Expert: Suppressing kids' play-fighting may erode self-esteem

PORTLAND, Ore. - A Portland child expert says curtailing children's imaginary play, even if it's violent, is actually detrimental to their self-esteem.

Two weeks ago a Hillsboro boy had his recess time taken way, in part, for play sword fighting and not listening to his teacher. He was sword fighting with a nonexistent sword.

In a more recent case, a Denver boy was disciplined for throwing a nonexistent grenade.

Alex Evans, 7, was pretending to save the world from evil forces on the playground and pretended to detonate an imaginary grenade.
But his school has a no-tolerance policy, meaning no weapons, real or imaginary.

So Evans got suspended.

Portland therapist Kristi Cash White said school districts are well-intentioned.

"It's a different time than when we were kids," she said. "Kids are scared of terrorists and of someone coming into their school and shooting them or somebody kidnapping them and going into a bunker. So we have to be more aware of traumatizing children even through play."

White uses toys, even play weapons, in her practice. While she understands some kids get scared of play-fighting, for others it's essential to expressing themselves freely.

"Just like if a teacher held up a child's piece of artwork and said, 'This is how you should not do art," that's going to affect that child for years to come," she said.

Squashing the imaginary play of children, especially boys, can hurt their self-confidence and cause them to withdraw.

"Some of this acting out (of) violent scenes is a healthy thing," White said. "They're trying to figure out what's going on in the world."

She said that boys especially are naturally disposed to imaginary fighting - hard-wired, in essence - to practice being warriors.

Local school districts Beaverton, Salem-Keiser, Vancouver and Evergreen do not have any imaginary weapons policy. Portland and Hillsboro schools district don't either. But those two districts do say they discourage play-fighting.