There are many Early Childhood programs that outright ban superhero play. It’s just too risky, noisy, and difficult to control. End of conversation.
But, should it really be the end of the conversation? Are there elements of superhero play that are truly valuable and therefore need to be included as part of the preschool experience?
Research indicates that play is a significant vehicle for development. It is through play that children experiment with behaviors and roles, explore differences between right and wrong, and use their creativity. Play also provides opportunities for physical activity and learning more complex skills like conflict resolution and controlling impulses.
From my own experience as a teacher (and a parent of three boys), some children have a clear need to play superheroes. I believe this type of rough and tumble play can support a child’s healthy development in several domains. It involves running, chasing, playful wrestling, planning, creating, and trying out leadership skills. Usually, there is also a good deal of negotiating between children taking place.
Superheroes are powerful, able to overcome adversaries and obstacles, and capable of impressive deeds. These characters are super appealing, then, to preschoolers who are functioning within the restrictive parameters and close guidance of adults. Children can feel powerless, small, and even fearful- pretty much the opposite of superheroes. No wonder there is such a fascination and desire to imitate them!
But, those on the other side of the fence argue that superhero play can lead to actual violence later on. Actually, researchers have learned that just the opposite is happening. When young children experience healthy, rough and tumble play, they tend to have stronger abilities to deal with and resolve conflicts as teens and adults. Engaging in this type pf pretend play provides them with the practice and experiences needed for handling real adversity and aggression they may encounter later.
To be fair, I must also recognize what is also true… some children can cross the line from rough and tumble play to aggression. First, it’s important to know the difference. Physical play can include rolling around, yelling and loud voices, and hitting without hurting. Aggression, on the other hand, includes threats, attempts to dominate, or actual hitting and fighting. Of course, adults should step in when children begin to exhibit real fear or anger. But, when rough and tumble play is confused with aggression, both are usually terminated and children lose out on the benefits of healthy, physical play.
Because young children aren’t really capable of distinguishing between fantasy and real people, adults need to talk and read stories about what traits make “good guys” good. There are quite a few good children’s books about everyday heroes that can help children sort things out. These are a few of my favorites:
“Do Superheroes Have Teddy Bears?” Carmela Coyle
“Ten Rules of Being a Superhero” Deb Pulutti
“The Day I Lost My Superhero Powers” Michael Escoffier
“What is a Superhero?” T.M. Crump
“My Dad is a Superhero” Auntie Ant
A discussion of “bad guys” is also in order. In simple terms, young children can understand that these people have made bad choices that have bad consequences, but that most people are good.
Teachers play a key role in all of this. They are responsible for setting up a safe environment, providing appropriate props for play, setting limits, and providing supervision that involves awareness but isn’t intrusive. Teachers need to be tuned in to what’s happening and the climate of the interaction.
As children learn through trial and error to control their impulses and aggression and to resolve conflicts, they may, at times, cross over from play to aggression. It’s important they know the rules and what the consequences are for breaking them. When superhero play begins to move in a wrong direction, teachers can make suggestions for turning it back on a more positive track. If a child persists in overt aggressive behavior, teachers can make note of this to see if it may just be a simple phase or something more serious.
If teachers aren’t willing to put forth the effort to take on this role, then of course problems will ensue. Superhero play carries risks, as does all types of play. But, with proper supervision and interaction, children can enjoy wearing their magic capes and having special powers for just a little while. Shazaaam!