I mean, pirates are real. In real life, they're terrifying. They're criminals. They're violent.
We don't want our kids to grow up to be pirates.
But we can watch a group of children play pirates and we don't worry. We don't wring our hands and fret about their violent futures. Unless the swordplay gets too rowdy, we hardly feel the need to intervene.
We recognize it.
It looks fun.
There are many variations on this kind of play. There may be "good guys" and "bad guys," who can take a variety of forms. Maybe Spiderman or Batman will make an appearance. Maybe the kids mix it up and add a monster or T-Rex into the mix, or they declare they are knights battling dragons. We recognize these games and they make us smile.
We feel comfortable with play taking these forms because they reinforce certain notions we want to hold onto about children and play. The play looks fun; it's likely very active; there may be laughter; the characters and plot lines are familiar and comfortable and they don't challenge our notions of children's innocence.
We start to get uncomfortable when the details change. Many of us intervene when guns make an appearance. We worry when the characters aren't clearly defined, when the lines between good guys and bad guys get blurred. We worry about desensitization. We worry they will grow up to be violent.
We don't worry that they'll grow up to be a pirate or a T-rex or the Joker. Alternately, we don't hold particularly high hopes that they'll be a superhero or a knight. And this all makes sense, because they never do grow up to be Batman or the monster under the bed or any imaginary in-between.
The thing is, we aren't quite recognizing this type of play for what it is.
While, yes, play is fun at its core, there are much larger things at stake when kids engage in this kind of play. Pretend play that involves conflict, whether the battle involves superheroes, swords, toy guns or roaring monsters, is a type of therapy for children. It's a way for them to work out things that they find frightening and confusing, and for them to feel powerful when they might otherwise feel powerless. There is no indication that this kind of war play or feigned violence leads in any way to later violent behavior or desensitization to violence. In fact, many studies indicate that this type of play helps children to better manage difficult emotions, especially fear and anger, thus improving mental health and self-control - in other words, it makes them less likely to lash out in anger and violence as adults. This type of play is especially valuable for children who have actually witnessed violence and trauma for a variety of reasons.
Rough-and-tumble play integrates a variety of motions described by therapists as alerting (jumping, running, sliding) and organizing (pushing, pulling, rolling, tumbling), two of the three stages in the body's natural trauma response cycle (the third type is calming, which applies to calmer sensory experiences such as water and sand play, play dough, painting and cuddling up to read stories). Play in which children imagine themselves thwarting dangerous "bad guys" and monstrous foes - in whatever form they may take - allows children to feel powerful. "Children have very limited control over many areas of their lives. Becoming a superhero in their play allows them to access some sense of power," explains Dr. Amy Bailey, a clinical psychologist at KidsFirst Medical Center in Dubai. "It can help them act out and process any inner turmoil and sense of powerlessness that they have. This can help children to resolve issues of power and control, and it allows them to resolve or reduce fears and anxiety. They can also try out different personas and can experiment about the type of person they want to be."
The same can be said for all the other kinds of "good guy/ bad guy" play, no matter what forms the roles take.
What we must remember, however, is that even when the roles change, the benefits of this style of play remain the same.
A friend of mine recently contacted me out of concern for play she'd witnessed between her son and a school friend.
This little boy playing at their house was acting out a scenario in which he was shooting at police officers. She found this troubling, as she had only seen children's play in which police officers were "good guys."
Scenarios that flip our expected scripts are disturbing to us as adults looking in on children's play. This is often when we rush in to squelch the play. However, this is also typically when the play is the most valuable.
In my little Baton Rouge Playschool, I witnessed children enacting "flood" multiple times after the flooding of August 2016 in which so many of our friends and neighbors lost everything. The children would scream "Our house is flooding! Our house is flooding!" and gather up toys to stow away on top of chairs and tables, "higher ground."
