Play therapists widely regard the use of aggressive toys, including toys guns, as an essential element to the playroom. However, many parents are hesitant to allow their children to play with toy guns. Nearly all schools have banned the use of toys guns (or even pretend shooting) completely.
Over the years, I have had some toy guns (not realistic looking ones, though) and other times I have taken them out. As a therapist, the use of toys guns is not essential, but the use of aggressive toys, is vital.
What is an Aggressive Toy?
Aggressive toys are anything that a child can use to get out pent up anger or hostility. These toys can be used to role play fights or battles, good guy/bad guy situation, or other trauma re-enactments.
Examples of aggressive toys include:
- Non-realistic toy guns
- Rubber knives
- Foam swords
- “Mean” animals like sharks, dinosaurs, alligators, lions, etc.
- Toy soldiers (two different colors)
- Rope (I use a jump rope with the handles removed)
- Bop Bag
What is an Aggressive-Release Toy?
Aggressive-Release Toys are toys that are okay to destroy or break in some way. These toys help redirect actual aggression into a more acceptable alternative.
Examples of aggressive-release toys include:
- Egg cartons (can be crushed)
- Bubble wrap (can be popped)
- Paper (can be ripped up)
- Popsicle sticks (can be snapped or jabbed into clay)
- Wet paper towels (can be thrown against wall outside or on easel)
- Clay or Play-doh (can be pounded)
Why Are Aggressive Toys Useful In Therapy?
Children need a safe opportunity to express feelings of anger. In the play therapy environment, children can use aggressive toys to play out things that are happening with people in their lives. BUT…when it is done with an animal instead of a doll person, it feels safer to the child. It is the same feeling/movements/thoughts but it doesn’t feel as real.
Relieving Physical Tension
Also, when using aggressive release toys, children get to move their bodies in a way that helps relieve the physical tension that anger brings. Pounding clay, stomping egg cartons, or swinging foam swords helps move the body in ways that release tension and the accompanying noise that the movement makes also helps reduce tension.
Finally, aggressive play helps teach children boundaries. In rough/aggressive play, children learn how hard to swing without actually hurting the therapist, or how fast to move without falling down. They learn how to “take a break” if someone needs to rest and how to start back up again. I have witnessed siblings learn how to set rules for “fair fights” using foam swords and how to negotiate cheating.
Do Aggressive Toys Create Aggressive Children?
It depends on what research you read. A few studies have shown that aggression may increase temporarily after playing with aggressive toys. This DOES seem to be more true when you are talking about playing violent video games (different story there). But, long-term, there is no reliable evidence that toy guns create more aggressive kids.
In fact, the opposite holds more true. If a child has an appropriate place to express and display anger, then they are less likely to use anger with their peers (or parents). Telling children, “Don’t get mad” is not nearly as helpful as teaching them what to do when they are mad to diffuse it. The use of aggressive release toys helps teach children what to do with their angry in a way that will not get them in trouble.
Children Will Find Creative Ways To Express Aggression
In fact, many therapists find that children will turn neutral toys like blocks or their fingers into guns, knives, or bombs in order to communicate their needs with whatever is available. The expression often goes:
If a child needs a gun to represent something going on in their life, they will find something and turn it into a gun (either in shape or with the noises that they make) to communicate that need.”
What To Do If You Are Uncomfortable With Toy Guns?
- Set limits. It might be that toy guns are only for target practice. “Guns are not for shooting at people.” When I have any toy guns in my office, I NEVER shoot at children. I have let them shoot at me, but I would not shoot back at them. If they tell me to shoot them, I would act out thinking about it but being so worried that they would die or I would go to jail or some other bad outcome. A great play therapist, Lisa Dion, writes more about how to play aggressively with children in her book, Integrating Extremes: Aggression and Death in the Playroom.
- Set different limits for different games. You might say that you can not shoot at me in general, but then we make a specific limit for Nerf or laser style games where we have defined a goal or specific rules. These games typically have teams, time limits, and rules of engagement. You discuss them in advance and determine that the shooting ends when the game ends.
- Make sure your guns look very fake. Avoid anything that is at all realistic. Guns that are bright colors, light up, or make silly noises all classify as fake guns. Guns that shoot foam balls.
- Use the alternative aggressive toys. If you are still not comfortable with toy guns, use the alternatives. Foam swords are generally more fun than toy guns anyway.
A Side Note About Gun Safety:
Regardless of your use of toy guns, there is never a bad time to talk with children about what to do if they find a gun while playing. Just recently, there was an incident here in Memphis where a child picked up a gun and shot his brother accidentally.
There are many factors in that case that have nothing to do with aggressive play or aggressive toys. And yet, the underlying fear is that if we let our children play with aggressive toys, things like this will happen. So…
- Talk about actual gun safety. Talk with your children about what to do if they ever encountered a gun outside of the playroom and what to do and not do about it. You can discuss that they should never pick up a gun outside of the playroom and that they should notify an adult right away.
- Require gun safety from adults. It’s okay to ask the parents of your child’s friends if they own any weapons and how/where they have them stored. Same goes for grandparents or other relatives. Don’t just assume that they are responsible gun owners, make them prove it. Everyone that I know that has any weapons in their home can easily tell me how they are keeping them safe.
Recently, I polled a group of play therapists and they overwhelmingly reported that they not only had toy guns in their offices, but that they found them to be an essential component of a play therapy space. However, those that did not have toy guns felt that the same benefits were achieved through the use of other aggressive release toys (like ropes, knives and swords) without the complications.
Moreover, representing reality in the playroom is important. The truth is that many children have parents that work with weapons (law enforcement and military) and others have been exposed to very traumatic events involving drug raids, shootings, or other community violence.
To deny access to those items or experiences seems to somehow convey that those feelings, thoughts or experiences are shameful, wrong, or not important. The playroom is a place to overcome those feelings and any toys that facilitate that process are okay in my office.
Do you allow your children to play with toy guns?