War or Peace

Recently, I posted the photo below on PlayGroundology FB commenting that I thought the tank had found a better purpose than for what it was originally intended. One of my regular readers didn’t agree. She thinks war machinery has no place in kids’ playgrounds.

A couple of days later I came across articles in the San Francisco Chronicle about a fighter plane that had been a play structure fixture for more than three decades in San Francisco’s Larsen Park. It got me thinking, would I allow our three young kids to play on a tank, or in a fighter jet?

2232931829_6456a00e50_bMonstrum playscape in Nørrebroparken, Copenhagen. Photo credit – Jan Ingemansen. License – (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Back in the mid-1960s as a young lad in grade school getting the bi-monthly short back and sides at the barbers, I was an avid after school and weekend warrior. I lived in Toronto then and our apartment block bordered on a 10 to 15 acre green space. The hills were dotted with unmanicured shrubs and a valley plain served as a soccer and baseball field, bike rodeo and a gathering place for war games. It was a green oasis but no pastoral idyll. On the other side of a six foot high Frost fence at the southern extremity of our play zone, the 12-lane 401 highway roared by. Our activities continually played out to the droning buzz of fast flow traffic.

Along with sports and playgrounding, war games were a recurring part of our play menu. Even though real life conflicts in Vietnam and Biafra raged on newscasts we chose our recreations from contemporary pop culture. Sgt. Rock, who seemingly single-handedly won the World War II for the allies, was one of our primary inspirations for mid-century warfare. James Bond was of course our role model in the world of spylike skullduggery against our Cold War foes. A number of us were packing the 007 spy attaché case.

Sgt. Rock

Reaching further back in time, we pretended we were fighting in the American Civil War. There wasn’t much left to the imagination from the scenes depicted in the Topps Civil War News card set. Then there was also the Hollywood fueled reenactments of epic Cowboy and Indian clashes. No matter the historical period, we had the rifles, machine guns, helmets, knives, canteens, grenades and other necessary accoutrements to vanquish the enemy whoever that might be.

medium_2972446979Topps Civil War News Trading Card, 1962

We played regularly taking turns being the ‘bad’ guys. We were killed, resurrected and played on. There was one family of five brothers whose parents’ religious convictions had them attending an evangelical church. There only stricture was no war games on Sundays. At the time, it was the only opposition I was aware of to our grade school warrior play.

About 15 years later I was back in Toronto working in the peace movement organizing short term international youth exchanges focused on volunteer activities with a social justice twist. The early 1980s was a time of demonstrations in Toronto trying to raise awareness about conflicts in Central and South America, South Africa and about militarism in our own backyard such as work being done in support of the Cruise Missile. At the time I was an ardent and righteous anti-war toys guy and pro ‘arms are for hugging’.

Not a lot has changed for me since then except perhaps that the certainty of black and white solutions has become more grey. I’m as passionate as ever about arms being for hugging. I’ve never bought toy guns for any of our kids and never will. Regardless the kids fabricate them with different materials – sticks, blocks, lego. Just yesterday, Noah and Nellie were scooting around the house ‘shooting’ at each other. When I gave them my one minute exposition on what guns do to people, Noah quipped, “these are pretend water guns papa”.

The war toys debate has been on for decades. Though not toys per se, these pieces of decommissioned military hardware in playgrounds are seen as birds of a feather. Here is a young David Halton on Canada’s CBC TV in December 1965 reporting on a Voice of Women campaign.

CBC Archives 1965xxxlCBC TV, December 1965 – Voice of Women Campaign

It was easier when I was a kid. I was embroiled in the moment and the ethos of the times. I loved my Daisy air rifle and my Hong Kong machine gun that made the noise and sported a facsimile flame of red plastic at the barrel tip. I don’t think I was desensitized. I would argue in fact that many of today’s video games are far more graphic and violent than anything we experienced as kids.

If an old CF-18 dropped into our neighbourhood playground tomorrow, I’d let the kids play on it. I’d also let them know what kind of machine it was. In a way, I think we’d be beating swords into ploughshares. What are your thoughts?

The British Columbia Teacher’s Federation has produced an excellent resource – War Toys to Peace Art – that you can download here.

2 responses to “War or Peace

  1. Hey, awesome; I’ve totally been to that airplane playscape in Copenhagen! It was indeed really terrific — and just bombarded with children playing imaginatively when I was there. (Plus, as far as I recall, not a single young mass murderer-in-training in sight!)

    If I remember correctly it was also near a super-cool pirate ship-y sort of playscape, which was similarly well-used by children. This post does really make me ponder, though: why is it that as adults, we accept certain kinds of “violent” play without a second thought — for example, when kids play pirates, or cowboys and Indians, or even zombies — yet when kids play “war,” with pretend guns instead of more subtle forms of pretend weaponry and violence, we wig out? Is it the immediacy of the imagery? Is it simply not thinking through what these forms of play might actually represent for kids?

    Boy, it feels like we really know how to adulterate play for kids….

    • Hi Daniel, good to hear from you. I think this is one of those areas where there is no right or wrong. Certainly a child’s parents are big determinants in shaping perspectives around these issues.

      How is everything with you? Cheers, Alex

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