I was fortunate enough to hear Lori Peek, a sociological researcher and co-author of Children of Katrina, speak at LSU recently, and to talk briefly with her about her research as it relates to play. She spoke of the same scenario, recalling that nearly every child, of every age, whom they observed playing freely, played what she referred to as "Evacuation" - rushing about frantically, gathering items, stuffing them in bags, making sure everyone "gets out."
This is not something the children were desensitized to. It was fresh, it was painful, it was weighing heavily on their minds and they were trying hard to understand what was happening, what their role was, and what control they had in such frightening circumstances, circumstances in which the adults in their lives seemed lost and afraid.
In his book Children and Play in the Holocaust: Games Among the Shadows, George Eisen describes children playing games they devised such as "grave digging" and "gatekeepers." As recounted by Dr. Aaron Peretz, a survivor of the Kovno ghetto:
"The children in the ghetto would play and laugh, and in their games the entire tragedy was reflected. They would play grave-digging: they would dig a pit and put a child inside and call him Hitler. And they would play at being gatekeepers of the ghetto. Some of the children played the parts of Germans, some of Jews, and the Germans were angry and would beat the other children who were Jews. And they used to play funerals..."
These children were not desensitized to the horror they were living through. They were struggling to make sense of it, to cope, as that is the only way they could possibly survive it. No one could argue that these children wanted to grow up to be a Nazi, beating up Jewish children. These children were taking on these roles to try to feel a sense of power over those who wielded power over them, to try to process the source of their fears.
The little boy - only four, a preschooler, who played out "shooting cops" at my friends' house was doing the same. This type of play allows children to process fears, to overcome their feelings of powerlessness, to try to understand other perspectives.
This summer, children saw on the news that police officers shot people. People who weren't bad guys. Many children, such as this child, may have previously only seen police officers in a negative light. They were already afraid of law enforcement. The adults in their lives were distrustful of law enforcement. These events deepened their fears.
They were not desensitized. They were frightened. They were trying to process, to understand. To find power in a world that offers them no power.
Meanwhile, children in another part of town, such as my friends' children and my own, were shaken to the core by news that police officers - men and women they were taught would help them find their way home if they were lost and "catch bad guys" who may be sneaking about to steal their toys - that some of these people may actually have bad intentions, may be dangerous. At the very least, they are simply human beings who can make mistakes, mistakes that have dire consequences consequences that cannot be undone. They thought these people would protect them. Their worlds were rocked with news that police officers can hurt people. People that weren't the bad guys. And that the bad guys could hurt good police officers. And that police officers in scary riot gear - so different from the friendly neighborhood cops in "community helper" booklets, read to be colored blue - were arresting good people, too. This didn't fit into their previous world view.
These types of nuance, this level of complication, is never present when Batman has to take on the bad guys. Not when a knight slays a dragon. This isn't the Ender Dragon or Darth Vader. Real world good and bad is sticky and confusing and terrifying.
Children have to process these things in their own way, their own time. For many, it will mean acting out the same scenario over and over again. Acting out a scenario we, as adults, will find disturbing and ugly.
It does not mean that these children are desensitized to violence, and they are certainly not becoming desensitized through this style of play.
They are processing their fear, their confusion, their feelings of powerlessness.
The children of our city spent a summer immersed in news of police officers shooting citizens and citizens shooting police officers. Terror and unrest were constantly unfolding on television screens and whispered about by the adults in their lives. Their already shaky foundations were rocked further by flood waters that ruined homes and churches and schools. That's a lot to process, a lot of reasons to feel powerless.
The children played "jail." There were lots of good guys and bad guys and shooting and death. They played funeral and policeman and super heroes and Star Wars and bizarre mashups involving components of all these things. Arms were chopped off with light sabers and opponents were slain with dart guns. This all looks awfully unpleasant to the adults looking on, and, frankly, it is unpleasant.
But for children, especially those too young to write in a journal or even express eloquently in words what they are feeling, play is a language. Their play scenarios reveal what is on their minds - what they fear, what they seek to understand, what they need to overcome.
