Supporting super hero play in child care: Concerns and benefits

Learn the concerns and benefits in allowing super hero, violent or way play in child care settings.

Early childhood educators and parents know the value of play for young children. Play is a way children process what they see in real life, is an outlet for expressing feelings and helps children develop and practice language skills, social skills, gross motor and thinking skills. Play supports building children’s imagination and creativity which in turn allows them to build their thinking skills.

We know the benefits that play offers children, but what happens when that play turns to super hero, violent or war-focused play? Is there a benefit to children by allowing them to engage in this type of play?

There are a few important things to note before we look deeper:

  • There is limited recent research on super hero, violent or war play to draw empirical data to support or negate a zero-tolerance policy on these issues. However, the research that has been done previously is still valid and relevant for today.
  • Adults look at super hero, violent or war play with an adult understanding, knowing all the bad things that can happen in the world children are living in. However, we need to look at this type of play from a child’s point of view and focus not just on the content, but at the whole situation of play including “substance, theme and content,” according to Emily Plank, author of “Discovering the Culture of Early Childhood.”
  • Plank says there is little empirical evidence to support the idea that there is a link between media and real life violence. Plank indicates many of the studies that have been done to date have either been done in a lab setting where children may have been uncomfortable or in the home, where there is a rise in aggressive play but then it subsides.

Since children use play to experience and figure out the world around them, let’s look at the reasons children naturally engage in super hero or war play. Generally, it is because they are fascinated by the powers the super hero or main character possess. By pretending to have these superpowers, it can make children feel powerful, like they have no weaknesses and are in control of their own world.

Since children exert very little control over their own environment, it is easy to see why this type of play is so appealing to children and occurs naturally, regardless of the policy of the child care setting. Children may be reenacting situations they saw on the media or experienced, so it is important we observe and allow children to process what they have seen in a supportive and safe environment.

When super hero, violent or war play is happening, there are legitimate concerns from adults that do need to be addressed. What are some of these concerns and do they outweigh the benefits of this type of play to children?

Let’s take a look at some of the commonly expressed concerns:

  • Safety—that children will be physically out of control, hurt themselves or others, or become scared as they engage in play.
  • Super hero, violent or war play is not open-ended and adults see it as more limited to replaying the same situation over and over.
  • This type of play teaches children that violence and force can be used to get what they want, even if used for a good outcome.
  • When using a zero-tolerance policy and children are caught engaging in this type of naturally occurring play, children learn to lie or deny what they were doing. This, in turn, teaches children that they must sneak around or lie about what they are playing when asked.

Do these concerns outweigh the benefits that this type of play gives to children? Let’s take a look at some of the benefits:

  • Helps children cope with their emotions and fears.
  • Helps children communicate their thoughts and feelings.
  • Allows children from military and first responder families to see themselves and their parents in their play and helps to process situations they may encounter with their families.
  • Allows children to see all types of family interests and hobbies such as hunting, sport shooting, etc.
  • Encourages cooperation and group play.
  • Helps children understand abstract concepts such as good/bad, right/wrong.

There is no right or wrong answer on if this type of play should be allowed in child care or school settings, but it is a decision that needs consideration of both concerns and benefits to children. In the next article, “Supporting super hero play in child care: Strategies,” we will look at ways child care settings can support this type of play to help alleviate some of the concerns.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

To learn about the positive impact children and families experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2016 Impact Report. Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

Resources for more information

  • Discovering the Culture of Childhood by Emily Plank
  • We Don’t Play Guns Here: War, weapon and superhero play in the early years by Penny Holland
  • Heroes of resiliency and reciprocity: teachers’ supporting role for reconceptualizing superhero play in early childhood settings by Kathleen I. Harris
  • Superhero Toys and Boys’ Physically Active and Imaginative Play by Amy Parsons and Nina Howe
  • Superhero Play: What’s a Teacher to Do? by Karen L Bauer and Ernest Dettore
  • Ensuring that Children’s War Play is Healthy, Safe and Positive by eXtension
  • Superheroes: An Opportunity for Prosocial Play by Desalyn De-Souza and Jacqueline Radell
  • Gun Play in Early Childhood by Exchange Every Day
  • Reflections of Military Life in Children’s Pretend Play by eXtension
  • Bang, Bang! Gun play, and why children need it by Diane Rich
  • 3 Reasons to Allow War Play in Your Early Childhood Classroom by eXtension
  • Beyond Banning War and Superhero Play: Meeting Children’s Needs in Violent Times by Diane E. Levin
  • “This is Spiderman’s Mask.” “No, It’s Green Goblin’s”: Shared Meanings During Boys’ Pretend Play With Superhero and Generic Toys by Amy Parsons and Nina Howe

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