When Little Kids Play War
From the age of about 3 through 5, pretend weapon play is normal. Having aggressive feelings is and has been normal since birth. By 3, there is an outlet for such feelings, a step above tantrums, and that is pretend play, sometimes with make-believe weapons. In the best of circumstances (children who do not experience harsh or inconsistent discipline, who do not witness person-to-person aggression among teens and adults in their midst, who enjoy caregivers' praise for solving disputes verbally, and most importantly, who do not feel deprived, helpless, and unfairly treated), pretend weapon play is a harmless phase, likely to fade from the school-age child's repertoire. It is replaced by more mature and socially acceptable ways of expressing aggression — notably through athletic and skill competition.
When Pop Culture Intrudes
But these days, the story often doesn't end there. Research has shown unequivocally that heavy and longstanding exposure to violence in the media (which now includes many more venues than movies and TV, such as video games) desensitizes kids to violent imagery. Following such exposure, aggressive behavior increases. So where once "bang bang, you're dead" games faded from interest as children moved on their own toward skill development and competitive games, pretend violence now often retains a synthetic grip on the thinking and behavior of older children and adolescents.
This is not the place to consider aggressive behavior among older children. But it is important to make the distinction between harmless (and in some ways, actually helpful) war play that is ordinarily outgrown, and the culturally sustained, imitative violent play. We should worry less about our preschoolers and kindergartners dueling with unsharpened pencils than about the intrusion of multimedia on the natural course of maturation.
To return to the question, "Is weapon play among preschoolers and kindergartners harmful?" Not likely. At these ages, such play enables kids to express and constructively work through angry feelings — so long as the play is personal and creative, not merely imitative of mass media programming.
What to Do Now
How should you deal with your preschooler's eagerness for war play? As long as there are no safety risks for the particular behavior, experts recommend that you allow it, but observe carefully. Consider what worries may lay behind the games. How creative is the play? How repetitive? Is there a resolution within it? Stay tuned in and make quiet suggestions or raise questions that might extend the play. Ask about what may happen next, or suggest rescue props for the injured. But always follow your child's lead rather than become the play director.
At the same time, try to limit your child's exposure to violent programming and toys. Watch any questionable programs with him and talk over what you see together. Encourage more free play and less screen time. If he is stuck on repetitive play themes, gently guide him out of the rut. Keep communication channels open, so he will feel free to talk about the themes he is exploring in his play. Provide engaging opportunities for other sorts of play. It's all quite a challenge, since the news and entertainment focus on violence and war is enormous. But careful guidance will go a long way toward counteracting cultural influences.