As parents and caregivers, we need to support them in these efforts, as this is how they cope with the scary things, the difficult things where the lines between good and bad are blurred. This is how they develop empathy and emotional regulation - again, how they will grow up to be the kinds of adults who solve problems with words instead of fists and guns.
This is why I won't interfere with feigned shooting or explosions and why I'll bit my tongue and watch when a child takes on a role in his or her play that I find upsetting or contrary to my worldview. Kids need this sort of play, and it has been going on in various iterations for much longer than I've been alive.
And not one of these children will likely grow up to be a pirate.
** I realize that there will be many readers who, rightly, are concerned about their children of color playing with replica weapons. There is a very real concern about children's safety, based on the horrific events such as the shooting of Tamir Rice, and it stems from very real, and much larger, issues of systemic racism.
This is not a simple issue, and it is something, as a mother of white children, I cannot claim to fully understand.
However, this fear, valid though it may be, does not negate the need for children to safely and freely engage in this kind of play, most especially those of minority populations. The very children who are most at risk when engaging freely in this sort of play are the ones who most need it. The fact that society fears it so tremendously is further indication that they need it desperately.
This, to me, is a call to find ways to create more safe places for children to play freely, in spaces where they are given freedom and autonomy and can be ensured safety by trained, knowledgeable, caring playworkers.
In her article, "When Play is Criminalized: Racial Disparities in Childhood," Eisa Nefertari Ulen explains,
"Black and Brown children's bodies are so heavily policed that the state of being a child of color in America can
feel like a kind of occupation. This occupation of the child inhibits free play. According to Wilson, the war-time conditions that inspired the adventure playground movement when it originated in Denmark, approximate the conditions Black caregivers face today. While most American playgrounds contain permanent structures, like swings and slides, which were built according to very strict, very adult guidelines, in adventure playgrounds, or "junk playgrounds," children use wood, old tires, tape and other materials to build play environments they can tear down and build again according to their own imaginative visions.
The first adventure playground was produced by a Workers Cooperative Housing Association in Emdrupvej, Denmark, during the 1940s German occupation of that country. Parents needed solutions to shield young people from the occupying forces as they engaged in everyday play activities. Parents feared that "their children's play might be mistaken for acts of sabotage by soldiers," Wilson explains. Rather than roam and play as children have done through time everywhere in the world, in Denmark and later, in blitzed neighborhoods throughout England, war-weary children turned to adventure playgrounds, which offered safe spaces to engage in the exuberant bursts of activity and noise-making associated with truly free play.
"Parents of young people of color in the United States often face very similar concerns," Wilson says, "as their sons and daughters are likely to encounter disproportionate rates of discipline and policing, both in public spaces and inside of school buildings. Black male children in particular are often not afforded the benefit of being perceived as innocent, and behavior that is forgiven of white children is more often interpreted as deviant when exhibited by children of color."
With Black children facing suspension for wearing their hair in a natural style ,handcuffed for showing their friends a science experiment , and physically disciplined for minor infractions, Black parents often fear that free play, and the exuberant expression of freedom uninhibited play engenders, puts their children at risk.
Punitive discipline and the policing of Black children in schools is just one impediment to free play in communities of color. When families wish to encourage free play for their children in schools that don't suffer from predatory officers and officials, those of low socio-economic status often lack safe spaces in which to do so. Studies published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and the American Journal of Health Promotion concluded that Black and Brown children and children of a low socio-economic status aren't even getting access to basic PE, much less the richer experience of free play that Barnes described or the adventure playground model that Wilson works to support."
My hope is that more understanding of children's developmental needs and more opportunities for safe free play can be brought to children in sensitive populations, both here in Baton Rouge and nationwide.
Interested in learning more about my work to bring PLAY to Baton Rouge? Check out Red Stick Pop Up Play and contact us to get involved in our efforts.
Learn more about the value of Adventure Playgrounds to historically under served communities here: The Venture, Wrexham, Wales
Check out Pop Up Adventure Play and Play Empowers to learn about national and international efforts to bring play to all children in all communities.