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Make Peace with War Play

Imaginary mayhem can be perfectly healthy

To many, it seemed like a sensible, civic-minded, move—inviting the children of Worcester, Massachusetts, to turn in their toy guns at local police stations and receive, in exchange, “more appropriate toys.” That invitation happened some years ago, but it could easily happen today in many communities. War play gets a thumbs-down from many parents—about a third, according to one study. Another third are ambivalent enough to seriously limit the scope and frequency of such play.

Interestingly, there isn’t a shred of evidence showing that war play is harmful. Ask most men and a good many women if they engaged in war play as children, and you are apt to get spirited accounts of happy days spent playing with toy soldiers or engaging in pretend battles in the woods. Ask the children themselves, and they will make clear that their play is, well, just play. I once got into a heated debate with a friend who was railing about the harmful effects of war play, when my then five-year-old climbed into my lap and whispered into my ear, “Tell him it’s just pretend.”

In the heat of such debates about the supposed detriments of war play, no one stops to ponder its actual benefits, and they are many. War play often incorporates elaborate imaginative scenes and well-organized fantasy worlds. Such games have all the ingredients of good play—in particular, extended stories that require imagining both the possible and the impossible, which is essential for developing intelligence and creativity.

Moreover, well-developed war play usually involves collaboration between two or more children, who negotiate how the narratives will unfold. In childhood, collaborative play is the stuff of friendships, and friendships are the stuff of healthy development.

Contrary to what many adults assume, highly imaginative war play actually strengthens a child’s grasp on reality. This is because to organize play, a child must step back and reflect, and also because the play itself is governed by rules. There is no reason to fear, then, that children will get lost in their violent worlds of make-believe.

Does war play encourage violent tendencies? Does it anesthetize children to the pain associated with war? Again, there is no evidence to support these concerns. Brian Sutton-Smith, an expert on play theory, points out that it is common for adults to see in the themes of young children’s play the roots of serious problems later on, tracing violence back to war play and eating disorders to Barbie. He points out the illogic of this causal thinking, which he equates to believing in voodoo magic.

But perhaps an example will serve better than theory and logic to lay these concerns to rest. When he was four, my youngest boy became fascinated with the American Revolutionary War. Most of his play focused on the battle of the Old North Bridge, which took place in Concord, Massachusetts. He spent hours recreating the battle with his toy soldiers and blocks, and then at night insisted that my wife and I read to him about what actually happened before and during the battle. By four-and-a-half he knew the name of the Minuteman fifer (Luther Blanchard), the title of the tune he played to march the Minutemen down to the Old North Bridge (“The White Cockade”), and why he chose this tune and not another (it was slow enough so the unrehearsed Minutemen could stay in step together). This obviously was rich, developed play, and, though inspired by real historical events, it was fanciful and imaginative because it was not based on personal experience.

One evening my son lay in bed and looked up at the ceiling. To no one in particular he said, “I wish there were no wars.” I wonder now if he would have come to that worthwhile wish had he been encouraged to play with “more appropriate toys.”

W. George Scarlett is an assistant professor in, and deputy chair of, the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development. He teaches and writes about children’s play, behavior management, and spiritual development, and is often called upon by the media and parenting organizations to advise parents and address parenting issues. His latest book, Approaches to Behavior and Classroom Management (Sage Publications), is currently in press.

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