Shootout at the OST Corral

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Rick RoodI have a dirty little secret.  I haven’t told my program director about it.  I get nervous talking about it when my staff questions it. I secretly worry that the parents of some of the kids in our Out-of-School-Time (OST) program think I’m nuts, and are afraid to tell me so.

I made a decision this year in our after-school program, and, while I believe strongly in the rightness of that decision, I’ve kept it very quiet.  I’m unashamed of the decision.  But I am afraid of the backlash from the Worst-First-Thinking community.  But I’ll come out of the closet to you.

This year, I let the kids participate in pretend gun-and-weapon-play.

(waiting for the indignant gasps to die down)

Our headlines are crowded with the shouting of the harbingers of ever-present danger: Sandy Hook, Columbine, Virginia Tech.  And now, add the University of California at Santa Barbara to the list.  Guns are bad.  If we let kids pretend play with guns, we are creating the next Dylan Klebold, Adam Lanza, or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Rubbish, I say – harbingers be damned.

After twenty-five years of telling kids – no, more like badgering, pleading, and cajoling on a daily basisto just STOP pretending things are guns (sticks, legos, PVC pipe, fingers, half-eaten sandwiches), I was approached a few months ago, calmly and inquisitively, by an 8-year-old imaginative-play participant.  In his hand, a plastic tube whose intended purpose was for construction of larger-than-life tinkertoy structures.

“Can I use this like a gun?” he patiently asked.

I stop myself from issuing my knee-jerk “NO”, and think about it.  Didn’t I play with cap guns and fantasize about being Luke Skywalker with a light-saber when I was a kid?  Yes.  Did I graduate to a life of crime?  No.  Did it make me an aggressive jerk, ready to punch someone’s lights out at a moments notice?  No.  Did it make me a bad person?  No.

According to author and teacher Heather Shumaker, we have three basic fears around letting kids engage in weapons play: (1), we fear it will foster violent, anti-social behavior; (2), kids will become confused about the power of real weapons; and, (3), it’s not nice.

But the fact of the matter is, weapons play is just that … play.  Imaginative play is that fabulous mechanism that kids have, by which they learn about the world, its rules and consequences, and the all-important subject of social interaction.  Weapons play is imaginative play that is almost always played socially with other kids.  They are learning about personal power, social balance and strategy, all the while forging and strengthening social bonds.

When we tell kids “no” to imaginative weapons play, we are telling them that they are “bad” for wanting to do so; we are telling them that we don’t value their ideas and needs; we implicitly encourage them to lie about and hide their imaginative creativity.  We are, unwittingly, teaching them the lesson that we are trying to avoid by banning weapons play in the first place – that they need to resort to antisocial actions such as lying to get what they want.

Sure, there have to be rules around imaginative play – rules to keep everyone safe.  That much is easy.  Even a game of soccer has rules.  And I’ll help the kids come up with the rules themselves so that they feel a sense of ownership.  What’s going to be hard is coming up with the rules designed to keep the other teachers from having an aneurysm when the decades-old taboo of “no weapons play” has been removed.

“So can I use this as a gun?” he’s looking at me more intently now.  His furrowed 8-year-old brow is set, and I can tell from his impatient fidgeting that he’s expecting a “no”.

“Sure.  Go ahead.”

Rick Rood is a 25-year front-line veteran of the Out-of-School-Time profession and author of the book Games Teachers Play Before the Bell Rings.