Daniel Beairsto, 12, willingly rid himself of his plastic-gun collection this spring. Artists have transformed it and many other B.C. students' “war toys” into a peace exhibit at the Museum of Anthropology as part of the World Peace Forum. But he's holding onto his toy soldiers.
“I don't think of them as violent,” Beairsto told the Georgia Straight during the 500-child paper-dove peace procession behind MOA on June 20. “I don't think I'll be more violent just because I play with toy soldiers. And they have good memories for me.”
The idea for the toy transformation came from Port Moody teacher Susan Ruzic; she, along with the British Columbia Teachers' Federation, started a four-year project, leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, to encourage kids to give up their war toys. The peace educator was chilled by what landed in her school. “Kids are playing with really scary stuff,” she told the Straight. “Real-looking machine guns, tanks, war video games…it's pretty gross.” Ruzic, whose parents banned war toys in their house when she and her brother were children, believes that children will be less violent in the absence of war toys.
The MOA exhibit features two giant peace doves made out of the surrendered toys, which were spray-painted white. Children from warring Uganda sent drawings of peace. Students from Kitsilano secondary school addressed media violence in their work, which includes a reworked package for the video game Mortal Kombat. “Major Combat—now with minors” is their game. Also, they built a bombed-out dollhouse, and the residents are toy soldiers.
Beairsto acknowledges that pretend tanks and guns can lead some kids to violence. On the other hand, he likes his soldiers. He isn't alone in his conflicting views of the project. Peace activist and mother Stacy Chappel told the Straight she loves the MOA exhibit. Before her son was born, she and her husband decided to disallow war toys at home, only to discover that Felix, now six, happily creates guns from anything.
“I really struggled, because kids sort out the adult world through play,” she said, noting that she believes in listening to her child and supporting his self-expression. “We discuss everything [he plays with, including knight and dragon figurines]…. Because we're talking about it so much, he's made a very clear separation between fantasy and reality.” She describes the negotiation around toys as “an ongoing battle”.
Even Steve Kisby, an organizer with Artists Against War, isn't completely anti–war toy. Each fall, though, leading up to Christmas, he campaigns against violent toys in stores. He noted that some war-simulating video games are endorsed by the U.S. military. The military, Kisby said, wouldn't bother unless the games had an impact on kids.
“They train them to make it okay to kill,” he told the Straight. “That doesn't make for a very healthy society.”
Kisby, like Chappel, thinks that the toys should be a starting point for talking about war, not banned outright.
Artist Bill Thomson, who admits to playing war as a child at his East Vancouver home, said war toys can be a powerful tool to transform a culture's vision of war and peace. You can't isolate children, he said. And kids are bombarded with aggressive, violent images of conflict on TV, in video games, and elsewhere.
He told the Straight that you can treat those images as both objects without meaning and cultural artifacts. “Through art,” he said, “they can be explored. You can neutralize the aggression.”
MOA curator Jill Baird, too, said she is less concerned with young children's war play and more concerned with explicit media aimed at teenagers.
The exhibit, created by artists and students from Canada and Uganda, is on display at the museum until December.