Q: I work in a day-care centre. The boys, who are mainly three-year-olds, appear obsessed with guns. We have attempted to change their interest in guns into more appropriate play. We have talked about how the use of guns can be very destructive. Do you have any suggestions that may assist us in teaching the children that guns are not toys?
A: It is nearly impossible to teach a three-year-old that a gun is not a toy. They do not have the cognitive capacity to understand the difference.
In fact, the more you talk about guns to them, even to explain the issue, you actually reinforce their desire to play with them.
Best way to manage this is to pre-empt it by putting them on to tasks that are incompatible with gun play and provide feedback for appropriate play.
If the children resort to the gun play, don't comment on it, but use redirection to get them back to appropriate play.
Please know that imaginary gunplay and acting out power issues are common and normal in three-year-old boys. In such play, they may pretend to shoot or use swords and may even pretend to be shot or stabbed.
They have no real understanding of death and they are having fun. In this play, they generally do not intend for anyone to get hurt in "real life," although someone may accidentally get hurt as when any group of three-year-olds are running around and chasing each other.
If someone does get hurt, address the situation and seek an apology for the hurt child.
It can be quite a challenge getting some kids through this stage of play as some will take more delight in it than others and influence others.
The degree to which these children are exposed to violent materials in the form of cartoons, videos and toys at home will influence the situation.
It can also help to explain to parents to resist exposing their children to such material and to explain the connection to their play at the day-care centre.
So hang in, don't lecture, get the kids interested in other things. Use redirection for inappropriate play and positive feedback for appropriate play, and send a note home to parents explaining the situation or show them this article.
Gary Direnfeld is a Dundas social worker specializing in parent-child relationships.