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Superhero Play in the Early Childhood Classroom: Issues in Banning Play from the Classroom
By Brenda J. Boyd, Ph.D.

Superhero play has received a great deal of attention from parents and educators in the recent past. Teachers of young children have become an increasingly vocal group, voicing concern about superhero play in their classrooms. Increasing reports of teachers banning superhero play are evident (Bergen, 1994; Carlsson-Paige & Levin, 1995). Teachers are experiencing real concern for the safety of children and themselves and many worry about the violence in the future lives of children engaged in superhero play.

As a former child care provider/early educator and current teacher of teachers of young children, I too have concerns about reported increases in aggressive behavior in preschool classrooms. However, banning superhero play may not be the best way to deal with children's increasing exposure to inappropriate, low-quality television. I suggest

1.       that we do not have data on these "increases" in classroom superhero play,


2.       that this behavior may play some developmental function in young children and


3.       that by banning superhero play, teachers may be relieving themselves of a powerful opportunity to teach.

First, examine the source of the notion that aggressive, violent superhero play is on the rise in preschool classrooms. The published reports of this increase are based on anecdotal reports from teachers (Carlsson-Paige & Levin, 1991; Jennings & Gillis-Olin, 1980; Kostelnic, Whiren & Stein, 1986) and from limited surveys of non-random samples of teachers of young children (Carlsson-Paige & Levin, 1995). These non-random samples are often drawn from participants at conference workshops on superhero and war play in the classroom, who may already be sensitized to the issue of aggressive play. These reports suggest that children are spending more time in superhero play than in any other classroom behavior. My own research, in which observers collect time interval samples of young children's behavior, suggests otherwise. In one group of 3 to 5 year old children, I found that only 2 of 17 children exhibited superhero play during a one month period. The time spent in superhero play accounted for less than 1% of the 300 minutes of play. In a second sample, only 5% of play time was classified as superhero play and was exhibited by one quarter of the children. We never witnessed a child being physically hurt by another child while involved in superhero play.

Although these findings are clearly preliminary, they suggest teacher reports of the occurrence and nature of superhero play may not be the best source of information. Previous research about teacher's views of aggression support this hypothesis. Evidence shows that children and teachers have differing perspectives on "play fighting" and "aggression." Smith and Lewis (1985) showed tapes of play encounters to preschool children, their teacher and assistant teacher. The children were more likely to agree with each other or with an objective observer than with their teachers in assessing behavior as play or aggression, suggesting that teachers rely on some perspective not shared by children and other non-teaching adults. This perspective is reflected in the criteria teachers reportedly used for determining aggression in this study. In the case of the assistant teacher, who's assessment of play or aggression was least often in agreement with the children, a reliance on knowledge of personalities is reflected in comments like "Well, knowing those boys, I know they can't cooperate together. Chances are it wasn't playful, it was aggressive" (Smith & Lewis, 1985, p 180).

A second line of evidence to support the hypothesis that teachers are not an objective source of information about superhero play is available in studies that indicate teachers are more likely than non-teaching adults, including teachers in training, to see behavior as aggressive, rather than playful. Connor (1989) showed 14 video clips of child behavior to three preschool teachers who labeled all 14 clips as aggression. When the clips were shown to psychology students, however, only two incidents were rated as aggressive by the majority, two were rated as play by the majority and the rest were rated differentially, depending on the gender of the viewer. Males were more likely to view behaviors as playful while females more often labeled behavior as aggression. The implication of these findings for young children includes an increased likelihood of having their behavior labeled as aggression by their teachers.

The notion that superhero play may serve developmental purposes is the crux of my second concern about the banning of superhero play. The idea that play is important for the development of young children is a familiar one for early childhood educators. Pretend play is believed to be critical for healthy emotional development in young children. This belief has been used to explain the importance of involvement in superhero play (Carlsson-Paige & Levin, 1990; Curry, 1971; Ritchie, Johnson, & Zita, 1982; Slobin, 1976; Walder, 1976). While this notion is well established in the child development literature, no empirical research has directly examined the developmental relevance of superhero play.

However, other perspectives for investigating the function of superhero play are available. While superhero play has not been the focus of research on the functions of play for children, "rough and tumble play" or R&T (play fighting, wrestling and chasing behaviors of children from preschool through adolescence) has been the focus of studies examining the function of play for children (e.g. Costabile et al, 1991; Pellegrini, 1987). Moreover, R&T is very similar to superhero play. Both involve chasing, wrestling, kicking, mock battles and feigned attacks (Kostelnic et al., 1986). In addition, R&T is reported to frequently involve fantasy enactment or pretending (Smith & Connoly, 1987; Smith & Lewis, 1985). These similarities suggest that superhero play can be conceptualized as a special case of R&T play in which children are in the role of a superhero character.

