When Students Simulate Violence in Their Art

By Liana Loewus — June 13, 2014 3 min read
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Is it OK for young students to portray violence in their art?

Elementary art teacher and PhD candidate at the University of Arizona, Shana Cinquemani, addresses that provocative question in a recent piece in Art Education, the journal of the National Art Education Association.

She describes doing a portrait photography unit with K-5 students, for which she gave them digital cameras. Many of the photos they produced showed them engaging in “perceived violence and rough-and-tumble play"—pretending to hit, kick, push, and choke each other. One student positioned a rock above another’s head. Another pretended to stab his friend with a pencil.

“Photography comes with the ability to create stop-action, and it clear that these groups of children were interested in doing just that,” she wrote. “They appreciated this feature of the camera, and enjoyed the way in which their staged actions could look real, rather than fake.”

At one point, Cinquemani stood on the playground as they were making videos and watched them play-act wrestling matches and gun fights. “There was no anger or aggression behind these images,” she explains. The students were “using the cameras as a part of their natural play with their friends.”

But the question remains: Should she have stepped in and stopped behavior that’s generally considered school-inappropriate? Or was it best to give them the freedom to explore and play in their artmaking (of course with an eye toward their safety)?

Student Disengagement

As is probably no surprise, mostly boys were involved in creating the violent images in Cinquemani’s class.

In her 2008 book The Trouble With Boys, Peg Tyre wrote that teachers should allow boys to express themselves by engaging in the activities they enjoy, even if they mimic violence. In an interview I did with her that year, she argued that suppressing these inclinations can make boys feel disassociated from school. She said:

You can forbid play guns and fantasy violence in your house and your sons will end up shooting each other with celery sticks at lunch. Teachers, though, have a challenge. How do they maintain an appropriate learning environment without alienating little boys? What I’ve seen is that, too often, “directing their energy” looks like being intolerant of what little boys are really like. When we tell boys to “turn that play sword into a wand,” I suggest that, although we have good intentions, what we are teaching boys is that who they really are is unacceptable in the school environment. Boys start to express the opinion that school is “girly” and doing well, or getting the teachers’ approval, is only for girls.

Cinquemani agrees that tolerating play fighting can build trust between teachers and students. However, she points out that this is not limited to boys: A few girls photographed staged fights in her class as well. Allowing them the space to do so allowed them to cross typical social boundaries, which she suggests gives them both “pleasure and an element of control.”

In a 2010 book called Recess Battles: Playing, Fighting, and Storytelling, Anna R. Beresin argued that misconceptions about violence at recess can narrow the range of children’s play, which has critical developmental purpose.

Violence in Context

These issues are particularly thorny in light of the recent spate of school violence. Everytown, a gun-safety advocacy group created after the shooting that killed 20 1st graders in Newtown, Conn., reports that there have been 74 school shootings in the United States since that event in December 2012.

This is not to say, by any means, that play-acted violence leads to real violence or that the two are otherwise cause-related. It is to say that there may be more sensitivity around the allowance of violent images in schools now than there has been years past.

For Cinquemani, the decision to allow play-violence to go on—with safety in mind and amid plenty of classroom discussion—was about validating students’ artistic choices and recognizing them as individuals.

“It is my belief that as art educators we should provide a safe space for students to engage in activities that challenge our preconceived views that childhood should be an idealized state of innocence,” she wrote. “I’m not arguing for simple acceptance of these kinds of artworks and behaviors. I am urging for a recognition of the value of offering children the chance to explore and make sense of those things that are both intriguing and scary for them.”

As always, would be great to get a discussion going below in the comments.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.