kill several threatening animals along her journey in our second legend (a man-eater shark and some other monsters). When we do our blocks on Norse Mythology there will be battling there as well. So it isn't something that could ever feasibly come out of the curriculum completely. If you are learning the mythology of another culture, I believe it would be artificial and disrespectful to edit their stories.

Hawaiian Myths of Earth, Sea, and Sky

by Vivian Thompson

D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths

by Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire

Very interested in hearing the thoughts of others on this topic! I just spoke with another teacher who said that one of the homeschool moms she knows has a NO GUN rule but purchased a bunch of pool noodles that her boys can happily whack each other with. So I'm going to look around town for some!

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