If we hamper creative play, are we shooting ourselves in the foot? Asks Lucy Cleland.
I’m writing this as I sit at a table watching my husband outside with his 9 year old son. He is teaching him how to use his birthday present – an air rifle. The excitement on both their faces is palpable, but I can hear words – ‘never’, ‘point’, ‘loaded’, wafting over the autumnal air. Their facial expressions are now very serious and there’s a lot of earnest nodding going on. A lesson is being absorbed.
Five years ago – in my bourgeois semi-youth before having my own son – I would have been horrified at the idea of giving a gun – I mean it’s a weapon, isn’t it? – to a young, impressionable boy. But now, well, let’s say my opinion has changed. And when my own toddler wants to express himself by running around with a tacky plastic pistol blasting things, I’m not going to bat an eyelid.
But the issue is, quite understandably, a modern-day polemic for parents bringing up sons. Long gone is the relative safety and freedom of the 50s, when children could roam free and play out in the street with friends till their mothers yanked them in for supper. When ‘stranger danger’ was a phrase unheard of. Now around every corner lurks a threat for so many of us: the knock on the door – ‘don’t ever open the door to anyone,’ we shriek hysterically; the solo walk to school – nope, you never know if a paedophile is going to grab your wee one; the shoot ‘em up game – oh dear, Jack plays so aggressively, is there something wrong with him?
The short answer is no, of course, but thanks to our ever-changing, uncertain world and the media who seem intent on scaring the shit out of us every day, the protection and safety of our children is leading us to become over-protective neurotics, which potentially does far more damage in the long run.
The Deputy Head at my children’s nursery, Suzan Issa, tells me that the debate has raged in educational circles for a long time, but her policy has been to embrace it and “use it not only as a tool to explore the ethical issues surrounding guns and the differentiation between reality and pretense, but also as a vehicle to explore storylines and to expand their vocabulary, problem-solving skills and narrative.”
Sensible stuff. She goes on to point out that if you insist on telling boys that the way they choose to explore their world and make sense of their reality is wrong and shameful, you’ll see them immediately retreat into themselves. The shame can result in them ‘creatively’ lying to you if you keep reprimanding them.
Child counsellor and founder of Child in Time, Chloe Billington, agrees:
Children communicate through their play. It is here that we catch a glimpse of their rich inner world with all its constructive and destructive impulses. That might be shooting someone dead one minute and bandaging them up tenderly the next
“Creative play, using whatever our environment offers, can be a safe place to explore our primitive urges, instead of repressing or denying them.”
She goes on to explain that when we play together with our children, in whatever form it takes, we can encourage creativity, reflection and empathy. All being well, they will gradually move from a simplistic division between goodies and baddies to a more complex grasp of humanity.
Of course, a lot of it comes down to parents-at-the-school-gate politics too. No one wants to see their child terrorising others with a fake machine gun in the playground, it’s embarrassing and you would lose sleep over whether your boy will ever be invited on play dates again. But, and excuse the pun, if you stick to your guns and show respect for your son’s choices (after all how many boys who play with guns go on to be serial killers?), letting him learn and discover in a safe environment, you’ll have a happier, more mature boy as he grows up and out of guns – and into girls.
Lucy Cleland is the editor of Country & Town House. She has two children – one girl aged 6 and a boy aged 3. Her perfect winter Sunday is a walk over Longslade’s Bottom in the New Forest, followed by lunch and reading the papers by a roaring log fire.
Images 2 and 3 © Justine Wall