The act of playing, whether it is amongst a makeshift cubby of sheets hung over a clothes line or hiding up against provisional blockades of wheelie bins, displays the sophisticated forward and lateral thinking of children who constantly recreate and mimic their wider cultural environments. It is often through television an cinema that children first come into contact with narratives of right and wrong. Often superheroes, police or soldiers, who are powerful and strong characters in control of their situations, become models for a child's burgeoning imagination and their attempts to act more like adults. As they grow, the simple duality represented by superheroes and villains, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, usually gives way to a more complex and nuanced interpretation.

There is a comforting familiarity to Prudence Murphy's recent photographic series Boys With Guns, as she captures chance moments of children at play. The main component of this series, shot in Rhyl, a seaside town in North Wales, closely follows the adventures of three boys aged ten to thirteen as they make their way through the town, shooting and hiding from each other in an imagined turf war. Also featured in this body of work are images of younger children in an Australian setting, likewise participating in creative interpretations of war or battle. Murphy's work regularly features and places significance upon the overlooked details of our everyday life – there is a renewed emphasis on considering the domestic, the familiar and the private. In Boys With Guns like her previous series Future Forms (2010) Murphy shifts this attention ever so slightly and places it within a childhood context, elevating the commonplace actions and episodes of the young.

Children playing with toy weapons of any kind can create polarised responses in parents, sometimes producing concern within the community. Some parents choose to forbid their children from playing with guns as they see it as a representation of (and possible precursor to) violence. Others may consider this an overly politically correct response to something that comes quite naturally. Playing with weapons, or role-play in all its different manifestations, is something children (whether it is sanctioned or not) do naturally and is perhaps most iconically captured by Diane Arbus in Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C (1962). Getting into character and being immersed in imaginary worlds and scenarios is a ritual of human existence and something that will always occur. Role-play, and play in general, is a basic and fundamental element of growing up and how children learn to interact with others and the world around them.

For both the British and Australian images, Murphy set up the initial conditions then followed her subjects over lengthy periods, shadowing them through their respective landscapes, and watching their play unfold. The outcome (especially in the Rhyl images) is a narrative-based photographic sequence that beautifully documents an intriguing stage in the development of imagination and identity. Perhaps this is why the images adopt a voyeuristic tone – the viewer left very much outside the game as the portrayed urban exterior belies the strong, private and intimate nature of the scenes.

The innocent and humorous images of the younger children in the Australian images compare strikingly to the disquieting and ambiguous photographs of the older boys within their cityscape narrative. In Quarry #1, the young boys amusingly stand over and observe their empire from above. It is obvious that they are playing, kicking about, pretending and exploring – the difference between reality and play is simple and obvious. In a similar fashion to the affectionate portraits by Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra, Murphy's images of the older boys capture and focus in on the vulnerable yet inevitable time in life when the innocence of childhood visibly and spiritually grows into experience. However, whilst Dijkstra's photographs act as visual metaphors for lost innocence, Murphy's subjects still linger within their childhood fantasy.

The learning and development that is taking place at this stage of life cannot be underestimated. It is not just the associations that we make with the world around us and the situations that are presented to us, but the initiative to take these situations from the real world, pull them into our heads, divide them into parts and then start turning those parts into stories, narratives and abstractions that make us who we are. Our brains have the ability to place these situations together in counter intuitive ways to create outlandish scenarios of warlike battles within quiet neighbourhoods – role-play is the perfect way to exercise our most important muscle.

It would be a privilege as adults to spend hours on end delving into our physical surroundings as children do, and so there is a hint of nostalgia when studying Murphy's images – wistful for a time when everything was new and exciting. As the children explore their encircling terrain, so do we explore their world through these images – returning and remembering our own private games and scenarios. Boys With Guns captures the considerable potential for children and their play, expressed through their affinity for the spontaneous and surprising – for chance, change and simply turning things upside down. Murphy uniquely captures the innocent desire and vision of the children's game, realising that the imagination of children today is a staging ground for escape, action and the formation of self tomorrow – that these mere games are possibly the intrinsic building blocks to adulthood. For an adult audience Murphy's photographs are a reintroduction to an old friend, a world long passed by and forgotten but nevertheless heartening and familiar.

Kelly Fliedner, 2011

Kelly Fliedner is a writer and the Program Coordinator of West Space, Melbourne.