War Play – Why risk is beneficial

Outdoor play is a necessity in the development and wellbeing of young children. For a variety of environmental and cultural reasons, children are being given less and less opportunities to experience free and unsupervised outdoor play. War play has been a part of childhood development for centuries and is seen as a necessity by most cultures. The programs at Educated by Nature nourish a child’s eagerness to engage in this type in a safe and unstructured environment.

So why are children fascinated by war play?

From an evolutionary perspective, play functions to teach children what they must do well (Gray, 2015). There are many links between the role of play for our evolutionary ancestors, and the type of play that young children instinctively gravitate towards. Whilst older gorillas tend to be more cautious, quietly feeding or grooming, younger members will take more risks, exploring and experimenting. (Baldwin and Baldwin, 1977). Similarly, young chimps will take risks while engaging in games such as aerial tag. Renowned Primatologist, Dr. Jane Goodall, suggests that what the chimps are learning about their environment offsets the risks associated (van Lawick-Goodall, 1973). Learning to evade capture in a game of tag is more beneficial than learning whilst actually being chased by a predator (Barrett, 2005).

Like these examples, children are drawn to play that allows them to take risks. They are seeking out the knowledge they will require to navigate life. War play provides them with opportunities to learn how to regulate passionate emotions, collaborate, forgive, compromise and test their physical abilities. Children are fascinated by war play because of what it teaches them.

War play as a safe and effective educative tool

Teachers and parents tend to avoid promoting war play activities. There is a misconception that the violent nature of these games will lead to children losing control and becoming scared or hurt. Common approaches for dealing with war play are a complete ban or micromanagement (Doliopoulou, 1998). These measures can be ineffective. Children will often persist, engaging in war play secretively. An alternative approach is to view war games as a learning tool. With guidance over the development of the play, they can be founded on excitement and respect. Working in collaboration with the children to develop clear and reasonable guidelines (such as that the game must always be respectful to themselves, others and their environment) allows kids to take on a sense of responsibility. Once agreed upon and established, children will often self regulate.

At Educated by Nature’s programs we often witness intense debates between groups of children on how best to maintain this respect, whilst still enjoying themselves. They develop their compromise, empathy and awareness skills, recognising safety as priority they all share. The ingenuity required to solve the complex issues that arise, prevents simply behaviour imitation and rather promotes genuine creativity. Shutting down war play is not only ineffective, but it negates the wealth of positive outcomes that educators and parents can harness.

War play and social development

From a therapeutic perspective, play is as an opportunity for children to release energy and have fun. However, it also plays an important cognitive role in the development of the child’s social skills and processing of experiences.

Children experience conflict in a variety of situations across their home and social lives. War play provides them a valuable processing and experimental tool. Through the safe medium of play, children can learn to regulate their emotions, and consider the emotions of others. At our sessions, staff get as involved in games as the children do. When war play develops, children often collaborate for the common goal of ‘overpowering’ the adult. Banding together across differences, their shared success mediates any un-controlled aggression they may have exhibited at the beginning of the activity. The respect and consideration they can show towards their adult “victim” is astounding, as they learn to understand boundaries, and how to gauge when they are pushing too far.

Although staff participate fully in playing games, the rules are developed by the children. Free unstructured play encourages development of key collaborative skills. Participants must overcome various complex challenges. These challenges are unique, and range areas such as group formation (who’s going to be in each team?), social hierarchies (who’s going to lead the team and make decisions?), intergroup conflict (how will we manage disagreements between groups?), intergroup integration (how can we achieve a common goal?) as well as how to protect the overall safety and wellbeing of all involved. It has been found that children who are given the opportunity to engage in this kind of socio-dramatic play, creating scenarios, characters and imaginary worlds, tend to possess more empathetic traits and a stronger ability to find win-win outcomes (Newton & Jenvey, 2011).

An unstructured approach to war play also encourages the development of relationships. Studies by social psychologists, Muzafer Sherif and Carolyn Sherif, showed that when groups of boys were allowed to mix freely, spontaneous friendship groups were formed (Sherif & Sherif, 1969). We see this frequently at Educated by Natures’ programs, with children arriving with no friends and leaving with many. The nature of war play means children must band together, forming alliances, and utilising each team members individual skillset. Children have an immediate shared experience and goal. Meaningful friendships form fast, and we love to watch kids excitedly run to their parents at the end of the day, already asking for playdates.

Structured vs Unstructured

Many of the toys commercially produced for children are highly structured, limiting opportunities for imaginative play. Some examples of structured toys are playdough with moulds, lego kits and prescriptive action figures. These toys are designed to be used in one way only, limiting creativity. These highly structured toys can appeal to parents because they allow a clean and manufactured experience, allowing kids to produce something of a high conventional quality. However, the creative benefits of an unstructured approach are far beyond a neat final product. In village communities in Kenya, children have limited access to toys, instead playing with recycled objects (Tudge, 2008). In these spaces, high energy physical play is common (Karsten, 2003). Children are creative and uninhibited. In comparison, in Western societies where play is often highly structured, children often conform to adult expectations, playing less creatively and being less active.

At our programs we provide basic resources, that have the potential to become many different things. This open ended opportunity fuels imaginations, and we love to watch as children build unique and exciting creations. They are constantly challenging the lengths of their innovation. When children are developing the bases for their war, they have the opportunity to use the fabric and pegs to create structures as they please, carpentry and painting to create signs and other features, and whittling tools to adapt sticks found on the ground into defences. Then, they tear around the area, utilising the spaces they have created. Without guidelines on how they should play, they embrace creativity, learning and physical activity.

Within most communities, there are concerns over how much children should engage in war play. We believe that when conducted in a safe environment, war play is an integral component of a child’s early development. At Educated by Nature we take an active role in children’s experiences, helping them to engage in war play in a safe, considerate and constructive way.

For more information on what we do, or to make a booking, please check out our KIN Village holiday program and Bush Inventor’s Club after school program