The project

Whilst children’s war play is a topic of longstanding interest, discussion and debate by educators, parents and the media has varied in intensity in relation to localised events of violence, specific periods of military engagement and publication of high profile parenting texts. Despite this attention, cultural commentaries are lacking as they are often based on limited evidence. Studies have focused on the immediate effects of war play and classroom-based approaches, with a narrow focus on toy guns and inadequate distinctions made between play fighting and real aggression. Crucially, war play has also been examined in isolation from the wider geopolitical climates and cultures of militarism in which it is situated and through which it is shaped.

This project takes a more holistic, child-centred approach, and examines children’s play with military action figures. The aim is not to judge whether this kind of war play is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but to better understand how children make sense of the activities and roles that the Armed Forces are involved in (including, but not restricted to contemporary war and conflict) through their play. This will provide an evidence base that educators, parents and public institutions can use to make informed decisions about war play.

Our project has both a historical and contemporary element. Firstly, we are tracing the historical trajectory of the British action figure, from Tommy Gunn and the Palitoy Action Man in the 1960s through to contemporary toy ranges such as HM Armed Forces and World Peacekeepers. Secondly, we are working with the V&A Museum of Childhood to examine how children and adults make sense of war toys through a family-oriented exhibition. Thirdly, we are undertaking play-based research with children in the family home to understand the different kinds of activities and narratives they develop using military action figures.

Intellectually, the project is informed by the team’s previous research on the circulation of geopolitical power through popular culture, children’s social agency as consumers, and play as a fundamental element of being human.

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