Friday, May 20, 2011

Play and Weapons

Our company provides activities, birthday parties and even summer camps that allow children to use NERF blasters and foam darts as part of an ongoing, interactive adventure. Previously, our company only allowed these kinds of activities with our foam swords. We thought long and hard before we began our NERF division out of concern for whether to allow kids to use these types of "pretend weapons" that mimic a weapon which is controversial.

After much research, discussion and planning with Child Development Specialists about violence, aggression, weapons, and children, we developed a program that we feel allows kids to use NERF blasters in a way that is both physically and emotionally safe.  We also respect those who opt to not participate in our NERF events and choose to stay with the foam sword or fencing programs exclusively. 

Since many children, boys in particular, use pretend weapons during play time outside of our facility, we wanted to share some key points for how to help your child's healthy development during this type of activity.  The term "kid" or "child" is used but these basic points can also apply to teens:

1)  Teach the child to respect the pretend weapon. Be very firm about not pointing at or using the pretend weapon against any other person who is not voluntarily participating in the activity.  This is an important part of social development for a child - understanding that some people may want to play and others may not - and respecting both perspectives.

2) As in all activities that involve physical contact, there should be basic rules of safety and the ability to "opt out". A good idea is a "safe area" where kids can go to step out of the action if it gets too much.  This allows a breather for those kids who feel over stimulated and can help prevent escalation.

3) When allowing kids to play with pretend weapons, consider providing a suitable role model for them. This might be a parent or responsible adult who will mentor the kids by modeling the proper behavior while playing with them - such as using the play weapon safely and respectfully. The adult can also act as a safety marshal to make sure things don't get out of hand.

4) Provide the kids a chance to play the game with options OTHER than fighting. Our activities involve a story line where kids and teens interact with characters and/or monsters. They often find that the best action is to wait and see... sometimes even scary monsters can be negotiated with.

5) Following the advice of #4, allow the story to have consequences if the kids decide to fight a character that was not a threat. The story doesn't have to end... but it could take a turn of events that make obtaining their objective more difficult. Pretend consequences can be very good for teaching kids about real consequences in a safe manner.

6) We don't call our NERF Blasters "guns". We try as much as possible to differentiate between pretend toys and real weapons (IE We prohibit real weapons at our company). Kids and even parents will often continue to use their own terms... but it's surprising how many of them eventually begin to use our terms because we are modeling them constantly.  We are not saying that the word "gun" is bad.  We are simply reminding them that we are not using guns... we are using play weapons.  Guns are not toys and should not be used as such.

7) The Golden Rule:  Never strike a person or use a play weapon when angry.  This is our most important rule of safety and conduct for all of our events, programs and camps.   It is one of the few rule violations that can result in immediate expulsion from an event as well as future events.  Accidents happen where an overly excited kid swings their foam sword too hard... or hits another person in the face with a blaster dart.  But there is a big difference between an accident and an angry outburst where the pretend weapon is used to express aggressive emotions.  We teach kids to redirect their anger into words expressing their feelings and encourage them to take a "time out".  It is a significant accomplishment when we see kids voluntarily taking a time out because they feel angry and don't want to do something that will result in them being expelled from the game.  They have developed self moderation - a profoundly important skill for a child or teen.

As a mom myself, I have an active interest in trying to walk that middle ground where kids are allowed to explore activities of concern in a safe manner. The rule of my house was simple regarding violent movies: You can watch them as long as I watch them with you and we talk about it after. Instead of saying "no", we put conditions on the activity that make it safe and that gives the chance for us to educate the kids. They will be exposed to these ideas or items when I am not available - I would rather they be exposed to them when I am available and I have the opportunity to engage them about it and instill in them my values as their parent.

Model and Discuss.  These are the two most important things parents or caregivers can do for kids when it comes to possibly dangerous activities.  Modeling requires time and presence.  If a parent or guardian is uncertain how to model or is not available to model, then the best option is to find an activity for the child where there is a responsible adult who can provide a model that is in line with the parent's ideals.  Talk to the adults who will model the activity - understand how and what they will be modeling.  And talk to your kids after the experience.  Make sure that your kids are absorbing the values you want them to have. 

You are, after all, their most important model.

Meghan Gardner
Guard Up! Inc.

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