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Pretend Guns: Why Do Some Kids Love Games that Go Bang-Bang?

Photo by © Julia Pivovarova / iStock
Photo by Julia Pivovarova / iStock

There he is—your sweet little guy is suddenly leaping off the couch, holding a stick and shouting, “Bang, bang, bang-bang-BANG!”

From playing cops and robbers to making Lego® guns and drawing pictures of battles, a fascination with gun play is normal for many boys—and some girls, too. But it can also be really distressing for parents, who may worry that this kind of play can lead to violent behaviors later.

Should Kids Play with Toy Guns?

In most instances, there’s nothing to worry about, notes Taunya Banta, supervisor of KinderCare Education’s Inclusion Services team. Banta is an expert in child development with a master’s degree in teaching and 15 years of experience working with young children.

Aggressive play, Banta says, most often pops up between the ages of 3–4 and can continue through third grade. When you think about it, this makes sense: These are the years when children are busy learning how to play well with others and making sense of the world around them through play.

While we don’t allow toy guns at KinderCare Learning Centers as part of our effort to create an environment that is safe, happy, and healthy for everyone, we also know from experience that simply ignoring or forbidding pretend gun play may not work. With their limitless imaginations, kids can turn almost anything (from a plastic banana to a cheese sandwich to a drum stick) into an imaginary weapon.

So what’s a parent to do?

“Play is essential to a child’s development. It’s how children learn to understand and master their experiences,” says Banta. And weapon play—even if you don’t like or support it—is still child’s play, after all. So if you’ve got a little boy (or girl) with a penchant for playing with toy guns, Banta has four ideas to help them channel play into learning. Here’s how:

1. With Pretend Guns, Explore the Good and Bad (Skip the Ugly)

When your little guy (or gal) leaps through the park imagining he’s menacing enemies with a big stick, ask who he’s pretending to be. Chances are, he’s the good guy. “Children this age are often exploring themes of good and bad,” says Banta. “Most kids are the good guys. They are acting out being brave, being powerful, and doing good things in the world.”

Talk with your child about what good guys do and connect it back to your own family’s values. This helps him understand that your household rules—like being kind to others—also apply to weapon play.

Try: In our house, good guys are safe, kind, and respectful. When you play with a big stick, how can you be safe? What are ways that your character can be kind and respectful?

Photo by Jakob / Stocksy / 1161282
Photo by Jakob / Stocksy

2. Give Them Real-Life Chances to Save the Day

If your little superhero is really fascinated by a game of Batman-blasts-the-bad-guys, broaden his perspective by giving him lots of chances to be the good guy in the real world, such as at home and in his community.

Try giving him responsibilities and leadership opportunities that he can succeed at, like taking care of his little sister while you get dinner ready, or helping out an elderly neighbor by carrying groceries in from the car. Acknowledge when he’s done well.

Try: You’re just like Batman—do you know why? You saved the day by playing with your sister so I could make dinner. Thanks for helping out!

3. Explore Social Applications

A rowdy group of good guys racing through your living room on the hunt for bad guys can feel pretty combative—but it also gives your boy some time to practice cooperative play as he learns to get along and play with other children. And that’s a good thing: It gives him a chance to develop socially and practice conflict resolution. Simple questions can help rough-housing kids explore using real problem-solving skills inside their imaginary worlds.

Try asking: What’s the problem your characters are solving? How does that make your character feel? Will you need your friends’ help? How can you all work together to find a solution?

4. Look Beyond the Bang-Bang-Bang and Open up Their Imaginations

Certain types of toys—like superhero action figures that come with weapons and accessories—tend to encourage more aggressive play. These types of toys can also encourage rote play (or playing out the same story over and over) rather than more open-ended or imaginative play, which is so essential to a growing child’s development and learning.

Help your child open up to more imaginative play by giving him lots of different, interesting things to play with—from toy trains, to bouncy balls, to kitchen sets. If he’s playing with a beloved action figure, get out the craft supplies so that he can make his own costumes or add scenery to his story.

Ask questions to spark his imagination, like: Where is Leonardo? What do you think it feels like in the sewer? Is it wet? What does it look like? How should you get dressed to go down there?

Most children will grow through this phase and move on to other things in time. Until then, you can keep tabs on him by just listening to him as he navigates the world around him—starting with his play. “To enter into a child’s world, just listen to their play,” says Banta.

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