Superhero Play

foodforthoughtTwo weeks ago there was a minor local blow-up in Philadelphia about a preschool that decided to ban superhero play. There’s an article about it in a Philly independent newspaper, with links to a reddit about it and stuff. And there’s a flyer (below) that was apparently sent home to families.

I’m not interested in criticizing this particular school’s approach to the issue—though I do disagree with it. Every classroom I’ve worked in has dealt with this parts of this issue in one way or another every year, and frankly the “right” solution isn’t always the same for every group of children and families. I don’t know the context at the school, and I won’t presume to claim I know what policy choice they should be making.

That said, I think it’s good to talk about the issues that come up when rough “superhero” play becomes a pattern with a group of children.

First, and most obviously, is physical injury. When kids play rough, they’re likely to get hurt, and superhero play often gets rough. And yes, it is our job to protect children. That said, there’s a lot of learning that comes from injury. If we insulate children from the possibility of injury in the short- and medium-term, they’ll be less able to protect themselves from injury in the long term, having been deprived of the opportunity to learn from comparatively small mistakes. When you jump off the climber and hit your head, it hurts—but it also teaches you that you are not invincible, and that your actions have consequences, and that being careful is important. Those are important life lessons. The incomparable Teacher Tom calls scrapes and cuts “bloody owies,” and tells his children, “If you have no bloody owies, then you are being too careful. If you have three or more bloody owies then you’re not being careful enough. The right number of bloody owies is one or two. That means you’re not being too careful or too careless.” It sounds a little flip, but he makes a good case for that guideline.

Risking your own physical safety is different from risking someone else’s safety, of course. You can’t hurt other people. That’s not negotiable. But again, our primary goal shouldn’t be to prevent children from ever injuring each other; our primary goal should be to teacher children to choose to keep each other safe. That’s the long-term life goal, and it starts in preschool. Children learn to make good choices by practicing making choices, and sometimes getting them right, and sometimes getting them wrong. If we disallow rough play, we deprive children of the opportunity to choose to keep others safe—and that’s an important choice to get to make.

A more subtle, and I think more important, issue is that of imagination. The flyer brings up the point of children imitating things they’ve seen in various media. This is a phenomenon I’ve seen a lot at preschool: kids playing out scripts from Star Wars, or Cars, or the Disney Princesses. Actually, that last one’s not even a script, because I’ve never met a preschooler yet who can articulate what a princess is, or what she says, or what she does—they just know they want to BE one. But really, that’s not that different from acting out a fight between Luke and Darth Vader. (Oh, I wish that’s what they were acting out; usually it’s Darth Sidious and General Grievous and Qui Gon Jinn and all the other fake crappy Star Wars non-characters… okay, end of nerd-rant.) They often don’t have much to say about WHY these characters are fighting, or why they’re fighting the WAY they’re fighting. They just know there’s a right way to do it.

Which is kind of the opposite of play. Yes, yes, there’s a crucial place for imitation and role-playing in socio-dramatic play, but this isn’t quite that. When children are pretending to be mommy or fire-fighter, they’re remixing things they’ve seen and things they know into new contexts, and using their own participation to build new understanding of roles people take in the world. Even when they take on characters from books they’ve read—say, Ladybug Girl or Max—they’re taking tidbits from books and combining the words and still images with actions they’ve filled in with their own minds, motivations of their own understanding. That’s not what I see when I see kids acting out movies. To me, that always looks much more rigid, much more an excuse to act in a way that they’ve seen demonstrated as “cool” (another concept no young child has ever been able to explain to me, but all of them want to be it). That said, I think banning that kind of play is trying to solve the problem from the wrong end, like fixing a leak in your ceiling by putting duct tape over it—it’s gonna come out somewhere else. Of COURSE children are going to reenact what they see in the media—the trick is to regulate what media they see.

There’s another issue, too, which some people bring up in the reddit thread, which is the issue of the social constructs that come up through this kind of play. Good and evil are things that are very much on the minds of young children. So are power and weakness; helping and harming; bravery and fear. Every child spends much of their lives grappling with these (and other similar) issues, and figuring out what they mean and where they themselves fit in. Superheros, obviously, fit smack dab in the middle of these issues, so they naturally attract children’s interest. If you don’t want kids playing superheros, you can’t just cut it off. You have to give them something else that scratches the same intellectual/emotional/developmental itch. Give them other games to play about helping and harming. Give them stories to read about power and weakness. Open a dialogue about good and bad. They’re going to investigate those issues with or without your help—choose “with.”

Anyway, there’s a lot of stuff in this superhero play stuff. And while yes, it can be scary and/or discouraging for adults to witness, simply cutting it off doesn’t make all the issues involved go away. They’re important, complicated issues.


One thought on “Superhero Play

  1. jarrodgreen August 15, 2013 at 3:12 pm Reply

    David emails: If I’m not too late to the banning-superhero-play-outrage party, I’d like to just share an article with you on the issue. It’s got insights from a doctor who looks at superhero play from a child-development perspective, so that means to say that it digs at least a bit deeper than the silly flier from the silly preschool.

    Check it out:

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