AFTER years under lock and key, the toy gun has made a comeback in the nursery and, according to research, is enhancing little boys' creativity.
Fears that weapons and war games encouraged violence and aggression in boys have meant vigorously enforced zero tolerance towards certain kinds of play.
But many nursery and playgroup workers found that the policy was not working. Weapons were still being made and children were still pretending to be superheroes, ready with a line when challenged - "It's not like real gun, it's an aeroplanehosepipethingy."
Penny Holland, lecturer in early childhood studies at the University of North London, said: "We had got to the point where we felt that all we were doing was teaching a small group of young males to lie creatively."
Her research at Konstam Nursery, Camden, where the ban was lifted, produced results that surprised everyone. Rather than a gun-toting free-for-all, she found that sanctioning weapons and war games, within a controlled environment, provided an imaginative doorway through which boys' play was enriched.
Once the ban was lifted the level of aggression in the nursery actually dropped and interest in weapons, war and super-hero play subsided, leading to a more positive and relaxed environment.
She said: "It feels to us that having given these boys permission to pursue their initial interests, the world of the imagination has become their oyster and they are diving for pearls."
And it's not jst the boys who benefited from the experience. According to Ms Holland, once girls realised that this kind of behaviour was acceptable, many more felt able to participate.
The link between toy weapons and later violence is debatable. A study in 1992 claimed to establish a connection with the amount of gun-play and aggression in the classroom, but parental attitude to violence and use of it as a punishment was the strongest indicator of child aggression.
Research by the University of Georgia last year also found parental attitudes and levels of aggression in the home were the most important factors in shaping a child's future behaviour.
For many practitioners and parents, there is still a high level of anxiety about permitting war games and weapons. Toy shop weapon bans introduced, by companies such as The Early Learning Centre and Hamleys in the wake of Hungerford and Dunblane are still in place and even Action Man, the architypal military hero, has decommissioned his hardware.
There is also evidence that female staff have discouraged boys from what is perceived as noisy and disruptive play because they feel alienated from it and at a loss as to how to manage or interact with it.
Ms Holland said: "I was a zero tolerance enthusiast but I've totally flipped over in my perspective, and many practitioners are following suit.
"At least three nurseries have lifted the ban and several more are on the verge."
Ms Holland is planning further research on the issue and can be contacted by email on firstname.lastname@example.org