May the Force Be With You! “Star Wars” Play in the Nursery School Classroom

By Sarah Wright, Head Teacher

CHILD 1: I want to play Star Wars. I want to be the horse.

CHILD 2: No, you can’t play. You don’t have a light saber to kill the bad guys. You’ve got to kill the bad guys when you play Star Wars. I’m Luke. He has a light saber, and he fights the storm troopers.

CHILD 1: I want to be the horse.

CHILD 2: No, you can’t play. There’s no horse in Star Wars, anyway.

CHILD 1: YES! There is a horse in Star Wars.

CHILD 2: NO!

CHILD 1: YES! They say it all the time; “MAY THE HORSE BE WITH YOU.” I want to be that horse.

I don’t recall a horse in any Star Wars episode, but I would be happy to see children include one while playing Star Wars in the nursery school classroom. Creative developments like this show children using play, even war play, to gain mastery and control over their learning experiences.

At the beginning of the year in the West PM classroom, children independently initiated Star Wars play—wanting to be the good guys, who were pretending to attack and kill the bad guys. Their play involved what appeared to the teachers to be aimless running and aggressive pretend-fighting moves. We struggled as a staff to see the value in such play, especially as it was largely imitative: attempts to copy scenes from the movie without elaboration or variation. However, this class seemed strongly interested in Star Wars play, so in an attempt to follow their interests, we were determined to support, yet somehow develop and extend this play.

From a developmental perspective there is a compelling argument that war play can 1) help young children gain and master their impulses; 2) provide the forum for young children to explore the boundaries between fantasy and reality; and 3) offer children the opportunity to see how their actions affect others. In their book, The War Play Dilemma: What Every Parent and Teacher Needs to Know, researchers Diane Levin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige propose that when children not only play but extend powerful fantasy roles—such as Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader—within a safe environment, their play becomes a creative tool that serves their developmental needs. They state:

“In war play, children assume the roles of powerful fantasy characters, express aggression in pretend situations, and engage in “pretend fighting,” all of which can help them to learn about impulse control as they struggle to stay within acceptable boundaries and receive feedback about their actions from people and objects in their environment” (p.26).

Helping these children develop their impulse control, while staying within acceptable boundaries and getting appropriate feedback from their peers, became the central social curriculum for the whole year.

Managing Star Wars Play in the Nursery School Curriculum

• Setting the Basic Safety Rules

Our first strategy was to set acceptable boundaries: The goal was to keep everyone safe. We found that when children engaged in this type of play they needed more adult support to gain control over their aggressive impulses. Discussion about the safety of individual players helped the staff and children formulate a set of safety rules, which focused on keeping bodies safe and respecting the feelings of others. The three basic rules were:

1) No touching or hurting each other’s bodies.

2) Pretend shooting is allowed only if all players are in agreement.

3) If someone calls for a time out for any reason, the game has to stop until everyone feels safe and comfortable to proceed.

This meant teachers working in close proximity to the group and reinforcing the rules. We focused our safety questions on helping the children make clear distinctions between what is pretend and what is real. In addition, much of our support was aimed at helping individuals realize the effects their actions were having on others.

• Developing Goals for Star Wars Play

Once the rules had been established, we decided as a staff to become active positive agents in this type of play. To gain some insight into how children were using this play we asked a plethora of questions. At first, the barrage of questions seemed to cause an annoying disruption to the flow and intense pace of the war play. The teachers seemed to be getting in the way of the group’s mission to “kill” as many bad guys as they could. However, our role at this point was to help the children restructure and extend their imitative play, and figure out what to do next. As Kostelnik, Whiren and Stein, suggest in their article, “Living With He-Man” in Young Children, “Any dramatic play episode can deteriorate if the children define roles and characters and then are at a loss for what to do next. This dilemma can lead to nonproductive activity,”

To keep these activities productive, the teachers offered different scenarios for the characters to try out. For example, we suggested that the good guys might need to see a doctor or visit a Star Wars hospital to take care of any injuries. We suggested that other powers, such as flying or running faster than the speed of light, could be added to any Star Wars characters skill set. At times, these suggestions would frustrate the “Star Wars experts,” who would want to keep referring back to the original script and plot. But the ideas piqued the imagination of others.

• Practicing Pretend Battle

As more children in the class expressed a desire to participate in the Star Wars play, we helped them feel safe and in control within the extended activities. After all, children learn best when they feel they are in control. Adopting techniques used in the theatre, as suggested by Vivian Paley on her recent visit to Bing [see page 6], we helped children explore the skills actors use when acting out a battle scene. This involved practicing and exploring different moves. Directed and monitored by the teachers, these practice sessions also afforded children the opportunity to express their concerns or fears.

• Using Open-Ended Materials

Open-ended materials, such as the unit blocks, were useful for some children who needed highly structured play. The blocks could be manipulated in a variety of ways and could even be changed as the play progressed. Complex block structures started to appear in the block-building area, followed by detailed scripts and story plots. It seemed that having the control over these resources allowed our “Star Wars experts” to produce more creative play and develop their own play scripts.

May the Force Be with Us

With or without a light saber, war play is something that can become a part of our nursery school curriculum. It appears we can’t just bury our heads in the sand area and hope it goes away. It is important to limit exposure to disturbing images and provide age-appropriate activities and materials for children. Through play, they work out, express and master their experiences and we need to acknowledge the challenge and value of this play. We are determined to help young children become self-regulating, compassionate and confident individuals. May the force be with us, horse and all!