The similarity in these types of play have led to examining the functions of R&T. This body of research suggests that R&T play may serve important developmental functions for young children, especially boys. Specifically, three functions: affiliation, dominance and social skill facilitation have been identified as potential functions served by R&T play (Smith & Boulton,1990).

R&T play may help children form or maintain friendships. The presence of laughing, smiling, and the absence of infliction of pain (Blurton Jones, 1972; Smith, 1982) underscores the positive social nature of R&T. It has been clearly shown that in children, R&T partners are consistently found to be friends (Humphreys & Smith, 1987; Smith & Lewis, 1985). While not direct evidence for causation of friendship by R&T play, these results suggest that R&T play helps children develop or maintain friendships (Smith & Boulton, 1990).



Animal researchers use the concept of dominance to discuss a literal "pecking order" . That is, a hierarchical order of dominance and thus access to resources such as space, foods, and mates has been observed in fowl, as well as many other species (Wilson, 1975). Moreover, this hierarchy is thought to serve the function of reducing conflict, by making clear the power structure in a group (Hinde, 1974). Strayer and Strayer (1976) applied this concept to a group of children, found that a fairly stable hierarchy was observable and took the limited number of counterattacks as support for the conflict reduction hypothesis.

Smith and Boulton (1990) suggest that in R&T children are able to maintain or improve their ranking within the hierarchy. Picking worthy "opponents" who are equal in strength would allow a child to maintain her/his rank. A child could improve her/his rank in the safety of R&T by picking a slightly stronger play partner with little risk involved if she/he was not successful. Humphreys and Smith (1987) report data that supports the dominance maintenance hypothesis. When comparing class consensus rankings of the strength of 7-11 year olds, in most cases there was no consistent difference in the two participants of a R&T bout, suggesting that children do select partners near to them in the dominance hierarchy.

Social Skill Facilitation

R&T play may offer children an opportunity to develop social skills and consequently be more successful with peers. Evidence supporting this hypothesis has been found in both parent-child play and peer play. It has been reported that children whose parents (especially fathers) engage in physical play with them are more likely to be popular with their peers (MacDonald, 1987; Parke, MacDonald, Beitel & Bhavnagri, 1987). Power and Parke (1981) argue that physical play with parents helps children learn to regulate and interpret emotion by serving "as context for a wide range of communicative and affectively charged social interaction" (p. 160). Indeed in one study, physical play did correlate with girls' ability to "read" facial expression suggesting some relationship between physical play and skill at reading social cues (Parke et al., 1987).

In terms of peer-peer R&T, the results are more numerous and more mixed. Pellegrini (1988) found that children rejected by their peers were less successful than popular children at discriminating between serious fighting and R&T. Additionally, for popular children, R&T was followed by rule oriented games, while for rejected children, it led to aggression (Pellegrini, 1991). Several other researchers' findings indicate either no relation between R&T and popularity or a negative correlation (Dodge, 1983; Ladd, 1983; Rubin, Daniels-Bierness & Hayvren, 1982). Comparison of these results is problematic, however, as the congruity of definitions of R&T is unclear (Smith, 1989).

This brings us to my third and final concern about the banning of superhero play. My fear is that by simply banning superhero play from the classroom we are giving children the message that they must hide their interests from adults and that it is wrong to be interested in issues of power and control. Teachers may be losing an important opportunity for influencing children's ideas about violence, the use of power and managing individual needs in a social community. Diane Levin (1994) has published practical suggestions for helping children to learn about establishing "peaceful" classroom communities that attend to the safety needs of all children without simply banning superhero play. Gayle Gronlund (1992) offered interesting ideas for moving children beyond the scripted narratives they see on television, which she developed from working with her kindergarten class during the Ninja Turtle days. More recently Julie Greenberg (1995) discussed ways to "make friends with the Power Rangers".

Network television programming for young children has much room for improvement. The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers is just one example. I am not an advocate for such programming. However, as long as children have access to such programming. Early educators must be prepared to help children deal with what they see on television or learn about from their peers.

Brenda J. Boyd is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Development at Washington State University, Pullman, WA. She teaches in the areas of child development, early education and parent-child relationships. Her current research interests include the play of young children and the professional development of child care providers.


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