Young Children and War Play (1987-88)

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From cops and robbers to G.I. Joe to the latest bloodthirsty video game, kids have been incorporating violence into playtime for generations. But has the level and graphic nature of war play increased over the years? And what effects do these violent games have on children? In the December 1987/January 1988 issue of Educational Leadership, college professors Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Diane Levin take a close look at how war play has evolved over the years and what effect it’s had on the behavior, learning, and interpersonal dynamics of children.

Carlsson-Paige and Levin begin by reviewing how the deregulation of children’s television throughout the 1980s led to more violence in cartoons. As a result of savvy marketing and cross-promotion, this increase in programming helped boost sales of war-related toys 500–700 percent between 1982 and 1987.

While Carlsson-Paige and Levin argue that war play is not inherently bad—the authors note that it often helps children express “their needs for power, control, and mastery, [and] sort out right from wrong”—they take a critical look how this massive jump in war-related toys might adversely affect development.

Key to Carlsson-Paige and Levin is the distinction between imitation and play. In imitation, children simply act out scenes that they’ve seen on television, while in play, they take what they have seen and incorporate it into a creative landscape that meets their understanding of the world and their needs. The authors note that “[i]n the past, as children engaged in war play of their own design such as cops and robbers, with a limited range of toys as props . . . they worked out relationships with playmates, decided on how toys should be used, and invented conflicts and ways to resolve them.”

They contrast this to the play of the late ’80s, when anecdotal evidence suggests that children are merely reading the script from TV and not engaging in genuine play. Carlsson-Paige and Levin note that this is problematic on a developmental level as well as a social one: if children are uncritically imitating war, they may be more likely to adopt violent and antisocial values.

The authors recommend that we make no attempt to ban war play, but instead view it as an opportunity to influence student learning. They go a step further and underscore the relationship between war play and government regulation of television programming, advocating for stricter rules about what makes it onto the Saturday morning schedule.

What do you think? Do violent cartoons help kids think through problems and develop into healthy adults? Or are there adverse effects? Has the Internet, a place where kids can easily access all sorts of images, amplified these questions?

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