Lunch breaks spent playing “baddies vs goodies” with toy guns may well be over for many young children, as most nurseries are now banning pretend weapons.
The publication of a new survey, which found a majority of schools had prohibited the use of replica weapons, prompted critics to warn the new rules are "controlling children's imaginative play".
Around four in five (79 per cent) of those questioned said toy weapons were not allowed in their nursery, while about a fifth (21 per cent) said they were permitted.
The ban arises from a fear that toy guns and swords can encourage aggression and violence, according to Sue Learner, editor of daynurseries.co.uk, which published the poll.
"It is interesting that this is such a contentious issue,” Ms Learner said. “There is this fear toy guns and swords encourage aggression and violence and create a noisy, chaotic atmosphere.
"I realise many nurseries are under pressure from parents due to these perceptions. Yet if we ban toy weapons, we are controlling children's imaginative play.
"Playing cops and robbers or baddies vs goodies are physical games involving running, crouching and hiding.
"We should be encouraging open-ended physical play, not limiting it and shutting it down.
"I have three sons who all played with toy guns and swords and they haven't turned into aggressive, gun-toting teenagers.
"In a society where obesity is on the increase we need to engage with children and offer them toys which stimulate energetic role play."
Greg Lane, manager of the Soho Family Centre, part of the London Early Years Foundation, said he had worked for other nurseries that had been very strict about banning toy weapons, but that he did not think this was realistic.
"I think you have to broaden it out,” Mr Lane said. “It's very connected to role play and superhero play has quite a moral edge with children, it's very popular. For example, if they're coming in and they have a lightsaber, is that a bad thing?
"Because it is technically a weapon after all. But I wouldn't ban that because there is kind of a moral purpose behind it and if you manage it appropriately and talk to the children about what they're doing - if they're rescuing somebody, if they're protecting somebody - it's part of their play. It's very subtle but it's quite profound."
David Wright, co-owner of the Paintpots nursery group based in Southampton, said he takes a considered approach to the issue.
"I think we have to make that distinction between children's imagination and what goes on in the real world," Mr Wright said.
"I'm not banning those kinds of activities, what we don't do is actively encourage children to bring guns in."
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