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When Play Isn’t Nice


Kristen and Alice are packing up a plastic grocery cart. Dolls, blankets and baskets are crammed into the cart and a cash register is balancing precariously on top. A suitcase is stuffed full of food, a cat is in it’s crate and these, along with phones, chairs, and keyboards are carried to the other end of the room and arranged neatly on a carpet. “Where are you going?” I ask. “To rescue Grandma, she’s trapped in a cave” is the response.

A few moments later Grandma has been saved, but now the girls shriek “A fire is coming!! The babies will burn!’ They frantically shout into the phone  ” Come and save us, the fire is coming! The babies will die!” but the fire continues to threaten. They rush around moving babies from place to place. Suddenly Kristen announces “An invisible shield! An invisible shield is here and will protect us!”  All is well.

On the other side of the room some boys are fighting off the bad guys and dragging other children to jail. The children being dragged to jail protest, but the boys are insistent causing tempers to flare.  Another group is attempting to use a remote control to drop fire on top of the dramatic play area, much to the dismay of the children playing there.

I am intrigued by the common theme of danger or evil that often infuses children’s play. As children fight for survival, rescue each other or the babies, defend themselves, it seems they are exploring power, courage and good and evil. But they also exclude, try to ‘put fire’ on each other, steal, spy, sneak and  plot against one another.

I have been considering what we as adults think play should look like, our expectations. I think we want play to be ‘nice’.  We want everyone to be happy and all of us to be  friends. Play should be fun and fun is pleasant, cheerful.

But we know from our experience that play is not always nice, that it can be unsettling to us, that children can be unkind, and will explore ideas we might find difficult, such as violence and discrimination. When kids put the baby doll in the oven, or shout that Johnny can’t come in the block area because he’s mean we admonish them for ‘not being nice’.

While I’m all for talking to kids about kindness, empathy and thinking about how Johnny might feel about being called mean, I also want to acknowledge that kids know about the ‘not nice’ parts of our world. They know injustice, unkindness, and evil exist and they need to explore these difficult issues just as much as we as adults do.  For us to want play to be ‘nice’  is to ignore the fact that children see that the world is not always nice.

If we are  in a relationship with a child I think we have a responsibility to engage with the ideas that children bring to us, even the not nice ones.

Children are able to bring new thinking to their explorations when they play with others, when they think together in play. …It is more complex than we imagine, I believe. We cannot be young in this particular time and at this unique point in history and thus there are aspects of children’s thinking that will  always remain a mystery. We should remain humble in the face of children’s extraordinary explorations of life and all the possible relationships with it. 

Enid Elliot