Supporting super hero play in child care: Strategies

Learn how to support superhero play in your child care setting, which can lead to rich and safe play experiences for children.

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? In the previous article, “Supporting super hero play in child care: Concerns and benefits,” we talked about the concerns and benefits in allowing super hero, violent or way play in child care settings. This article will focus on strategies to support this type of play.

  • Develop rules for play that include specific things like:
    • Respecting toys and surroundings
    • Everyone involved in the play wants to be involved
    • Have a signal children can use to stop the play if they feel uncomfortable or don’t want to play anymore and make sure all children and teachers understand what that signal is, such as saying “stop sign” or “I don’t want to play anymore.”
  • Encourage creativity by having children make up their own characters instead of relying on commercial ones. Allow toys to serve a variety of functions and roles as children develop their play storyline.
  • Observe the play to see how children are playing—not just focusing on the content, but how children are interacting with each other. Are they all engaged and focused? Are there misunderstandings or misconceptions? Watch for cues from the children to see if adult support is needed. When you do step in, help children solve the problem instead of stopping the play. Use the moment as an opportunity to teach problem-solving skills and have them help think up solutions to the problem.
  • Get involved when asked. Become a character and play along to understand more of what the children are thinking and feeling. This provides an opportunity to learn more about their story and help guide children or refocus through play if things are getting too rambunctious.
  • If you do have to stop the play, give the children a reason why so they understand what the limitations are of their play. Providing other options such as intermissions or timeouts can help give children valuable opportunities to practice their problem-solving skills.
  • Redirect the play. If things get too rambunctious, give an intermission and ask children if they can draw what the monster they were fighting looked like. This allows children the time to calm down, but still engage in their play.
  • Use super heroes as examples for skills like cooperation, sharing, kindness, empathy, etc.
  • Explore the people behind the super heroes. For example, talk about Clark Kent and how he is a reporter. You can then ask what reporters do and explore more about what reporters do and how they help people.

Whatever decision a child care setting makes on super hero, violent or war play, it is important to communicate that message to parents and allow them to ask questions about your policy so they understand it and can help explain things to their children if needed. There are concerns, but also benefits for children engaging in this type of play.

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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