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Gunplay in Preschool: How Should We Respond? 

Originally published:

child pointing finger with thumb up

Jax, a 4-year-old in your PreK class, takes out a block in the construction area, holds it outstretched in his hand, and says “bang, bang, you’re all dead!” What do you do? A preschool teacher in this situation may feel distressed or concerned about how to respond. This blog will explore the nuts and bolts about why gunplay happens among young children and how teachers can respond. 

Guns in our world

Firearms were the leading cause of death in U.S. children and teens in 2020 (Goldstick et al., 2022). Some children have witnessed or experienced violent crime in their community or home. However, it is important to note that violence is not solely an urban problem. Children in schools, including in PreK and preschool, may experience school shooter drills. They may have watched news reports about school shootings or even know someone who has been involved.  

Why gunplay happens

Children act out what they have seen in real life. For guns, this could include acts of community violence, acts of violence in the home, or the use of weapons for hunting or personal protection. We are all familiar with a 3-year-old who copies a parent washing dishes at the sink using their play kitchen and plastic plates. Similarly, a 3-year-old might take a water gun and aim it at another child after they have seen a domestic violence incident. However, difficult experiences may not be the only reason for gunplay; a young child may simply be imitating older children playing with water guns or Nerf guns. 

Children similarly act out what they have seen on TV or video games. Even when the news is on in the background or older children are playing video games around younger ones, preschoolers are noticing and learning. A younger child might pretend to be a “fighter” in a video game by picking up a gaming gun to “shoot” a friend or sibling.  

Children want to experience a sense of power when they have felt powerless. They have a developmental need to feel strong. Much of a young child’s life is controlled by adults, but they have a strong need to be independent. Putting on their own shoes, walking without holding someone’s hand, or having a pretend gun in their hand may allow that child to feel powerful and strong, too. Gunplay doesn’t necessarily lead to future violent behavior.  

Actions for teachers to consider

Teachers may be concerned about how to respond to gunplay in the classroom. There are several options, and there is no one right choice for every educator. This may be an ideal context for involving children in decisions about classroom rules. Educators can reflect upon their personal and professional values and beliefs about safety, free play, and choice in the classroom as they consider these four options. 

  1. Ban it
    Some teachers may ban gunplay in their classroom, or their school may have a “zero-tolerance” policy about pretend guns or gunplay. Check your school rules on what kind pretend guns or gunplay may be allowed or banned. You might say to a child, “We don’t play guns at our school, it’s the school rule. But you can play legos or blocks instead.” 
  2. Allow play
    Some teachers might allow gunplay. Teachers can observe children during free play and involve the class in a discussion about what to do about gunplay. If it bothers some people, what suggestions or solutions do they have? For example, you can have a classroom rule that if a classmate asks you to stop initiating gunplay, you must stop. 
  3. Allow play with some limit
    Some teachers might consider how to integrate some limits into gunplay. For example, “My classroom does not allow the use of realistic toy guns in the classroom or pointing guns at other people’s faces, but I let children shape their hands like guns, play with water guns, or create guns with natural materials and art supplies.” 
  4. Actively facilitate the play 
    Some teachers might insert themselves into gunplay scenarios to model appropriate play. Teacher Andrea joins the group of children playing in the block area who seem to be making a lot of shooting noises. She sits down, asks to join in, and says, “I don’t like it when you shoot me. Stop it. I’m going to put my gun in my holster because I don’t need to shoot all the time. I want to build a super tall tower! Who will help me?” 

For many developmental and environmental reasons, young children may continue to engage in gunplay in the preschool classroom. Teachers should carefully and thoughtfully respond to their gunplay. 

Reference

Goldstick, J. E., Cunningham, R. M., & Carter, P. M. (2022). Current causes of death in children and adolescents in the United StatesThe New England Journal of Medicine. 386, 1955-1956.

Natalie Danner

Natalie Danner

Dr. Natalie Danner is a Content Specialist for the Illinois Early Learning Project. She has worked in university-based early childhood teacher preparation programs in Nebraska, Oregon, and Connecticut and as an early childhood teacher and school leader in New York City and Arizona. She earned her Ph.D. in early childhood special education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2023