PPU imformation

the politics of war play

see also
teaching and study resource
early years
education for peace

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The British toy industry has grown uneasy about the mounting criticism of war and violent toys and more recently of computer games. In a pamphlet 'Aggressive Toys: A Guide for Concerned Parents', the British Toy & Hobby Manufacturers Association attempts to paint a rosy picture. '...their [critics of war toys and war games] criticism often stems from a romanticised and idealised view of their own childhood experiences.' Critics of war toys are portrayed as well intentioned but totally misguided. Not so. The issues are more complex and far from romantic.

the developmental view
Through play children construct an understanding of concepts and feelings - play is at the root of children's learning and development. Children play in their own unique ways to make sense of individual experience. New experience causes them to modify their thinking and take it into account. In this way, the content of play evolves and changes as mastery and understanding progress. Children's development is best served when the origins and themes of play come from children themselves. When they are in control, they are choosing a content based on their individual needs and experience and on their current level of understanding. Some people thus argue that because many children show a deep interest in war play, it must be an important form of play through which they meet needs in growing up.

A common view is that pretending to shoot or kill means quite different things to a child from what it means to an adult. Children do not fully understand time as a continuum and they do not think about death as a permanent and irreversible condition. They can pretend to shoot an 'enemy' dead one moment and then interact with the same 'enemy' the next moment. They can take on the role of the 'good guy' or the 'bad guy' and 'kill' people, without understanding the meaning or consequences of killing in the real world.

It is argued that by assuming the role of powerful fantasy characters, expressing aggression in pretend situations, and engaging in 'pretend fighting' children learn how to control their impulses as they struggle to stay within acceptable boundaries and receive feedback from their surroundings. When a child who is pretending to be a 'good guy' pushes another child and claims that he did it because he has 'super powers', the responses of other children and adults help him to learn the difference between reality and pretence. In war play children are also struggling to understand the things they hear of in the world about them. A child may see soldiers with guns on television and bring this image into play in an effort to understand it or make it less frightening.

child soldiers
children in war
effects of war

Decoding the image -
Media and violence survey
Children and advertising
Advertising to children - the european view
Kid's TV - preventing violence

The politics of war play -
Machel Report

Rights of the Child
About the Convention
Part One (articles 1- 41)
Part Two (Articles 42 - 45)
Part Three (Articles 46-54)
Draft Optional Protocoll


I was now embarked on a military career. This orientation was entirely due to my collection of soldiers. I had ultimately nearly fifteen hundred. They were all of one size, all British, and organised as an infantry division with a cavalry brigade. My brother Jack commanded the hostile army... The day came when my father himself paid a formal visit of inspection. All the troops were arranged in the correct formation of attack. He spent twenty minutes studying the scene - which was really impressive... At the end he asked me if I would like to go into the Army. I thought it would be splendid to command an Army, so I said Yes at once: and immediately l was taken at my word...the toy soldiers turned the current of my life. Henceforward all my education was directed to passing into Sandhurst [officer training school].
Winston Churchill, The Story of My Early Life

War play can be very compelling and satisfying because it helps children to experience power and control at an age when many of life's experiences can lead to feelings of helplessness and lack of control; because war and superheroes embody simple black and white characteristics which neatly fit the way children view and interpret the world; because toys that promise power and strength, and are like those children see performing dramatic feats on television, match children's desire to feel strong. They provide concrete and salient images to which children's attention is often drawn. Finally, the primary male superhero figures that children see in the media make a clear distinction between male and female roles and provide boys with the most graphic information about male gender roles.

War play may foster children's development through a complex and active process in which children use the content of play to come to grips with the world around them. However, when children's play is characterised by conventionality, lack of variety, meagre content and endless repetition, optimal development may be impeded. Children's needs are best met in play by the degree to which their activity is spontaneous rather than merely imitative and the degree to which assimilation rather than accommodation predominates. Today children use television-based toys to imitate television images and behaviour with little variation, elaboration or evidence that they are making inner meanings of their own. It is increasingly clear that developmental needs are not being met through war play.

the sociopolitical view
According to the sociopolitical view, children learn military-political values through war play. Concepts such a democracy and the rule of law have their origins, at least in part, in children's early experiences in the family and at school. Children's first understanding of the concept of world peace and international relations will be influenced by early experiences in resolving conflicts and establishing reciprocity with others, rather than from awareness of real conflicts among nations. Concepts about friends and enemies at a global level will grow out of such things as children's social experiences with peers, their exposure to similarities and differences among people, and how these are treated by adults around them. Thus, a child's early concept of 'enemy' - which is based in part on experiences of co-operation and conflict with other children - may come to include specific labels, e.g. Russians, Germans, as the labels are heard in adult conversation and broadcasting.

War play has the potential for exerting an especially powerful influence on the political ideas children construct. Its very nature and content are permeated with issues of power and conflict, right and wrong, good and evil, friends and enemies - all basic components of political concepts. As children learn understanding through play they bring new meaning back to the outside world. Because fantasy and reality can be meshed in the young child's mind, the political concepts constructed in fantasy war play have the potential for influencing how real world experience is interpreted. Much of the content of war play is influenced by social agents - the family, the school, mass media, and peer groups.

Toys can be seen as a reflection of society's dominant social and political values. In Sweden, for example, war toys are banned. Such a ban can be viewed as reflecting a nonmilitaristic posture and policymakers' efforts to socialise children into such a political philosophy. It may not be a coincidence that rapid increase in the sale of war toys in Britain in recent years is in some ways connected with similar increases in military spending by the government. We may well ask what it means when a society seems to be channelling its boys so extensively into war play?

As children spend more and more time watching television, this is becoming an increasingly important source for the content of their play. It is a source rich in political significance. Disagreements are usually terminated by violence, and dialogue does not acknowledge the duality of human nature. The bad guys are usually foreign-sounding or faceless, and women are generally portrayed in subservient roles. Much of this can teach children to behave in dehumanised, aggressive and warlike ways and to value physical strength, power and violence. In addition, given the popularity, through heavy promotion of ready-made toys associated with television programmes, the violent script of the programme is transferred imitatively into play. In such a situation children are less likely to develop meanings for themselves, to construct their own cognitive categories for use as a basis for organising understanding; to work out for themselves how and why things happen; to decide for themselves what is real and what is not real; or to feel that they are in full control of what goes on in their play.

When the quality of play is distorted in these ways, and children are exposed to increasing amounts of militarism and violence, then the concepts they form mirror what they have seen and are more likely to be militaristic. The aggressiveness that they exhibit may thus be more a reflection of what they are imitating than an indication of their own need to work out feelings or experience a sense of power. When this happens, the loss of connection between children's needs and their behaviour can lead to many of the changes adults are reporting about current war play: more aggressive and hard-to-manage behaviour in class; more obsessive involvement in war play; and more militaristic behaviour in and out of war play, because concepts learned in war play are often a mirror of outside influences.

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