Discover Waldorf Education: Guns and Doses

Should Young Children Play with Guns?



Parents often ask whether Waldorf kindergarteners should be allowed to play with toy guns (or imaginary guns) in school or at home. A powerful article by Susan Johnson, M.D., exemplifies feelings commonly expressed in Waldorf schools — and Eugene’s commentary on her article provides yet another perspective.

    It often happens that, when I address a group of kindergarten parents and I open the floor for questions, the subject of children playing with toy guns (real or imaginary) is raised. I generally respond that this is a normal activity for many boys (and far fewer girls) and that, unless it becomes compulsive, there was nothing to worry about. For parents who are uncomfortable about such gunplay, I suggest that setting aside a time of day for “gun practice” with their child, preceded and followed by more meaningful activity, would be a good way to “regulate” such play. Most children in the Waldorf nursery and kindergarten setting find many other games to play and activities to emulate, and the gunplay eventually fades away.

Susan Johnson, M.D., an anthroposophical physician, has recently presented another vantage point concerning this subject and I would like to comment on it. Her article, entitled “Guns, a Plane Ride, and War” appears on her web site and I am glad that it has been made available to a wide audience. Let it never be said that everyone connected to Waldorf education moves in lockstep, or is of one mind with everyone else! There are some clear disagreements between Dr. Johnson’s views and my own, and airing them both gives parents much greater freedom in making their own decisions.

Dr. Johnson’s article begins:

    I recently evaluated a kindergarten-aged child who began having physically and emotionally violent nightmares since November of last year. In her first nightmare, she and her classmates were standing up against a wall and their teacher was shooting at them. In her kindergarten class, gunplay had been allowed in the playground for most of the school year. According to her parents, children were shooting one another, sometimes in the back, with “imaginary” automatic weapons. Her parents wanted her out of that kindergarten class. There were other kindergarten classes at that school where the teachers did not encourage gunplay and usually redirected it. The parents wanted my help and advice.

It sounds as if the gunplay permitted in that kindergarten was rampant, and very likely at least some of that play was not “directed” at all. I agree that the role of the teacher is to redirect children’s energy when it is becoming antisocial or hurtful. Every teacher will have her own level of tolerance and must make a creative decision about “how much is too much,” but I don’t think that this particular girl’s specific experience means that all gunplay is going to lead to nightmares. In fact, the large role that the teacher plays in this nightmare may say more about the child’s relationship to the teacher as an authority figure than to guns in general.

Dr. Johnson acknowledges that, like most boys, her son played with squirt pistols and a suction-cup dart gun, but that she wisely directed his energy away from hurting human beings. As both the kindergarten events and Dr. Johnson’s example show, the understanding and directing presence of an adult is a crucial factor in healthy children’s play. The adult need not hover over the child at play, but he or she should certainly be aware of the nature and tenor of the child’s activities.

The paragraphs that follow Dr. Johnson’s opening section seem to me to be a non sequitur, but it is an important non sequitur because it reflects the strong feelings of many parents involved with Waldorf education. Dr. Johnson now describes a meeting on a plane with a soldier on leave from duty in Iraq. She and he strike up a conversation, and he describes his gun:

    He told me, that as strange as it may seem, what he missed the most right now was his gun; even though he didn’t want to miss it. “You see,” he said, “I clean my gun everyday, I care for it, and I sleep with it. My gun is my friend and it makes me feel safe.”

Dr. Johnson tells the soldier that she would not want her son to go to war because she “just didn’t believe that killing ever solved any problems” and the soldier agrees:

    He said that he had enlisted in the military because he wanted to serve our country, and he was promised tuition for education, good pay, health benefits, and of course travel all over the world.

The soldier then agrees that war is awful and that he, too, would not want his son to go to war. Following this conversation, the plane lands and we return to the parents of the daughter having gun nightmares. Dr. Johnson notes:

   I told them that they had to excuse me for I was feeling a little overwhelmed from my plane ride. “I hate war”, I said. “It makes no sense. When will we as Human Beings learn to respect each other, to love each other, and just get along?”

Dr. Johnson concludes the article by gazing at the kindergartener’s mother and saying,

    I did not need to ask her what she felt about gunplay in her daughter’s kindergarten class. The answer was already in her eyes.

By weaving together the soldier’s story and the gun nightmares, there is a clear implication that playing with guns leads to war. I call this part of the article, moving and impassioned as it is, a “non sequitur” because there is nothing in Dr. Johnson’s conversation with the soldier that could lead us to conclude that gunplay in his childhood led to a love of war in adulthood. Let us assume that the soldier on the plane did play with guns as a little boy (we never learn that he did, but it is probably a safe assumption). We would then have to assume that he now loves and misses his gun because it gives him the power to kill people. What he actually tells Dr. Johnson is that “My gun is my friend and it makes me feel safe.” His makes his gun sound less like a weapon and more like a security blanket or the symbol of the parent whose attention he may have lacked as a boy.

But surely he must have voluntarily enlisted in the wartime army because all of that childish gunplay instilled in him a love of death and destruction. What he actually tells Dr. Johnson is that “He had enlisted in the military because he wanted to serve our country, and he was promised tuition for education, good pay, health benefits, and of course travel all over the world.” (People join the faculties of Waldorf schools for the many of the same reasons, except perhaps the pay.)

In the course of his plane conversation with Dr. Johnson this war veteran does not speak about shooting, killing, or even hurting another Human Being. It is Dr. Johnson who juxtaposes the story of the kindergartener with nightmares and the soldier who misses his gun as if all of these threads were connected, when in reality they are two different stories altogether. Dr. Johnson’s emotional reaction to the child, the soldier, her plane trip etc. connects them in her soul (and thank goodness for an M.D. who is so open about her soul life!) but that does not mean that there is any objective causal relationship between children playing with guns and the actual practice of war.

In my work as a educational consultant I have made hundreds of school visits and I have seen many young boys at play. My own experience has been that more boys play with toy fire engines (real or imaginary) than play with toy guns. If Dr. Johnson’s correlation between toy guns and soldiers is true, then why aren’t there more firemen in our world? Another scenario I see repeated thousands of times involves boys working hard to build great towers of blocks, or lofty mounds in the sandbox, only to joyfully knock them down until they are gone. Could this be the seedbed of future terrorist acts?

From time immemorial, the interplay of upbuilding and destructive forces has been a fact of earthly life that human beings have had to encounter and understand. Hinduism pictures these forces as Brahma and Shiva; physiologists point to the anabolic and catabolic activities that underlie human life; Rudolf Steiner spoke of the battle between the etheric and astral bodies that lives within every human soul. 

In her medical practice, Dr. Johnson very likely prescribes anthroposophical remedies. Like homeopathic medicines, these remedies may contain substances or forces that are akin to — not opposed to — the ailment that they are treating. A doctor knows that often “like cures like.” I would propose that gunplay in the kindergarten years, if permitted and guided in “homeopathic doses” may pre-empt the need for “allopathic doses” of guns in later years. By acting out the interplay of upbuilding and destructive forces, little children may be learning how to deal with a dynamic that they will carry all of their lives. In this respect, while Waldorf schools may not have the key for ending war on earth, they may nonetheless help today’s children find their way to inner balance and security.