No surprise here: children as young as three, four, and five are watching, listening, and taking in information about September 11th events and the threat of war. Their attempts to sort it all out are showing up in dramatic play. Many things have changed since the tragedy and preschool teachers are reporting that firefighters and police officers are joining the ranks of superheroes, and war play may be on the rise. As preschoolers seek to make sense of the world, they use play and superheroes to help.
By definition, superheroes are larger than life, courageous, powerful, and seemingly able to overcome any obstacle with great physical prowess while doing great deeds at the same time. Young children, facing the challenges of learning many new skills, may often feel small, helpless, fearful, unable to accomplish what they desire, or troubled—in other words, just the opposite of superheroes. It’s no wonder that many preschoolers are drawn to superhero play. Through play they can feel brave, fearless, in control of their world, outside of ordinary, and just plain good.
Superhero Play and Child Development
Research tells us that play is a major vehicle in development. Through play, children test the waters, try out roles and behaviors, investigate right and wrong, experiment with language, use creativity, find outlets for physical activity, and learn more about difficult skills like impulse control and conflict resolution. Clearly, many children have a need to play superheroes, and this form of rough and tumble, free play, can contribute to healthy development. According to Pei-San Brown, one of the founders of the Children’s Institute for Learning and Development (CHILD): “There are many benefits to the whole child during superhero play. Children develop physically, cognitively, socially and emotionally during this type of play. It can include R&T [rough and tumble] play, and usually involves significant chasing as well. Also, superhero play often involves much negotiation between children.”
Many have suspected that superhero play may lead to real violence later on, but researchers have found just the opposite to be true. Healthy rough and tumble, free play leads to greater skills and experience in handling adversity without aggression in teens and adults. Further, play deprivation has been found to be a factor in juvenile and adult violence. Play may actually prevent violence. Yet, there are risks in superhero play, as there are in any kind of play. Some children may become aggressive and others may get hurt. Adults are important in guiding children to appropriate and safe superhero play.
Fostering Healthy Superhero Play
Ideally, free play should be independent and unrestricted. In reality, adults need to first set up safe environments, provide appropriate toys, set limits, and then monitor play. Beyond this, there are four important ways to foster healthy superhero play:
Help children understand more about “the good guys” and “the bad guys.”
Recognize the difference between typical action-oriented play and aggression.
Understand how best to deal with play that crosses the line to aggression.
Encourage preschoolers to practice heroism and conflict resolution.
The Good Guys
Young children at play don’t necessarily distinguish real people from fictional characters—an American soldier is a good guy just like Spiderman. Encourage healthy superhero play by creating opportunities outside of playtime to talk and read about what makes “good guys” good. Qualities like determination, kindness, helpfulness, selflessness, and courage create heroes, not necessarily physical strength nor dying in the line of duty.
Show how everyday people of many different ages, sizes, races, cultures, abilities, and religions are heroes. Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey by Maira Kalman (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2002) tells of a rusty, old boat awaiting the scrap pile and its owners; together they helped fight the fires of September 11th. Books like Emergency by Gail Gibbons (Holiday House, 1994) help kids understand what rescue work entails in real life.
Point out differences between fantasy superheroes and real heroes. People don’t have super-human abilities like flying high above a city spinning one web after another. While fantasy play is fun, kids should never try superhero feats, nor fight fire or crime in real life.
Help answer questions about soldiers and war by explaining that countries sometimes disagree on issues. War is not the best nor the first solution to any disagreement. Leaders, like the President and the Congress, sometimes call on soldiers to fight, but typically only as a last resort.
The Bad Guys
Look for teachable moments and create opportunities other than during free play to help kids see that countries around the world are made up of people more like them than not. Just because our army is at war with another country does not make all the people of a country our enemies or “the bad guys.” When our leaders feel forced to go to war it’s typically because of the actions of a few people.
Explain that “bad guys” are people who make serious mistakes, like killing or setting fires, which have serious consequences. People who make these mistakes are of many different ages, races, abilities, and cultures. They can pay for their mistakes and change. No one is born a “bad guy” nor needs to remain a criminal his whole life. Young children may need reminding that most people in the world are good, and that the “bad guys” make up only a small percentage of all people.
Rough and Tumble Play Versus Aggression
One of the most important steps in fostering healthy superhero play is to be able to recognize the difference between action-oriented, rough and tumble play and true aggression. Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of The Institute for Play, says that most of us are not trained to tell the difference. Typical, exuberant play, which may seem non-sensical and chaotic to adults, includes “falling down, hitting without hurting, diving, yelling or other loud mimicking vocalizations, etc.,” he explains. On the other hand, aggression includes domination, threats, humiliation, or real hitting and fighting. Adults should step in and stop aggression when children stop having fun, show real anger or fear, or begin real hitting. When action-oriented play is confused with aggression, it’s more likely that both types of play will be stopped, and children run the risk of losing the benefits of healthy, free play.
What to Do When Play Crosses the Line
Children learn about limits, mastering impulses, solving problems, resolving conflicts, and controlling aggression in play by trial and error over time. Some children in the learning process will likely cross the line from play to aggression. Make sure that all children understand the rules and the consequences for breaking rules, but avoid shaming anyone who makes a mistake. Typically, preschoolers are more attracted to the action of superhero play than the violence. When killing or harming people dominates play, offer rescue operations or going on an adventure as alternatives. Suggest that saving a life is more heroic than taking one.
Watch for patterns of true aggression. If a child, frequently and over an extended period of time, shows intent to harm, seems unable to connect with/attach to others, is aggressive toward adults, harms animals, becomes violent, or generally appears more aggressive than age mates, then suggest or seek professional help.
A Hero Is Much, Much More Than a Sandwich
Everyone has the capacity to become a hero by practicing the values and acquiring the qualities that turn ordinary people into heroes. Share with preschoolers stories about young heroes – young people who called 911 when needed, who found adult help when someone was in danger, or who did something especially brave and kind. Tell about heroes that have inspired you.
Preschoolers can be heroes, too. Since concepts like bravery are hard to fathom, read together Courage by Bernard Waber (Houghton Mifflin, 2002). This book defines courage as everything from “testing the vegetable before making a face” to “being a firefighter” to “holding on to your dream.” Notice and recognize children who stick up for a friend, who try something personally difficult, and who go out of their way to help another.
Through play, children learn how to get along in the real world in a positive way. Through teachable moments and deliberate discussion, adults can help children understand the power of real heroism. The first steps in creating the heroes of tomorrow are to help preschoolers today believe in themselves and their ability to make a difference. They can begin this process in play.
Shelley Butler and Deb Kratz are authors of the Parents’ Choice Award-winning book, The Field Guide to Parenting. For more information on their work or to contact the authors, please visit their web site at www.fieldguidetoparenting.com.
Resources for Teachers and Parents
Butler, S. & Kratz D. (1999). The Field Guide to Parenting. Worchester, MA: Chandler House Press.
Gibbons, G. (1994). Emergency. Holiday House.
Kalman, M. (2002). Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Waber, B. (2002). Courage. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
To find hero stories or more information about fostering heroism, visit these web sites:
The Giraffe Project