THE advice may go against the instinct of almost every parent, but new guidance says young boys should be encouraged to play with toy guns.
According to recommendations from the UK government, playing with pretend weapons at an early age may encourage an enthusiasm for learning.
In the new guidelines, nursery staff are told to resist their "natural instinct" to stop boys playing with weapons. But some teachers have criticised the advice for nurseries in England and Wales, warning that toy guns "symbolise aggression" and adding that the advice amounted to gender stereotyping.
The guidance – Confident, Capable and Creative: Supporting Boys' Achievements – was issued by the Department for Children, Schools and Families. It says: "Sometimes, practitioners find the chosen play of boys more difficult to understand and value than that of girls.
"They may choose activities in which adults involve themselves least, or play that involves more action and a greater use of the available space, especially outdoors.
"Images and ideas gleaned from the media are common starting points in boys' play and may involve characters with special powers or weapons. Adults can find this type of play particularly challenging and have a natural instinct to stop it.
"This is not necessary, as long as practitioners help the boys to understand and respect the rights of other children and to take responsibility for the resources and environment.
"Creating situations so that boys' interests in these forms of play can be fostered through healthy and safe risk-taking will enhance every aspect of their learning and development."
Boys fall behind girls in educational development at an early age, a pattern that continues throughout their later years at school. The guidelines aim to help boys improve by "creating the right conditions for boys' learning" before they start formal primary education.
Making use of boys' interests can help them to become more engaged in their education, the document suggested.
But the National Union of Teachers in England yesterday criticised the advice on toy guns. Steve Sinnott, the NUT general secretary, said: "The real problem with weapons is that they symbolise aggression.
"We do need to ensure, whether the playing is rumbustious or not, that there is a respect for your peers, however young they are.
"The reason why teachers often intervene when kids have toy guns is that the boy is usually being very aggressive."
Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teachers' union, warned that nurseries who followed the advice risked incurring the anger of parents.
She said: "Many parents take the decision that their children won't have toy weapons.
"In addition to that, I think this is a clear example of gender stereotyping. I do not think schools should be encouraging boys to play with toy weapons."
Martin Johnson, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said: "In Scotland, sentiment about this may be much more delicate because of Dunblane.
"But we all know, whatever our views, children will play guns and we have to allow children to grow-up and they learn to grow up through play."
Scottish teachers took a neutral stance on the issue.
Ronnie Smith, the general secretary of Scotland's biggest teaching union, the EIS, said there had been no calls for such guidance north of the Border.
He said: "It is not an issue here and it would be a difficult area to give guidance on. Different people would have different takes on it, depending on circumstances."
Beverley Hughes, the Westminster children's minister, defended the advice as taking a common-sense approach to the fact that boys like boisterous, physical activity, such as pretending to be superheroes or playing at "Star Wars characters with their light-sabres".
She added: "Although noisy for adults, such imaginary games are good for their development, as well as good fun.
"The guidance also impresses upon staff the need to teach children that they must respect one another and that harming another person in the real world is not acceptable."
A Scottish Government spokesman said there were currently no plans to create guidance on toy guns in Scotland.
He said: "It is something that would be at the discretion of the individual provider."
Is it a good idea to let your child have shoot-outs with pretend weapons?
SUE PALMER CHILD DEVELOPMENT EXPERT
THIS is a reasonable approach. Little boys' play is very different from little girls' play. Boys have a natural aggressive impulse and this sort of play helps them deal with this.
We are trying to control children much more than we ever have.
They are being watched and controlled and bossed around by grown-ups to a remarkable extent these days.
Play is one of the ways children learn to get along with each other, and one of the ways little boys have always done this is through play-fight. It seems likely it is one of the ways boys become socialised.
If you look to lion cubs they do the same. They learn a lot about their place in the pack, how to get along with others and how to collaborate through this play.
Because nursery staff tend to be female they recoil from the 'bang, bang, you're dead', type of play, but this is interfering with a natural socialising process.
Really experienced nursery teachers will tell you that the behaviour of boys and girls is hugely different.
Little boys have been playing cops and robbers since time immemorial and haven't grown up to shoot people.
It is just play and it allows them to get a lot of stuff out of their system.
If they are stopped from playing, it might affect the natural course of their development.
KATHLEEN MARSHALL CHILDREN'S COMMISSIONER
I TAKE my cue from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 29 sets out the aims of education, which include: "The preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin."
There must be serious concern about any encouragement of guns as a plaything for young children.
Who are they being encouraged to shoot? "Red Indians" (persons of indigenous origin)? Islamic terrorists (implications for their views of our own Islamic communities)? Or fleeing women (as in some video games)?
I acknowledge some children tend towards violent games.
I do not know whether this is due to nature or nurture. The long tradition of violent fairy tales that have terrified and delighted children for centuries could be evidence of either.
Whatever the source of that impetus, we have to decide how to respond – whether to repress it, divert it or encourage it.
It seems strange that we rail against child soldiers in other countries, and yet would encourage our own little ones to bear weapons in play.
Some child play may be violent, but we should not encourage violence as child play.