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Note: I am looking for referenced answers only! Answers citing one or more peer reviewed studies, or, better yet, a meta analysis of several such studies, would be ideal. Answers that reference articles from reputable sources, or blogs from established child-care or psychology professionals, are acceptable but not preferred. I will be awarding large bounties to the two best answers that meet these criteria!

Toy soldiers, cap-guns, BB rifles, etc. were popular toys for years, but have fallen out of favor with many parents these days. Still, it is very easy to find toys that feature weapons of some sort.

Yet I know several parents who feel this teaches violent behavior, and who have banned all toys that incorporate or simulate weapons from their houses.

I am not including video games in this, as I feel there are distinct differences in the interactions.

Do toy weapons and such have any correlation with violent behavior, or any other negative behaviors?

This question will have up to three 500 point bounties awarded, providing referenced answers are posted. For more details, please read this meta post.

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Please see this meta answer for details of what bounties will be awarded, when, and how! –  Beofett Mar 27 '13 at 14:23
    
Just to clarify: do you mean violent behavior outside the context of playing with these particular toys? –  Ana Mar 27 '13 at 14:38
    
@Ana I mean any behavior that can be construed as negative. I don't consider pretending to shoot a toy gun as negative, but I would consider hitting or other form of aggression against another child (or adult), whether during the course of playing with these particular toys or not, to be negative behavior. –  Beofett Mar 27 '13 at 15:03
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2 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted
+1000

Penny Holland, who lectures in Early Childhood Studies at the University of North London, authored a 2000 study on the effects of a zero tolerance policy for war, weapon, and superhero play. Finding that studies that sought to find a causal connection between war and weapon play and aggression in children and later adulthood were unable to prove such a link (the behaviors were sometimes found to be associated, but the link was not causal), she decided to study the effects of a zero tolerance policy toward war, weapon, and superhero play as had been in practice in UK preschools for 30 years.

In addition to looking at prior research into possible links in the behaviors, Holland considered the child’s voice (“largely silent in the debate”) and the ways in which zero tolerance reduces the fragile self-esteem and limits the imaginative development of young boys who are interested in this area of play. Her experiments with a relaxed policy in a preschool center resulted in observations of “enhanced well-being and increased involvement in a wider range of learning opportunities,” supported by research “that shows positive gains to be made from working with children’s interests in these themes.”

Some highlights from the article:

  • Feminist literature of the 70s and 80s resulted in women finding their voice; “the scale and detail of women’s experience of domestic violence was documented for the first time,” and the idea that violent men grew out of violent childhoods spawned the idea that children should be rescued from learning violence. While there is evidence that children learn violence from violent adult males, the link to aggressive play with peers was an adult construct.
  • Holland cites three papers concerned with children’s perceptions of war play and the differences between play fighting and real fighting. Studies found that children viewing videos of war play were more apt to identify it as play where adults, and particularly women adults, labeled it aggression.

  • The study points to research that suggests that parental influence (physical forms of punishment, parental communication in favor of fighting) is causally correlated to aggression in children, though a similar link between war play and aggression has never been conclusively established.

  • Early childhood practitioners are finding the zero tolerance approach unhelpful. Kids create guns out of building toys, and when confronted will lie that it is a “hairdryer.”

  • Zero tolerance inhibits adults from supporting the development of other imaginative and negotiating skills which could reduce actual aggression. Teachers and parents should “separate the toy from the behavior.” Early childhood centers in this study allowed constructed toy guns but not manufactured ones (construction toys are multi-purpose where toy guns have only a single use). Constructing weapons gives children greater control of their war play.
  • The study also compares the effects of constantly saying no to boys – a rejection of their interests and their gender. This negative attention extends to physically active play that is also sometimes viewed as aggression.

This article (with fully cited research) was followed up with a book in 2003, called We Don’t Play with Guns Here. This resulted in the release of a new set of guidelines for nursery schools by the Department for Children, Schools and Families in the UK in 2008.

Citation:

PENNY HOLLAND (2000) Take the Toys from the Boys? An Examination of the Genesis of Policy and the Appropriateness of Adult Perspectives in the Area of War, Weapon and Superhero Play, Citizenship, Social and Economics Education, 4(2), 92-108.

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A great answer, thanks! I'll be awarding you 1000 points via bounties over the next few days. –  Beofett Apr 7 '13 at 17:04
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up vote 16 down vote
+1000

To quote from The Future of Play Theory: A Multidisciplinary Inquiry into the Contributions of Brian Sutton-Smith:

Findings from studies of war toys are diverse, if sparse. War toys have been found to

  • enhance aggression (Sanson and Di Muccio, 1993; Turner and Goldsmith, 1976; Watson and Peng, 1992)
  • reduce aggression (Bonte and Musgrove, 1943; Gribbin, 1979)
  • have no bearing on aggression (Sutton-Smith, Gerstmyer, and Meckley, 1988; Wegener-Spöhring, 1989)

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find any subscription-free copies of those studies. You can find most of them here if you want to further your research.

My personal opinion is that the research is inconclusive due to a correlation/causation problem. Aggressive kids prefer aggressive toys, and play more aggressively with them than with other toys. It's very difficult to separate out whether the toys caused the aggression or vice versa. However, I have personal experience that strongly suggests the effect is temporary.

We had a two year-old foster son who came to us with toy guns in his personal belongings. I can't go into details about his background, but suffice it to say he had very good reasons for aggressive behavior that didn't involve toys. Although we don't buy toy guns for our own children (for reasons I'll detail later), possessions are very important to foster children so we let him keep them at first. However, we noticed that he hit other children with his guns far more than with any other toy, or bare-handed, so we took the guns away. After that, teaching him not to hit was much easier. In a month or two he had almost completely stopped.

All our other children have either ignored toy guns altogether, or consistently played with them appropriately, without it escalating into actual violence. Our one child where it mattered the effect wore off quickly, even being predisposed to violence. Bottom line is you are very unlikely to do permanent damage by exposing your children to toy guns in a trial period, to see how your individual child reacts, perhaps on a play date.

However, a reason you might not have considered is real gun safety. Even if you don't own guns, your children may encounter them at a friend or relative's house, or even discarded on the street. Children 6 and younger can't distinguish a toy gun from a real one, and for a few years after that, they can't distinguish a real gun without picking it up to gauge the weight. Even then, some real guns are extremely lightweight.

This is why a lot of parents teach their children to treat toy guns and real guns the same: stop, don't touch, leave the area, and tell an adult. It's not that it's impossible to teach gun safety with toy guns readily available, it just muddies the waters a lot.

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You've mentioned foster children in earlier answers too. Sounds like you have a lot of diverse experience to contribute! And I bow before you for the love&effort of having foster children. You must have a big warm heart. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Mar 27 '13 at 20:14
    
Interesting. I wonder what you think about dart guns or other such unrealistic weaponry –  bobobobo Apr 9 '13 at 2:08
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