There seems to be a lack of middle ground when it comes to super hero play and other play generally associated with violence and aggressive behaviour. We’re either for or against it. Those for superhero and other types of physical imaginative play cite the outcomes that could be achieved through such play whereas those opposing superhero play maintain the safety of children should be paramount and superhero play does nothing but encourage violence and anti-social behaviour.
Here are a few points about superhero play – some often highlighted and some not so much, and a few suggestions as to how adults can approach superhero play and other types of imaginative physical play if it becomes a theme.
It’s about the safety….
That’s always been one of my major concerns as well. The greater the physical risk, the greater chance of children getting injured. Pretty simple. It should be a concern for us. If it isn’t a concern, then we are not particularly caring people are we?
It’s a fairly natural human reaction to worry over the physical safety of people we care about, and with children it tends to be amplified because adults can generally take care of themselves and evaluate the risk of actions. Whereas children are often perceived as lacking foresight and the capacity to evaluate risk and determine safe outcomes.
The fact is that with every risk we take as both children and adults, there is a chance of injury. Of course, the greater the risk, the higher the chance of an injury occurring. Luckily for children who engage in superhero play and other types of physical imaginative play, they usually have the support of an adult to supervise their play, watch for any signs of potential injury and to help regulate what is appropriate and what is not (when it comes to the physical safety and well-being of others)
Safety is never guaranteed. The only way we can provide an environment for safe superhero play is to minimise wherever possible, the chances for injury to occur while play is taking place. A good thing to remember as well is that other types of play are notorious for injuries and accidents – who hasn’t had a fistful of sand flung into their eyes?!
What about the violence?!
Look deep enough and you’ll find that often superhero play has nothing to do with children wanting to beat each other up or shoot the bad guy. Sure that can at times be part of it all, but we have to look at the bigger picture when we explore how children interpret play.
Whenever I watch children who are deeply engaged in superhero play, I am often struck by how socially inclusive and diverse it is. It is usually mission driven, with the goal of ‘killing someone’ or something being the least priority when on a mission. The mission usually entails flying to some undiscovered planet, constructing props that they use to fly to those mysterious planets (e.g. space cruisers with lego, lightsabers out of rolled up newspapers etc.) The detail is always in the process which usually involves little violence and more construction and creating.
We also have to keep in mind that we are the ones interpreting their actions as violent or aggressive. What to us could be an unnecessary hip toss onto a mat or carpet could be perfectly acceptable to both participants in the play experience. The distinction to make is what the response of both or all of the children involved is. If the child being hiptossed expresses concern or reservation, that is a sign that they may need support finding a less physically risky action while achieving a similar outcome. Like all play that involves more than one child, consent is essential to achieving equitable outcomes so as long as all parties consent to the action, and we are there to make sure the potential for an injury or accident is minimised as much as possible – it’s a win for everyone!
In many respects, I agree with this position the most. We are in a way supporting manufacturers of figurines and other plastic props and the Hollywood movie moguls by not putting a general ban on superhero play.
There’s one thing we can’t control unfortunately – and that’s exposure. We can control what children watch, see, discuss and listen to in our environments but the wider world seems to have a knack for putting marketing materials in places that children can’t help but see. Whether it’s a poster of a super hero, a princess or the latest war movie, children can and will see it and chances are, they’ll want to incorporate it into their every day play.
What we can control however is what materials we have present to a) ensure we are supporting children’s interests and opportunity for child-directed play and b) uphold whatever position we have taken on materialism, consumerism and gender-specific marketing to children. We don’t have to buy the latest action figurine to fulfill the play aspirations of children, or invest money in a DVD just so that children can see the latest addition to their favourite superhero’s saga. There are innumerable ways to encourage superhero play without forking out hundreds of dollars on superhero memorabilia.
So what’s so great about it?
