“I Cut Off Your Leg and Blood Spurts Out:” How Play Fighting Does More Than Teach Violence

I am not violent.  Contrary to what you are probably starting to think, while growing up, I would avoid conflict at almost any cost, though I’ve gotten better about standing up for myself as I have gotten older.  Peace is my New Year’s resolution every January, and movies over a G-rating get pre-viewed before my 5-year-old watches them.  So, where does the violence come from in her play fighting?  I don’t know exactly, but as I watch and listen to my daughter lately, it has left me thinking.

No doubt, we are going through some tough times right now as a family: my husband moved out in July to another state and I have started working part-time, either dropping the kids off at our (wonderful) sitter’s or dragging them along with me.  Our personal stress levels have risen, not only for me, but also for my two children, 5 and 2, and it is obvious in how they are acting out daily.  It’s sad, and stresses me out more: a vicious cycle.

I do not know if this has anything to do with the imaginary violence that seems a part of my 5-year-old’s play all of a sudden.  Of late, that which I have witnessed, she has played, with numerous different people, play-acting games of one person being the villain and the other being killed.  Is this a side-effect of the stress of the separation coming out in her play, or is it a natural thing that comes along with greater cognitive ability and a developing sense of feelings/awareness that others have feelings (and life) as well?

I am not sure, but one thing has been apparent while she is playing: her knowledge of physiology and physics astounds me.  And I’m not sure how she learned it all.  Innate knowledge?  No doubt, it is an example of how unschooling works when children are interested in something.

023Take last night’s game for example:  Elizabeth, my daughter, gave me the blow-up Pirates of the Caribbean sword my sister brought her from Disney World, and told me to “get her with it” every time she ran past me and she would try to dodge it as she ran from one end of the room to the other.  Well, the room isn’t very big and I have pretty good reflexes, so I tapped her a number of times.  Each time I got her, she told me which body part she had lost and how she was moving thereafter.  For example, I “cut off” her hand, but she could still run without it.  I then “cut off” her leg, and she had to jump on her other.  I was most impressed when I jabbed at her with the point of the sword, without much thinking of it, and she told me that I had stabbed her in the heart and blood was now “pouring out.”

How does a 5-year-old know that blood pours out if you get stabbed?  Beats me, but it does show me that she has comprehended enough from our talks on human physiology to put two and two together to understand that: 1- her blood flows to all parts of her body, and 2- when she gets a boo-boo it bleeds, thus if she has a large boo-boo like a stab wound, blood would “pour out.”  She also has an innate knowledge of physics in that she knows that if she looses part of one leg, she would have to limp leaning this way or that on the other.  These are things that we all know, they just become blocked by that sense of ‘being overwhelmed by science’ when you are asked a question and you think you are bad at physics (yeah I know that one, and I was a biology major in college!).

As well, I think that it also proves that very young children are not too young for science.  Starting the dialogue about internal body parts early on helps them have a sense of how they are made up and how the body works, as well as how to keep it healthy and to protect it.  It undoubtedly helps her to understand proper physical behavior with other children/people as well.   As she was playing, Elizabeth asked me if she had bones in her stomach, and what her ribs do, and her spine.  Learning the ‘Head-Nose-Feet-And-Toes’ song is not enough, knowing that you have a beating heart inside, and a ribcage which protects it is important – as well as what would happen if you didn’t.

When Elizabeth was very little, I didn’t want to use the word die, but there were serious things that she needed to know for safety, so I would tell her that if a person couldn’t (insert whatever they couldn’t do) they wouldn’t live.  For example: if a person put their head in a plastic bag and could not breathe, they would not live, because “if you can’t breathe you can’t life.”  (It’s almost a song these days at our house.)  As she has grown older the conversation has turned to the importance of the brain and heart for life, and if one or the other doesn’t work, a person doesn’t live.  She seems acutely aware of this fact, which is apparent…in her play fighting.

So, not all violent play is bad, actually, it seems kind of good in a way.  Besides demonstrating a knowledge of physiology, imaginary play-fighting in children, such as I have described, has been proven to teach much more than violence.  I recall at the Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, in the area of the superheroes and comics, imaginary violent play is supported as a way to not only differentiate between right and wrong, or good and bad as it is, but a way in which children begin to decide which side they want to be on in life.  It also helps them to decide that violence doesn’t really feel good.  When children play at either the bad guy beating someone up or being beaten up, neither of those situations truly feels good, and it is an acceptable way to learn that because no one is getting hurt in real life.  If all violent play is unacceptable, as it is now in public schools, the lesson of which side to be on in the fight must be learned through a real, physical fight – which is never an acceptable solution.

Even after having written this post, I can’t say that I am totally at ease with imaginary violent play.  I myself prefer to not participate in it much.  I’m still going to pre-view PG and up movies.  I’m also not necessarily going to encourage/initiate imaginary violent play.  But I know why I feel a little uncomfortable with it: because I was not prohibited in doing it as a child, and was able to learn as I grew that violence made me uncomfortable.  I can see in my own child this decision being made as she deals with other individuals out of the home, and thus feel that a little bit of play-fighting won’t hurt anyone – as long as no one gets hurt.

Share your thoughts:  What are some pros and cons of play-fighting that you have witnessed or that seem apparent to you?


One thought on ““I Cut Off Your Leg and Blood Spurts Out:” How Play Fighting Does More Than Teach Violence

  1. Reblogged this on Seedling and commented:

    Here’s my latest post on my homeschooling blog, Seed To Seedling. I thought that the theme was broad enough to post it onto Seedling as well. Share your thoughts on whether you agree or disagree. 🙂


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