Some psychologists, educators say the behavior may teach impulse control.

In her 30 years as a kindergarten teacher in Illinois and Massachusetts, Jane Katch has watched graham crackers, a pretzel, celery, tree bark and fingers all become transformed into imaginary guns and other weapons. And she has learned to work with, rather than against, the violent boyhood fantasies that accompany these

“When you try to ignore it, it doesn’t go away. And when you try to oppress it, it comes out in sneaky ways,” Katch said.

Not every teacher agrees. Schools have become battlegrounds between the adults who are repelled by the play violence they see and the children — primarily boys — who are obsessed with pretending to fight, capture, rescue and kill.

While some educators prohibit this behavior, other educators and researchers claim that banishing violent play from classrooms can be harmful to boys. It’s a debate entangled in gender issues, since nearly all early-childhood educators are women, and they may be less comfortable than their male counterparts with boys’ impulses.

While this behavior has been around far longer than toy guns and superhero movies
— boys appear to be hard-wired for more active and aggressive pursuits than girls — many adults see this aggressive play being fueled by the violence portrayed or reported in the media.

“It is a very strange thing that is happening in our society,” said Katch, who is the author of “Under Deadman’s Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children’s Violent Play” (Beacon Press, 2002). “The violence in the media is more and more explicit, and at the same time culture is coming down harder and harder on little boys’ own fantasies, which are actually much less violent than what is in the media.”

Michael Thompson, a psychologist who co-wrote “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys” (Ballantine Books, 2000), rejects even this characterization of boys’ play.

“There is no such thing as violent play,” Thompson told LiveScience. “Violence and
aggression are intended to hurt somebody. Play is not intended to hurt somebody. Play, rougher in its themes and rougher physically, is a feature of boyhood in every society on Earth.”

Gender politics

Four-year-old boys play superhero or enact mock fights much more frequently than girls, who seem to favor house or family themes for playtime, according to a survey of 98 female teachers who worked with these kids. Meanwhile, games involving chasing, protecting and rescuing are played about as frequently by girls as by boys, according to the teachers.

There is, however, a marked difference in how the teachers respond to these games. Almost half the surveyed teachers reported stopping or redirecting boys’ play several times a week or every day. Meanwhile, only 29 percent of teachers reported interfering with girls’ more sedate play on a weekly basis, according to the research conducted by Mary Ellin Logue, of the University of Maine, and Hattie Harvey, of the University of Denver, published in the education journal The Constructivist.

Logue cited multiple reasons for female teachers’ resistance to boys’ aggressive play.

“We don’t want to condone violence, we don’t want to risk it getting out of control, and we don’t want to deal with parents’ wrath,” Logue said.

When Logue and other teachers decided to allow play involving the imaginary “bad guys,” the adversaries in boys’ aggressive narratives, into their preschool program in Maine, one family left, some were anxious, but others were relieved, she said.

According to Thompson, this reaction often arises from mothers and female teachers who did not grow up playing the way boys play.

“They have a belief — call it an urban myth — that if boys play this way it will desensitize them to violence and they will grow up to be more violent. But it is a misunderstanding of what makes adults violent,” Thompson said.

For example, he said, how often are a convicted murderer’s actions explained by too many games of “cops and robbers” on the playground? There’s no link between the two, according to Thompson.

Male teachers might be better attuned to boys’ needs, but they are rare entrants into the worlds of preschools and kindergartens. In 2009, just 2.2 percent of pre-K and kindergarten teachers were men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“It is a very low-paying, low-status job, and we know who gets those jobs,” Katch said.

Since that is not likely to change soon, women in those positions need to cultivate an understanding of little boys’ play, she said.

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