Sunday, June 11, 2006

The value of play

Playing is a valuable way for mammals to learn lessons for life and skills they may need down the road. When you see two puppies rolling around together, trying to nip at one another's ears, shoulders, and legs, you don't separate the two of them out of fear that they are going to learn how to be violent attack dogs. You let them play because it is a) relatively harmless, and b) it will allow the dog to have some experience in defending both itself and possibly you. Humans are no different. Our children learn lessons through out their childhood by playing. I know that the so called experts agree with this, because the toy industry is built, in part, on toys that will help kids develop critical thinking skills. If you substitute a gun for that latest and greatest expensive learning toy, however, people's hands start wringing fast and hard enough to get water from desert sand.

Example A of this hand wringing appears in today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Here's a little taste:

Today, however, weapon play that once seemed an innocent part of childhood has become more of a concern. When April Klinter's 7-year-old son engaged in some gunplay with sticks on the school playground, Klinter was called to a school meeting.

"His teacher became concerned about their gunplay and called a group of us to school to talk about it," Klinter, of Saukville, says.

Barb Luedke, who is the mother of boys ages 7and 9 and also works with children, does not allow gunplay in her home.

"When other kids are visiting our house, I explain that we don't have gun play or other weapons," the Wisconsin Rapids parent says.

According to a study by the Children's Medical Center in Washington, D.C., about two-thirds of parents felt it was never OK for a child to play with toy guns, and a similar proportion responded that they never allowed their children to do so.

Let's take away the toy in hand for a second and look at the bigger picture here. When kids play cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians, they always fight over who gets to be "the good guys." Nobody ever wants to be the robber, and very few ever want to be the Indian (there are a few of us who were the exceptions to that). During the course of this type of play, toy guns may indeed be the prop, and play violence may be the avenue, but violence and a lack of respect for guns is not what the kids are learning. Instead, they are learning that there is right and wrong and that there are good people and bad people. They are learning that it feels good to be a good person doing the right things. They are are also learning that violence has some very adverse consequences in a way that their minds can comprehend. Kids may not be able to fully understand death, but they do understand that it is very undesireable to be "play dead," a consequence of play violence. Yes, they may be able to get back up and keep playing, but to be play killed means you lost in some way shape or form, and it builds on their ability to understand the consequences of violence.

I defy any expert or non-expert to try and prove to me that toy guns lead children to grow up to be violent, careless with guns, or unappreciative of life. What is in question here is the lessons parents choose to teach or not teach, not the toy or play in question. There are millions of us who grew up playing with toy guns. Our parents reinforced the lessons we learned by playing. We grew up with a very healthy respect for guns and the harm they can cause. Most of us grew up to be the most careful gun handlers around, much more careful than those who never learned lessons about guns as kids. Where the problem comes in is with parents who are not reinforcing lessons to their kids, and who do not set clear boundries for their kids behaviors. It is these kids who are more likely to grow up with a disrespect for life, property and the health of others, and who may use guns irresponsibly.

Are their exceptions? Yes. Sometimes all the good parenting in the world will not help certain kids. Those cases are much rarer than you think, though. My advice in those cases is that if your kid always wants to be the robber, or if he or she likes to beat the hell out of their friends, maybe you should rethink allowing toy guns in the house. Otherwise, don't dictate to other parents that their kids can't or shouldn't play with toy guns, because your are depriving them of chances to teach lifelong lessons to their children.

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