Guns and their cupcake cousins

Some teacher friends and I have been talking about guns for a long time.  It’s an open question for us, one we’ve struggled with over the years.

I’m not a gun person.  As a child I fired a hunting rifle a couple of times – meh… it’s not really my thing.  I don’t pretend to understand some people’s love of guns but I try to separate my discomfort with guns from my relationships with the people who like them.  We have a lot of avid hunters in this area and many of our children have very responsible, safe relationships with guns at home.

I started my teaching career in a very challenging school context where guns were a daily fear for staff and students.  Because of that experience, and in an effort to implement school rules, I have often taken a very hard line when it comes to gun play in my classes.

And it comes up all the time.

“No guns at school.” – I say that almost as often as I say “walk”.

I understand why it’s a rule; we want children and adults to feel safe at school.  It’s hard to feel safe when someone is pointing a gun (pretend or otherwise) at you.

But still they play with guns – they make them out of sticks, out of blocks, and out of snap-cubes… oh, the snap-cubes!  We always wind up putting them away because they lead almost immediately to gun play.

children's hands holding snap cube guns

So I understand why it’s “no guns at school” and generally I adhere to that maxim but then I find myself torn.  Most of the time, I pay extra attention when children are very engaged in something and, let’s be honest, they’re VERY engaged by gun play.  They are totally captivated, riveted, and engrossed.  They’re not actually hurting each other but they are playing at hurting each other.  Where is the line between acceptable play and unacceptable play?  I have so many questions.

I don’t have the answers to any of those questions but I do have some student voices to add to the mix.

Some students are particularly savvy about rationalizing their gun play so that it will be acceptable to adults.  This week alone I’ve been told that what looks like a gun is actually:

  • a laser – “And it’s okay Madame, because the lasers on Star Wars don’t really hurt people.”
  • a ketchup squirter
  • and my personal favourite… a cupcake thrower (reminiscent of that moment in Ghostbusters when Dan Ackroyd conjures up the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man – “the most harmless thing”)

A colleague also has some great video of a child holding a snap-cube gun who, as the teacher approaches, flips it around and declares with a smile: “Look Sir, it’s an L.”  This one is particularly brilliant as it shows that the child knows that teachers are so fixated on literacy that making a letter might deflect any reprimand for what was clearly gun play.

These kids are aware that they’re transgressing school rules by playing gun games.  They’ve even come up with alternate explanations to placate the adults.  That’s some pretty sophisticated theory of mind going on.

So I’m left wondering: is there any place for this play in the classroom?  Is there something to value here?  The kids are obviously very engaged and that’s usually my bellwether for valuing.  What do you do in your classroom when kids are engaged in gun play?  I’d love to know!




8 thoughts on “Guns and their cupcake cousins

  1. It wasn’t that long ago that kids played Cowboys and Indians, pretended to be soldiers that they saw in a movie, Star Wars, (etc.), and no one thought anything of it. It was considered normal. Of course that was when toy guns were obviously toys and didn’t look exactly like the real thing, as many toy and airsoft guns do now. A lot of us that did this grew up perfectly fine (I wont say everyone, there is always a bad apple in the bunch).

    I grew up playing guns, I also grew up learning intensive gun safety from my grandfather who was a hunter, a competition shooter, and did not put up with any lackadaisical attitudes toward gun safety (or anything else for that matter, a very intense man). I learned a healthy respect and a bit of fear for what a gun can really do. Most kids don’t get this, they get the movie and tv versions of gun instruction.

    I worked in a school age daycare on a Naval Air Station for 6 years. The program tried to make a no gun rule, the kids flat out ignored it. They would even bite crackers in to gun shapes just to try and secretively play guns. I eventually just let it go, tried to promote gun safety, responsibility, talked about consequences, etc. As an option for you, probably not something you could get away with. I was in a different situation where I could, I also really didn’t car who I offended or made mad.

    1. Biting crackers into guns…. that’s a new one! I think it speaks to the futility of completely banning this type of play. You’re right – kids have been playing like this for as long as guns have existed and it’s generally not mean-spirited. In fact, it isn’t even usually the most aggressive kids who are doing it. Thanks for your comment!

  2. This is also on my mind a lot lately. As we’ve been moving outside more for some unstructured exploration time (that’s what we have to call play in grade 1 haha) I’ve been noticing some very engaged, complex dramatic play with some of my boys. They ask to bring their water bottles out, turns out you can open the lid and flip it around and it makes a great gun. To date, I haven’t said a word… well a word beyond asking them a few questions about their play. “Qu’est-ce que c’est ça dans ta main mon ami?” What I find so interesting is that a few of the boys who adore this play most are actually the kids in my class who are least prone to aggression. I guess that tells me that the “hurting” component is not really what its about. I’ve got some fledgling ideas: maybe, for some kids, the appeal is a fast paced, exciting, thrilling kind of dramatic play where the gun and the shooting represent some kind of power to effect big change…. but yet, at least in my class… no one who’s shot ever seems to get hurt, they just keep running and jumping and shooting and no one else who’s not involved really notices… hm. I guess I’ll keep observing :)Teacher Tom’s post about gun play is laugh out loud hilarious… check it out!

  3. Hi! I stumbled across your blog on Twitter and enjoyed reading this post as I too have struggled with this question. Have you ever read Raising Cain? This is a great book about the inner lives of boys and reading it changed the way think about gun play. The basic premise is that boys tend to have fantasy lives that are more violent in nature (guns, swords, dragons etc.) but they are constantly told that they are not allowed to express this. I still do adhere to the “no guns at school” rule, however my students often draw pictures and tell stories featuring guns, which I honor as an important part of their fantasy lives. I agree wholeheartedly with your comment about the level of sophistication that kids reach in play while trying to find alternate names for guns. Perhaps that is reason enough for the “no guns at school” rule as it clearly promotes divergent thinking!

    1. Thanks for your comment – interesting to wonder about the origins of those play preferences. I wonder how often the divergent thinking is appreciated as a strength versus how often it’s treated as a lie.

  4. Truly, several of my classmates(including me) often build gun stuff out of the snap cubes. Me and my best friend made Transformer robots(Drift, Optimus Prime, and Lockdown were several of my creations), multiple crossbows, and so many guns that for every new gun to be made, an old one had to be disassembled, and we barely made more than 3 at a time. In my opinion, it can be good, but when it is used violently, it`s bad. It helps creativity in some cases like ours, and in the other ones… not that much.

    I’m Canadian and in Grade 8 by the ways.

    Note to self: Find more snap cubes, and build better guns. I suck at it, and prefer Transformers.

    1. Thank you – this may be the greatest comment anyone has ever posted to my blog. I think that you are demonstrating some amazing creativity with those snap cubes; keep it up!

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