Well, lots of stuff actually. For starters, imaginative play is a great way for children to become socially confident and competent. Superhero play can use a lot of language or it can involve none at all depending on the situation and who is involved. Younger children (12 months – 3 years) often become involved in play with older children because there isn’t such a heavily reliance on communicating with one another. It is usually action packed, fast paced and involves a lot of role-modeling. Body language and hand actions are popular forms of communication with superhero play which younger children tend to be more familiar and competent with.
Superhero play is a great way for children to keep active. Running, flying, and sometimes crawling. It takes a lot of stamina to stop entire planets from exploding ! Physical activity amongst younger children has been widely discussed over the past few years, with digital learning and screens becoming part of normal learning culture. Superhero play provides a fun, creative, and social way for children to continue to be physically active. Alongside this of course, there is the risk taking aspect. I could write an entire blog on risk-taking and the contribution it makes to child development but in terms of superhero play, the two go hand in hand with there being a certain element of risk with every type of physical play experience, especially super hero play with children often testing their physical limits and taking physical risks.
People often view children engaging in superhero as the good vs. evil dynamic or the good guy vs. bad guy. What often isn’t mentioned though is why children seemed so keenly interested in being the good guy and not the bad guy, or what their missions tend to be about. More often than not, children will be protecting others from the presumed ‘bad guy.’ It is often someone or something that is vulnerable or perceived as being in trouble.
Children involved in superhero play tend to be extremely protective of the smaller participants in their play, protecting them at all costs from the villain in their play. Superhero over all other types of play may demonstrate most our biological urge to protect ourselves and those we care about or those we perceives as being in trouble. Perhaps it’s a complex display of social justice that children more often than not decide to be the ‘good guy’ and not the villain.
Whether it’s a poster of a super hero, a princess or the latest war movie, children can and will see it and chances are, they’ll want to incorporate it into their every day play.
How to support superhero play
Firstly, try not to make it seem like a dirty word. Superhero play is a form of imaginative or dramatic play. It is a way for children to test their physical limits, imitate those they are interested in, form or maintain relationships, and to have fun (perhaps most importantly). Children develop a sense of right and wrong fairly early, they can also distinguish between fantasy and reality pretty early as well so even though we may be concerned about the potential for long-term anti-social behaviour and violence, there is really nothing to worry about. But here are a few suggestions to support super hero play while making it as safe as possible for the superhero and everyone else in the area:
Change your view of superhero play: This should go without saying. If we’re going to provide an environment that is based on choice, specifically about children having the right to choose what they play, who they play with, and when they play it then that should extend to superhero play. If we view superhero play as a productive way for children to explore and develop their imaginations, express their creativity and strengthen their social competency, we can start to approaching superhero play from more of a positive perspective rather than a negative one.
Don’t over regulate it: With all potentially risky play we tend to over regulate it by establishing all sorts of rules and expectations. With gun play it usually comes with a gun license or the ‘don’t shoot real people’ speech. With superhero play it is usually about not hitting and kicking others, fighting invisible space monsters etc. Try not to limit what children can and can not do in their play, even if it means they get a little ‘handsy’ with each other. Remember, if it is consented to by all participants, we can always track the play to make sure it isn’t getting too extreme or out of hand and then we can support mutual problem-solving.
Get creative with it: This should hopefully appeal to those of us who aren’t too much in favour of consumerism and stereotypes. Instead of having readily available plastic action figurines and props available – try more obscure, less genre specific materials and resources available. Use blankets for capes, paints and blank shirts for creating costumes and loose parts for creating the props necessary for children to explore their superhero play deeply. Boxes, sticks, blankets and sellotape – the essentials for all superhero play!
Ultimately the onus is on us as adults to recognise learning opportunities in all kinds of play and to breakdown those pre-conceived notions we have about play like superhero play and whatever barriers we have put up or which have developed throughout our lifetimes that has presented superhero play as a negative kind of play. Play is something to be cherished and acknowledged as valuable – that includes superhero play.