Ensuring that Children’s War Play Is Healthy, Safe, and Positive

Boy playing with water gun

Three-year-old Derrick thinks about his daddy a lot. Maggie, his teacher, can tell because nearly every day she sees him pretending to be a soldier. When his dad’s National Guard unit was getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan earlier in the year, Derrick would act out packing a suitcase, saying goodbye to his pretend family, and getting all his gear ready to “go to work” – gear that included a helmet and a gun. When his dad was injured in combat, Derrick played out many scenarios of dangerous situations where he would rescue his hurt buddies and shoot the “bad guys.”

Maggie knew that Derrick needed pretend play to process the strong emotions he experienced as he thought about his dad every day. She knew that by watching and listening as he played out his dramas, she could better understand how Derrick was thinking about what his dad was experiencing. Maggie knew it was important to let Derrick play out these scenes, even if they included violence. But she wasn’t sure how to best support his play while still making sure all the other kids in the room felt safe. The last thing she wanted was for Derrick’s war play to cause other children to feel threatened in their own classroom. 

Maggie is not alone in her concern about the effect of war play on the rest of the classroom. Many child care providers and parents fear that pretend play that includes guns or fighting will encourage aggression in the children who are playing and will cause other children to feel intimidated. It’s these legitimate concerns that cause most teachers to forbid such play altogether in their classrooms. But there is another solution – one that supports the need of some children to play out violent scenarios while also supporting the need of other children to feel safe and relaxed in their child care program.

Supporting the Child Who’s Pretending

By its very definition, play is child-directed, and none more so than pretend play. Children don’t need adults to script or manage it for them. But if child care providers ignore it entirely, they are missing the opportunity to guide the play away from harmful or destructive interactions and toward interactions that are beneficial for everyone. So how can child care providers be involved?

  • Observe. Listening and watching while children act out what’s on their mind gives us a unique window into how they are making sense of events in their lives and the emotions they are feeling. Sometimes, in fact, it’s the only way child care providers can learn about emotions that the child simply can’t identify or describe if asked directly. Her play makes clear what she is most afraid of, or most angry about, or wants most to happen because those emotions emerge as the main themes in the stories she acts out over and over.
  • Take note of misconceptions. Pretend play is where child care providers see children’s most elaborate expression of what they understand about a situation, including when their understanding is incomplete or wrong. Pay attention and take note when a child’s play reveals a misunderstanding about a situation. Depending on the misconception, you may want to talk with the child later to make the facts of the situation clearer, or alert the parent so that he or she can correct the child’s misunderstanding.

  • Play along. Entering children’s pretend play can be very effective in certain circumstances. For example, if you want to explore a child’s thinking about the scenario he is playing out, take on a role and have that character say or do things that bring out more of the child’s thinking. Children’s play can also be gently guided toward positive outcomes when children seem stuck in dangerous, scary scenarios. For example, if children get stuck in acting out anger toward a character who is going away, take on the role of another character who suggests, for example, that they write letters or draw pictures to put in his suitcase. Or when children are focused on using violence to deal with the “bad guys,” gently guide their focus to activities that will bring peace or will help others (which is often how military parents talk about their service to their children). Remember, though: it’s important to stay in character and let the child stay in control of the play.  
  • Provide props. Although children don’t need realistic objects to act out their scenarios, providing a good selection of relevant props can encourage their play and stimulate their imaginations even more. It also takes some of the mental “load” off having to imagine basic props and allows that mental energy to be applied to more elaborate story lines. But don’t feel as if you have to come up with ideas for props all by yourself. The children will be very eager to help you brainstorm a list of what they “need” for their play! Especially with preschoolers and school-age children, take time for a group brainstorming session where you make a list of the items they need to play out their story. Ask parents to get involved in collecting items like old suitcases, backpacks, camouflage-print items, etc. Involving children and providing props sends a clear message to children that their play is valuable and that you support them in it.
  • Stay tuned in with parents. Make a point of communicating frequently with military parents or caregivers, whether at pick-up and drop-off times, by e-mail or by phone. Cultivate a warm, friendly relationship that will put them at ease sharing their family’s life with you. Ask often about the parent who is a service member, but also recognize that there are some details that cannot be shared. Explain to parents regularly that their children are affected by what they hear about and experience at home, and children bring their experiences to child care through their emotions and mood, their conversation, their relationships with other children, and their play. Share examples with parents – especially the positive, heart-warming ones. This will help them recognize why it’s important to tell you about events and changes at home and will make it easier to share situations in which their child is reflecting more troubling emotions or thoughts. 

Supporting Children’s Need to Feel Safe

The benefits to children with military parents of acting out stories with a military theme are many. But it’s also true that aggressive play has the potential to threaten the emotional or physical safety of some children. Child care providers need to pay attention to the impact that war play is having, not only on the children involved but on all of the children in the area. It’s up to the child care providers to create and maintain a community of care for one another.

  • Before play begins, remind children of the two basic rules that should always be in force during play: (1) don’t hurt each other, and (2) don’t break our things.
  • Once play begins, pay attention to the tone of the play. If you notice aggressive words or actions or strong emotions being expressed, scan the faces and body language of the other children. If no one seems uncomfortable or tense, and the play is not in danger of harming anyone or the physical environment in any way, hang back and monitor the play while it continues.
  • If any of the other children are showing tension, try entering the play as a character. In this role, you may be able to move the play in a more positive, less volatile direction. Often the simple presence of an adult will bring the intensity down.
  • Resist the urge to stop the play abruptly and without explanation. If you just insist that the play stop altogether, you will miss a great opportunity to help the children build social problem-solving skills.
  • You may need to call an “intermission” to address the issue and resolve the conflict. Address the problem with the children and involve them in a conversation to find a solution that will meet everyone’s needs. A group problem-solving process can be a positive way of dealing with the immediate situation while also teaching children skills to use in the future. The more practice they have in taking responsibility for solving social problems, the more likely they will be to manage themselves without adult assistance. Ways Child Care Providers Can Teach Young Children to Resolve Conflicts gives a step-by-step description of a group problem-solving process that would be great to use in this situation.  

Children from military families experience many circumstances that other children don’t. Understanding each family’s varying circumstances and learning how each individual child is responding to them is an ongoing challenge for child care providers.

For More Information

To learn more about pretend play in military children, check out the following articles and resources: