Might Childhood Play Help Prevent School Shootings?


by Dr. Marcy Guddemi

Marcy Priess Guddemi, PHD, MBA, a national consultant, is an expert on preschool children’s play.  She is the former executive director of the Gesell Institute of Child Development on the Yale campus.  She is a member of the International Play Association:  Promoting the Child’s Right to Play and IPA/USA holding numerous board positions both nationally and internationally over the years.

On March 2, 2018, I was driving home from a conference on childhood play in Melbourne, FL, when it occurred to me that play-based early childhood education might help prevent school shootings like the one in Parkland.   No amount of fencing, locked doors, locked rooms, metal detectors, armed guards, and heaven-forbid armed teachers can stop a mentally-ill person from finding a way to accomplish a mass shooting if that is the person’s proclivity.  However, our country could do more to prevent serious mental illness by providing children birth to age five with a positive setting where social and emotional skills can be built through play.

Pioneer play researcher Stuart Brown, MD, psychiatrist and founder of the National Institute for Play has found a serious lack of childhood play in murderers.  Play was absent in the life Charles Whitman, the University of Texas mass shooter.  Whitman was never able to release his emotions and learn the give-and-take of play with other children.

The research of economist James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winner at the University of Chicago, shows that for every dollar invested in quality preK programs, $13 is returned to society through less grade retention, less juvenile delinquency, higher high school graduation, better jobs, and less crime and less incarceration.  And play is a key component in quality preschool.

Universal, quality preK for all can happen.  Some cities (e.g., Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia) and states (e.g., Georgia, Florida, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Illinois) and even other countries (e.g., Sweden, UK, Japan) have been doing it for years.  The struggle though is quality!  Lack of quality results in lack of long-term benefits for the child and thus society.

​I have been a strong advocate for the benefits of childhood play for nearly all of my four decades plus adult life.  I have researched play and written about play and given professional workshops/seminars about play and spoken out about play. Play is an importance part of healthy growth and development of children.  There is so much scientific research to back this up.  Longitudinal studies (Abecedarian, Chicago Parent Child Centers, and the Perry Preschool Project) show significant long-term benefits for children who attend preschool, including improved health, social and behavioral outcomes, and well as higher income than the control group.  The latest study, on these children almost 50 years later, is that they still are showing benefits—higher income, married to the same person longer, lower blood pressure, and less obesity.

Quality in early childhood programs has many components but the two most important, in my opinion, are well trained teachers who understand, embrace, and employ the meaning of play in their work, and also a play-based curriculum where there is ample time to learn through play.  In addition to play-based activities, materials, and toys, there needs to be plenty of unstructured play time where children can choose what they want to play.  This type of unstructured, non-teacher directed play is where children learn to plan, to negotiate, to play fair, to take turns, to use language to solve a problem, to simply solve problems and much more.  This type of play needs to happen in the classroom and outside on the playground, too.

Parents can encourage this type of free play at home.  Adults can take on a role and play with the child; e.g., you are the customer and the child is the waiter.  It is interesting that nearly all the mass school shooters are male.  As an observation, some fathers don’t encourage their sons to play because they might think pretend play is “sissy play.”  If only all parents knew the basics of child development then we wouldn’t have that problem either.

Can making sure all children have a wonderful birth to age 5-years-experience, full of meaningful play opportunities, based on research, help eliminate school shootings?  You bet’cha.