Allowing young boys to play with toy guns and take part in superhero games can be good for their development, new research has found.

A zero-tolerance approach to replica guns and other toy weapons is active in a large number of nurseries across Scotland and superhero-style play, where children imitate their favourite film characters, is also unpopular among staff as it can lead to fighting and aggression.

But Cath Livingstone, a nursery teacher at Abernethy Primary School in Perth and Kinross, found that the "ban" drove the pretend weapons underground, rather than halt interest in them altogether, and children became deceitful and broke nursery rules in order to play their favourite games.

She said that the ban went against Scottish Government guidance on engaging children with activities which respond to their needs and interests.

A relaxation of the ban on toy guns at her nursery, plus the introduction of some strict rules surrounding their use, allowed boys to become more considerate to others and more open with adults, her experiment found.

Ms Livingstone, who reported her findings to the Learning and Teaching Scotland organisation, said: "No matter what was said, guns just went underground and the shooting and martial arts quietly continued when some of our boys believed they were away from adult supervision.

"By playing banned' games, they were breaking the rules and appeared to feel they needed to be deceitful in order to pursue and activity to which they felt drawn."

Ms Livingstone put in place a number of rules to govern gun play. Children could pretend to shoot each other, but must not make physical contact in the process. The games must not involve other pupils who are not directly involved in the activity.

Ms Livingstone said: "Superhero play often leads to fighting but our rules helped all those involved come to a satisfactory agreement that we would pretend' but not touch, and that gun play would only involve the children who were playing the game."

She said that observation, challenging sterotypes and becoming involved in the games had led her pupils to become enthusiastic about their activities and, in some cases, more interested in general nursery life. Ms Livingstone said that aggression had not been an issue.

The findings come after research carried out by Penny Holland, academic leader for early childhood studies at London Metropolitan University, who found that boys who have been banned from playing soldiers and pirate games can become frustrated, both in and out of the classroom.

Ms Holland, author of We Don't Play Guns Here, said: "If children are constantly being told no, we don't play with guns here', they absorb the sense that they're bad. They may seek negative attention and in the end the whole thing becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.

"A ban won't stop them playing violent games. When the guns and swords are taken away they simply do what children have always done - make weapons out of twigs and Sticklebricks."

Guidance released last year by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, recommended that staff should resist their "natural instinct" to stop boys using pretend weapons in games and that safe risk taking enhanced "every aspect" of learning and development. A spokesman for the Scottish Government said there was no overall guidance on the use of toy weapons and that it was a matter for "individual practitioners".

While there may be some change in attitude towards toy weapons, many nursery managers stand by their zero tolerance stance on the issue.

Ellen Donald, manager of Rockmount Nurseries in Dowanhill, Glasgow, said that sport was being used to divert children away from toy fighting and superhero games.

"We divert their attention away from this type of fighting and role play which they see on TV, on programmes like Batman and Superman, and provide them with a lot of curriculum activities which include running, jumping, tumbling. Children just want to run and roll about. They just need to play and vent all their energy."

Mrs Donald also added that the use of weapons may not be appropriate for a nursery with a strong multicultural mix.

She added: "If a nursery has a lot of asylum seekers, people who are running from violence, do you want to introduce toy guns to their children?

"What works in one nursery may not work in another."