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Kids and Violent Play:
An Education World e-Interview With Jane Katch, Author of a Book About Children's Violent Play

Jane Katch, author of Under Dead Man's Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children's Violent Play, reflects on her students' violent fantasy play and sometimes real violence. She talks about her students' favorite games, such as suicide, and how parents and schools can work together to limit exposure to media that portray violence. Included: Tips for setting rules for recess and for getting parents involved at home with setting rules about media and violence.

The Games Kids Play: Violence Scores!

In Under Dead Man's Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children's Violent Play (Beacon Press, 2001), Jane Katch writes about her students' violent fantasy play and rare episodes of real violence. While focusing primarily on her students' violent images during play, she discovered that she had missed a cause of actual violence -- the subtle exclusion of a particular child from joining in with the other children during group play.

When Jane Katch's 5-and 6-year-old students at the Touchstone Community School in Grafton, Massachusetts, began to play a pretend suicide game, she not only worried but also immediately hated their game. "I have never seen a game I hate so much in which all the children involved are so happy," she said in her book.

An educator for 22 years and a child counselor for an additional eight years, Katch found the suicide game a brand-new twist on children's fantasy play. Over the past several years, Katch has found her students increasingly mesmerized with violent fantasy play. Their play is unlike the kind of good guys-bad guys children's play reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s. Now the good guys get axed, literally, and the children add all the grisly images for effect.

Instead of banning violent fantasy play from her classroom; Katch holds group discussions to determine what kind of play creates turmoil in the classroom, allowing the students to reach a consensus about what is appropriate.

Through these conversations, Katch has found that although children are fascinated by violent images seen on various media, they are often scared by those very images. The children's advice to parents: Just say no to those scary movies.

Katch talks with Education World about her students' favorite games, such as suicide, and how parents and schools can work together to limit exposure to violence in media.

Education World: In your book, you often mention how children's play is greatly influenced by the violence and sex the kids see on TV, in video games, and at the movies. Do you think the parents of your students were not aware of the extent of the influence of the media on their children's play and behavior?

Jane Katch: Parents I have talked with may be aware of the media's influence but often feel overwhelmed by the prospect of limiting their children's exposure to it. Cable television makes it hard to control access to a wide range of programming. Advertisements make current movies look exciting and desirable. Kids complain that "everybody else's parents let them see it," and it sometimes seems as though that must be true. When I explained to parents the impact the media were having on this particular group, and I let them know that we would all work on this problem together, the problem seemed more manageable. Knowing that their child would not see the banned program or movie at a friend's house and that the other children weren't going to see it either made it possible for the parents to say no in a consistent way.

EW: In particular, what was the origin of the students' suicide game?

Katch: Looking back on it, I find it interesting that I never asked the children where the suicide game came from. At that point, I did not want to know about it; I only wanted to stop it. My curiosity about their play grew as I became interested in understanding it, rather than simply trying to avoid the issues.

EW: Those of us who grew up watching Howdy Doody and the Mickey Mouse Club, westerns and Zoro, played "bang-bang, you're dead" games. What is the difference between our pretend play and the pretend play students have today?

Katch: In the violent programs I remember from my childhood, the good guys always won, only bad people died, and they did so with little blood and no guts. I think two of the major differences today are the dramatic increase in violent, gory, even gruesome deaths and the moral confusion created when good people are not always victorious. A few years ago, for instance, a popular program acted out in my class involved police as the foolish, dumb guys who often lost the battle to the clever crooks. This would have been unthinkable in the 1950s. Of course, children had fewer television programs to watch, spent far fewer hours front of the TV, and spent more time learning how to invent and play out their own fantasies.

EW: When did you notice your students were playing more violently and describing more graphic violence? Has it been increasing over the past 20 years? Or is it sporadic and dependent upon the personalities of your individual students?

Katch: I think the gradual increase in media violence in our culture intersected with the particular personalities of the students and the dynamics of this group. A small group of children who have an intense interest in a subject can become fascinating to a larger group of children, who then want to know what it's all about. Not every group is like that, but I have talked with many other teachers who are seeing a similar phenomenon.

EW: In your book, you state that you are a big proponent of allowing your students to set the rules of play under certain restrictions, which you mention. Can you offer some specific tips for other teachers on how you guide the students with setting their rules for recess, rules that will limit the amount of violence and even profanity?

Katch: First, I believe it is helpful for a teacher or a parent to set rules for physical and emotional safety as clearly as possible. "No touching when you pretend to fight!" is a clear guideline. "Don't make your brother cry when I am trying to make dinner!" is unpredictable, depending on the moods of the brother and the parent at the time. These rules will vary between school and home, but if they are consistent in each place, the children will adjust to them.

After the adult has clarified the rules that will provide physical and emotional safety, the rules of problematic games can be negotiated. Each child can listen to the other children's point of view. In my class, I call it "collecting ideas," and I encourage the children to brainstorm as many suggestions as possible without arguing about each one. During this process, we often reach consensus. I prefer this to a vote because in a consensual decision, each child's voice must be listened to. If one child is disturbed or frightened by a game, everyone must find a new solution.

If the children cannot agree, I may suggest that they do not play that game until we can find a solution, and we come back to the problem at another time. This is time-consuming at first, but as the children learn to listen to one another and to negotiate compromises, they become increasingly independent in the process. They begin to come in from recess telling me the solutions they figured out, and eventually they don't even need to tell me about them.

EW: What do you think is the role of schools and teachers in regard to violence in the media?

Katch: I believe educators can have an important influence in educating parents about issues in child development. For example, I found that young children often have difficulty separating fantasy from reality when they are playing and can temporarily believe they are the character they are pretending to be. This makes it particularly important to limit their exposure to disturbing television or movies. In addition, a teacher who has had years of experience seeing many children and many groups at play can play an important role in informing parents when issues are coming up in the classroom that seem unusual or worrisome.

EW: You address children excluding other children, which can't be blamed on the media, but you mention how the consequences of that are very hurtful and tied to violence. What is your advice to teachers about how to prevent exclusion and how to make teachers more aware of it?

Katch: I found that exclusion is an issue that is very painful to look at, making it easy to overlook. Bringing the issue up for discussion when we see it is one way to begin to deal with the problem. In my class, I adopted the rule "You can't say you can't play" from Vivian Paley's book by the same name. Prohibiting exclusion does not stop it, but it gives the excluded child the right to complain and to expect change. Discussions that come out of this assumption can be very helpful to the children excluded as well as to those who exclude.

EW: In the epilogue in your book, you state, "I'll keep my eyes open, waiting to see what will frighten me next." What has frightened you since you wrote the book?

Katch: This year, [2001] I am teaching children who are a year younger than those I wrote about in the book. I quickly realized that as soon as they were old enough to realize that that there is a group they would like to belong to, they begin to exclude other children. I heard 5-year-olds tell a 4-year-old, "We don't like you!" and saw that same 4-year-old tell a friend the next week, "I don't really like 4-year-olds!" These incidents are so painful, I would like to look the other way, but I know there is much for us to learn here about exclusion. Why do these young children want so quickly to keep others out of the group? Is there anything I can do to help them be more inclusive? These are the questions I am looking at right now.