Studied Play Therapy (Gun/Agressive/Violent Play)

It is week #12 of my counseling internship and here is the breakdown of my hours: 30.25 face to face, 4.25 individual supervision, 5 group supervision, and 119 related activities hours, all of this adds up to a total of 158.5 hours.

One therapy technique that has fascinated me is play therapy. For my undergraduate degree I majored in youth and women’s ministry. I remember one church that husband and I were visiting to maybe become our new home church, before we were married, and I shared my training in youth ministry. The pastor explained that there wasn’t a need for help with the youth group, but that the children’s ministry needed help. I rebelled, I felt that I since I had college training with youth, the church shouldn’t just assume that I’d work with children because I was a woman. Improperly, I felt offended.

While in Italy for a couple of weeks the past two summers doing children’s ministry became my favorite activities during the day. It didn’t matter if the balloon animals actually looked the way that they were supposed to,  the children just wanted to be loved through quality time in play. They were so happy when we chased them in “cane, cane, gato” (duck, duck, goose).

Thus, my interest in play therapy was birthed. I thought that maybe play therapy would be more refreshing than talk therapy with adults. I began to research play therapy, finding a video tutorial showing examples with explanations. Play therapy is MUCH different than I expected, it is less of interacting with the child or affirming the child with our value statements. Instead, play therapy, in the strictest sense, is a therapy model in which the child is allowed into a play room to play with toys in any way that they want. The therapist then verbalizes what the child is doing, this helps the child to  better understand their actions. I was surprised when the play therapist listed a category of necessary toys called “aggressive play toys” including guns, swords, and handcuffs.

In the aftermath of the gruesome Newtown massacre, there have been more incidences in the news lately where children have gotten in trouble writing about the recreational use of guns, or for playing with gun shaped items. One second grader recently chewed his breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun and was suspended from school for two days, despite that he didn’t hurt anyone! 


Last month in the United Kingdom, Playmobil introduced the above toy at a Toys R Us. It is a play robbery set, in which the children pretend to be the robbers who confront the bank manager. This toy was in the news with parents wrestling the message it was sending to children.

When daydreaming and planning for the future someday I wonder how I should educate my children about such things. I know some parents expressly forbid that they don’t play with anything gun shaped, while other will allow them to play with such toys as long as they don’t shoot other people.

Husband grew up around guns his entire life, and has more experience to draw from when we think about how we will teach our children about firearms someday. I shared the above observation with him, wondering his opinion. He explained that when he was a child that his parents had a really good rule. The rule in his house was that they were not allowed to “play guns” with anyone who wasn’t already playing the game. Therefore, it was okay for he and his brother to play with a nerf gun, or pretend guns, even pretending to fire at each other, as long as they didn’t hit others like parents or sister who were not already involved in the play between the “good guy” and “bad guy.” This may seem like a clever way as a parent to not end up at the wrong end of a nerf gun when you are busy cleaning, but husband explained to me that this helped to reinforce the idea that you do not hurt innocent people. His parents were helping them learn through play to establish proper boundaries for acts of aggression.

Continuing my research of play therapy, and especially play with guns I happened upon this fascinating article by a Marriage and Family Therapist Katrinca Ford, about gun play. Basically, she reflects upon a family she assisted once. Their young son was having behavioral problems. He would randomly hit other children on the playground for no reason. Kartinca observed the family playing together to try to assess the problem. What she discovered was that the young son was not allowed to act out any aggressive actions during play time, he was steered away from such actions. Katrinca explained to the parents how to be supportive during play time, even allowing the four year old to express himself through symbolic violent actions, and the physically aggressive behavior on the play ground disappeared.

In the March 2010 issue of Play Therapy magazine a Point-Counterpoint_Blog_Mar10 play with guns argument was shared.

The basis of play therapy is that children speak through play. When children are young they learn through their play actions. If you limit them from only having certain toys, you are effectively taking away their words. You are also preventing them from forming opinions about certain objects. When children play as good guys vs bad guys with toy guns they are learning morals. In playing the bad guy they are less likely emulating or aspiring to be a bad guy, because there has to be a bad guy, but they could be learning that when people do bad things that there will be good to stop them. They are even learning that certain actions like stealing, hurting women and children, etc is wrong.

As an intern I have limited knowledge and experience in this area, and plan to continue research into this area. As a hopeful someday parent, I understand better how aggressive play can help a child process the world around them but does not lead them to violence. I wonder if by our children not allowed to communicate about certain “violent” objects, or unable to play out actions of aggression in schools if we are inhibiting them to learn how to control themselves through play and are instead acting out aggression in real life.

In one article “bang bang gun play and why children need it” from a therapist in the UK, written in 2003, I read describe how forbidding gun play means that likely the children are still playing, but instead they lie about the objects that they are making as they feel they will not be accepted. Another article shares how to structure gun play with your child to benefit your child the most and how to avoiding shaming them.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

5 thoughts on “Studied Play Therapy (Gun/Agressive/Violent Play)

  1. Also, haven’t had a chance to read the links, but those are very interesting arguments. It makes sense to me that the violent play is helpful for children in learning to constructively cope with their emotions and behavior. When I first saw the heading I thought your entry was going to be more in relation to the arguments that some people make about how violent game play- especially video game play- leads to more violent action in youth. I think that argument sucks and is a whitewash for sociopathic behavior. (Unfortunately a few people brought it up in passing at the recent Maryland judicial hearing regarding the state’s upcoming gun control legislation. I hate when people try and down play evil by saying mass shootings are more the result of the influence of too much violent video games/ violent media or the use of psychotropic medication.)

    • I am soooo sick of people blaming everything else for their actions. While violence on tv/video games may play a part in kid’s actions, as well as the medications that they take, insisting that sociopathic behavior derives from those things removes the idea of self discipline. Honestly, I think the biggest problem is the lack of family relationships (or unhealthy ones) and the lack of respect for human life. It is really heartbreaking 🙁

      • I heartily agree with everything you just said. I think it’s difficult for me to hear people make those arguments because when people talk that way as if it were a system issue rather than a personal issue it dehumanizes the people who are caught in that system and rely on it for the support they need to be healthy and overcome their native handicaps. There are too many people who could benefit from medication therapy but do not take it because of stigma and pride, so vilifying pharmacological drugs- which are merely tools, not moral agents- for their association with sociopaths seems to further exacerbate that problem. Categorically linking mass murderers with the mentally ill also does not help those who struggle untreated and undiagnosed from seeking out help that could improve the lives of many. One untreated mentally ill person can easily wreak havoc on an entire family, neighborhood, or community. It’s hard for me not to personalize it because other people hear the label mental illness and they may not have faces and stories to put with that label outside of the names gleaned from horrific events on the news, but all I have to do to see the face of an individual with a history of mental illness is look in a mirror.

  2. Not exactly related, but I noticed the name for the Italian duck,duck, goose game, and it’s interesting to me because it looks like it literally says instead, “Dog, Dog, Cat” (I don’t speak Italian, but I’ve studied Spanish and Latin, so the words look very similar.)

    • It is Dog, Dog, Cat! What was really funny is some of the students when they were playing would say “Carne, Carne.” Which is “meat” instead of dog. I have no idea what the children thought about this!

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