Q: I have a child in my classroom who turns everything into a gun. Almost everything he plays somehow turns into killing and shooting. First, is this normal behavior (he's 4), and second, how do I stop it? Several other parents are concerned because their children are picking up this behavior.
I worry about children with a habit of hostile aggressive behavior - threatening, bullying, intentionally hurting feelings, continuing to pretend to assault a child who isn't enjoying his role, or causing physical pain to peers. On the other hand, I don't worry about friendly aggressive play such as rough and tumble or gun pretend play.
All play needs limits. It's important for teachers and parents to notice where they're needed and gracefully redirect children. Join in the new activity until children are engaged.
I would have a "no toy gun" (and swords) policy, but allow children to use sticks, fingers - and if they think of it themselves, even carrots! - as pretend guns.
Explain to parents who question the "no toy guns" rule that toy gun play upsets many parents, who think it encourages violence, so we can't have it at school, but that of course they can allow it at home if they wish.
Explain to parents who are outraged because we allow children to use makeshift and make-believe guns that, while we don't glamorize guns at school by allowing all the glitzy, sound-effects-equipped guns kids find alluring and rewarding, or, in fact, any manufactured guns at all, it's impossible to prevent young children from trying to be the hero who defeats evil or who acts out being a bad guy in play. Moreover, there's no body of research proving that shooting play makes children violent, although there is substantial evidence that children whose parents frequently or severely punish them are more violent.
Sometimes it's possible to convert gun play - if children can't be diverted - into constructive play. Try using craft materials and blocks to build jails for bad guys or hospitals for wounded soldiers. Using imagination-yours as well as the children's, in this way, should help you manage this controversial issue in your classroom.