Is Violent Play Ever Okay?

This is a topic that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. As a Kindergarten educator that fully embraces and believes in the value of play-based learning and the emergent curriculum, I want to listen to and build upon student interests. My teaching partner, Paula, and I spend a lot of time discussing our kids. We’re constantly noting our observations and trying to determine next steps together. We realize that students are at different development levels, and they need various degrees of support to get to that next stage. What happens though when their interests include violence?

Our kids spend a lot of time outside, and stick play is often a part of this outside time. Thankfully, this year, the biggest interest in sticks actually revolves around letters …

but at some point, a child looks to a stick as a weapon. Thankfully the interest is actually not in physically touching the person with the stick, but it’s held in such a way as to signify a gun, knife, or sword. And if it’s not a stick being used in this way, it’s a wood chip, a piece of wood, or sometimes even just their hands.

The discussion then builds around bad guys, robbers, and jail, and the play becomes physical. Yes, it’s often boys that interact in this way, but sometimes girls are also involved. Some may say that “boys play differently,” or that “school is not always receptive to boys and their needs.” I’ve heard these arguments before, and contemplated them. Paula and I have discussed this topic a lot, and tried to figure out if there’s ever a point in which more hands-on play is okay. To us, there’s a difference between the physical contact that might happen in a soccer game versus the weapons, fighting, kicking, hitting, and punching that happen through this more aggressive imaginative play. We know that many of these same students are interested in Autobots, transformers, Power Rangers, and super heroes, and there are physical components to all of these interests.

As much as I want to follow the child’s lead, I’m not sure that I’m comfortable in following it if that lead involves violence. In real life …

  • weapons hurt and kill.
  • violence is far too prevalent in our society.
  • “bad guys” — of any variety — are not people to put on pedestals.

In a young child’s world, where the line between real and imaginary is often quite fine, I want all our children to see the value in love versus hate. It makes my heart happy to see the number of our boys and girls — from last year and this year — that find different ways and reasons to share a hug with each other.

There’s something powerful and positive about this physical touch.

I’m not saying that every topic that we discuss needs to be sunshine and roses. We have many serious conversations, including these ones about the environment.

We always encourage students to find ways to make a difference and have their voices heard. But violence is not a solution, and if we raise kids to understand that now, what long-term, positive impact might this have?

So there is a lot that we will allow. There are an infinite number of topics that we’re open to exploring together. But when it comes to weapons and violent play, we don’t discuss. We just say, “No.” What do you do? Are there times that you allow this kind of play, or are there ways that you interrupt this play to change its outcome? I want to try to see things from a child’s perspective, but I also want to create a safe and caring classroom and school environment. I don’t think that violence can be a part of this, even in a make-believe sense. What do you think?



2 thoughts on “Is Violent Play Ever Okay?

  1. Great post! And I agree with the outcome of your thinking. Peace building activities will bring us together (the hugs were adorable). Violent play is never okay, but it can be a teachable moment to explore power structures and stereotypes when it emerges. Violent play happens as students work through things they see in their families, in the media, etc.. Our society has a culture of violence. But does every stick become a weapon for every kid? I don’t think so. When kids are exposed to weapons it can, but I don’t think violence and weapons are intrinsic “interests”. They become “interests” when kids mirror what they see from adults…and other kids and when boys are taught that boys should be strong/physical & tough to be “real men”….through sport, too, incidentally. “Bad guy” is an archetype/media stereotype that is limiting and full of bias and not reflective of real people. It’s also sexist towards men. In real life “bad guys” that are violent are people with lagging skills….issues with childhood abuse, mental health, addiction, food insecurity, poverty. Perpetuators of violent crime aren’t intrinsically bad people (like in the movies) that need to simply be “put in jail” or defeated/killed. My view is that play that reflects these media stereotypes (violent or not) is harmful and if allowed to continue, sets kids up to have ingrained biases of “us versus them”/“good people vs bad people” and I think it’s our job to disrupt this thinking intentionally. Would we allow kids to explore racist play? Bullying play?

    • Thanks Michelle! This is just the kind of push in my thinking that I needed. When you speak about “lagging skills,” I make the connection to self-regulation. So how do we disrupt this play? Knowing that our youngest learners learn more by doing that by more abstract, metacognitive conversations, I’m curious to know what others have done to help them experience a shift in thinking. What questions do we ask? How much do we talk it through versus stopping it, and when do we do both? It’s funny, as just about every other topic we talk through with kids, but when it comes to violence, I tend to just stop it with a “no.” Now I’m trying to figure out if it needs more than this, and how we help children view “violence” differently, not just for the purpose of their play, but also for their overall future interactions with kids and adults.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *