Beyond Banning War and Superhero Play Meeting Young Children's Needs in Violent Times (page 3)

By — National Association for the Education of Young Children
Updated on Feb 20, 2009

Approaches to Working with Children’s Violent Play

• Address children’s needs while trying to reduce play with violence. Banning play rarely works, and it denies children the opportunity to work out violence issues through play or to feel that their interests and concerns are important. Trying to ban media-controlled imitative play, or even just contain it, can be an appropriate stopgap measure when problems become overwhelming. However, a total ban on this kind of play may leave children to work things out on their own without the guidance of adults.

• Ensure the safety of all children. Involve children in developing rules for indoor and outdoor play that ensure safety. Help children understand the safety issues and what they can do to prevent injuries (physical and psychological) to themselves and others. Encourage children to paint, tell stories, and write (as they get older) to deal with issues of violence in ways that are safe and easier to control than play.

• Promote development of imaginative and creative play (rather than imitative play). To work through deep issues and needs in a meaningful way, most children require direct help from adults. How you help depends on the nature of children’s play (Levin 1998b). Take time to observe the play and learn what children are working on and how. Use this information to help children move beyond narrowly scripted play that focuses on violent actions. Help children gain skills to work out the violent content they bring to their play, learn the lessons you aim to teach, and move on to new issues.

Approaches to Outside Violent Play

• Encourage children to talk with adults about media violence. As children struggle to feel safe and make sense of violence—regardless of the source—they need to know that we are there to help them with this process (Levin 2003). Start by trying to learn what they know, the unique meanings they have made, and what confuses and scares them. When a child raises an issue, it is helpful to start by using an openended question like “What have you heard about that?” Respond based on what you learn about their ideas, questions, and needs. Keep in mind that children do not understand violence in or out of play as adults do. Try to correct misconceptions (“The planes that go over our school do not carry bombs”), help sort out fantasy and reality (“In real life people can’t change back and forth like the Power Rangers do”), and provide reassurance about safety (“I can’t let you play like that because it’s my job to make sure everyone is safe”).

• Try to reduce the impact of antisocial lessons that children learn both in and out of play. It can be helpful to encourage children to move from imitative to creative play so they can transform violence into positive behavior. Then talk with them about what has happened in their play (“I see Spiderman did a lot of fighting today. What was the problem?”). Help  hildren to connect their own firsthand positive experiences about how people treat each other to the violence they have seen (“I’m glad that in real life you could solve your problem with Mary by . . .”). These connections can help defuse some of the harmful lessons children learn about violence. Talking with children about violence is rarely easy, but it is one of our most powerful tools. It is hard to predict the directions in which children might take the conversations, and teachers often find it challenging to show respect for the differing ways families try to deal with these issues.

• Work closely with families. Reducing children’s exposure to violence is one essential way to reduce their need to bring violence into their play. Most of young children’s exposure to violence occurs in the home, so family involvement is vital. Through parent workshops and family newsletters that include resource materials such as those listed here, teachers can help families learn more about how to protect children from violence, help children deal with the violence that still gets in, and promote play with openended toys and nonviolent play themes (Levin 1998a, 2003). In addition, families can learn about how to resist the advertising for toys linked to violence in ways that keep the peace in the family (Levin 1998a; Levin & Linn in press).

Diane E. Levin, Ph.D., is a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston. For many years her work has focused on how to promote children’s healthy development, learning, and behavior in violent times.


Cantor, J. 1998. “Mommy, I’m scared!” How TV and movies frighten children and what we can do to protect them. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Carlsson-Paige, N., & D.E. Levin. 1987. The war play dilemma: Balancing needs and values in the early childhood classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

Carlsson-Paige, N., & D.E. Levin. 1990. Who’s calling the shots? How to respond effectively to children’s fascination with war play and war toys. Gabriola Island, BC, CAN: New Society.

Katch, J. 2001. Under dead man’s skin: Discovering the meaning of children’s violent play. Boston: Beacon.

Levin, D.E. 1998a. Remote control childhood? Combating the hazards of media culture. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Levin, D.E. 1998b. Play with violence. In Play from birth to twelve: Contexts, perspectives, and meanings, eds. D. Fromberg & D. Bergin. New York: Garland.

Levin, D.E. 2003. Teaching young children in violent times: Building a peaceable classroom. 2d ed. Cambridge, MA: Educators for Social Responsibility; Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Levin, D.E., & Linn, S. In press. The commercialization of childhood. In Psychology and the consumer culture, eds. T. Kasser & A. Kanner. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.


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