(The first part of this entry is a re-worked post from my old yahoo group... I then went on to discuss gun play....)
I think the key to a lot of the questions around sword play is "can my child rise up to something within himself to play safely with this sword?"I think one should make a big deal of presenting a beautiful sword to a child - other families create little ceremonies. The point is that the child knows and understands that this is a special thing - to be used wisely.
But if the child is too young or if he's a forgetful child who loses himself in the heat of passionate play, then I think one should wait. Let him know that "one day, when he's ready" he will get his sword. Give him something to work on in his inner being, something to aspire to. Let him know that once he has that sword, it means he is trusted and that he, out of his own inner resources, is able to act responsibly. Few children are ready for this until after about 6 or 7 years of age. Before that, I would let them make swords as they want to - but have strong, clear and firm rules about what is ok and what is not. Sticks will be taken away if necessary - no "swords" in the house, none when younger children are present, no running - and if he can heed these rules then you will know that he is moving toward the ability to be responsible for a proper wooden sword.
I wouldn't suggest discussing this rationally with such a little one, though. But through story and anecdote, you can let him know that once upon a time it was a very special thing when a knight got his sword. Only the King could give it to him. He had to perform many tasks and work very hard before he was deserving of his sword, before the king could trust him to be a guardian of the kingdom..... Give it life, breath imagination into it - your boy will be rapt! And repeat at frequent intervals.
Aa youth worker of over 20 years experience, as a mother of boys and hostess of frequent "boy weekends" at our farm (which included unsupervised use of fire, knives, walking on a frozen lake, being in a barn around horses etc etc) I know that children have the capacity to play safely with swords and to use tools such as knives safely. But not when they are tiny. It is not fair to expect a little person - who is meant to be at one with the world, not an inward looking being conscious of his actions in the world - to take responsibility before his time.
A whole other kettle of fish is the use of guns, both in play and for more serious pursuits. When my boys were little, there was no gun play. Then came water guns and who can say no to that? So they were allowed - but with rules. The main rule was "no shooting at people who are not playing." This became the main rule for all gun play - because soon we decided to let them play with guns. I have never been particularly keen on gun play. I much prefer swords because the players have to engage one another much more closely and cooperate and negotiate to make the play work. There is a lot of skill involved and one can really appeal to the "knights' code" and such to help the boys be uplifted in their play. With guns, there is none of this. Indeed, the whole scene around gun play can be really awful - noisy, undignified, thuggish and unpleasant.
But... there appears to be something in boys - not all, but most - that not just desires such play but needs it. I have worked for too long with children, children from a wide variety of racial, ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds, Waldorf children and not Waldorf children, to not recognize this very deep need.
So I think it is something that parents need to honor. I think rules need to be established and adhered to - we had a "no guns in the house" rule (they were kept in the garage or barn and could not be played with indoors). I also think swords should be emphasized over guns because of what I said above - but really, little ones under about 6 or 7 cannot be expected to understand and keep any sword etiquette rules. So that might mean guns for a while if older siblings or neighborhood boys have gotten them into guns. But it is not too late to set clear rules (which you will have to be the guardian of) and to also present them with their swords when they are older.
One thing I certainly saw with my sons was that the care that they took with their swords did seem to have a knock-on effect with how they treated their guns. I don't mean they cared for the guns themselves - but I did feel that far more of their gun play was actually elaborate planning and negotiating and making strategies with their friends than I have seen in other boys.
As they reached their teens, one son remains interested in guns and likes to shoot targets. The other is into archery and has no interest in guns. One of their similarly-raised friends at 18 is a pacifist with no interest in guns. And the fourth of this little group of previously gun-mad boys does occasionally go hunting with his father (he does live in rural Wisconsin!) but is otherwise the gentlest, most caring young man one would ever want to meet.
So does early "violent" play beget violent young men? I would emphatically say "NO." Not in my family, not in my experience with friends, not in my experience with youth and children I have worked with. Real play helps children find their orientation to the world and to make sense of it. It does not lead to violence.