Day 10 of Kyra’s spring break. The sun pierces through our ceiling to floor windows, heating up the air between the three of us seated at the dining table. We squint, barely able to make out each other’s features. Ethan growls. He’s angry that I’ve interrupted his attempt to “save the world” for something as frivolous as lunch. He smashes a meatball in each hand to juice.
Kyra sips on her milk as she tries to catch her breathe. She had just run up and down the stairs several times, screaming at Ethan, “No, I’m Superman. You’re Batman.”
I try not to react. Spring break has been quite an eye-opener. Apart from Kyra’s newly discovered abilities to help me around the house, the two of them appear to be figuring out how to role play on the same team. For the first time, it seems, they are either both Superheroes or bad guys. Their scenarios grow more elaborate every day as they actually try to “help” rather than “attack” each other.
Freeing her cape from her shoulders, Kyra collapses onto the floor and starts to writhe. “Save me! The alligators are getting me.”
Ethan ignores her.
“Help me!” she pleads dramatically, thrashing and kicking.
He growls again.
Finally, she tries, “Help me! Superman!”
Ethan stands up on his chair and places his fists on either side of his hips. He puffs up his chest, rippling the “S” on his favorite pajama Superman shirt that his cousins passed down to him and he insists on wearing every day.
“Okay JieJie, I’ll save you,” he says proudly. He climbs down his chair, runs over to Kyra, grabs her wrists, and pulls her back onto her chair.
They run this play over and over with tweaks here and there in the plotline, but always exhibiting a healthy dose of heroism.
Later that day, we are at Fred Meyers picking up some groceries for dinner. Kyra approaches a girl about her age and asks, “What’s wrong?” The girl looks at her with big sad eyes. Kyra reaches into my cart and pulls out a few frosted animal cookies from a bag I had opened for them. “Here are some cookies,” Kyra says. “Better now?”
The mom thanks Kyra and looks at me in astonishment. I am surprised too. Even more so, when my son insists on handing her some cookies too.
Honestly, I’m not sure why some educators believe Superhero play is too aggressive or violent and should be discouraged, even outlawed.
I definitely agree with researchers like Penny Holland, We Don’t Play with Guns Here: War, Weapon, and Superhero Play in the Early Years, and Lawrence Rubin, Using Superheroes in Counseling and Play Therapy, that Superhero play allows children to explore complex roles, rules, and concepts like morality, strength, power, and justice. It also helps children relieve tension and express care for each other.
But I’m biased. Both Thomas and I collected comic books when we were kids. Our favorite dates involve critiquing Hollywood’s latest renditions of our heroes on the ride home from the theater or waking up in the middle of the night and playing Wii Marvel: Ultimate Alliance or something that involves fighting side-by-side against Supervillains. After we became parents, we would watch T.V. shows like Heroes or Ordinary Family when the kids were in bed, and lose ourselves in the fantasy that one day we too could wake up with extraordinary abilities.
After all, according to Rubin “…one of the most powerful resources for self-understanding, growth, and healing may be fantasy. It is the metaphoric place where problems of the past and present meet the possibilities of the future, in conflicts both minor and epic. It is the place in which children and adults escape from but also make sense of their worlds by creating and then living their stories — their own personal mythologies.”
Here are some helpful tips about how to encourage healthy play.
- Help children understand more about “the good guys” and “the bad guys.” Talk to the kids about real-life heroes. Ask a local hero, such as a firefighter or police officer, to visit. Emphasize that this real-world superhero is also a neighbor and parent — in your community.
- Encourage preschoolers to practice heroism and conflict resolution.
- Establish rules from the start. For example, no pointing sticks or other props used as weapons directly at another person.
- Respond accordingly either by interrupting the play to stop aggressive behavior or talking about it afterward.
- Make sure there is an appropriate amount of space for safe play.
- Use this play as an opportunity to build problem-solving skills. When there is an issue, resist resolving it for the children. Ask for their ideas.
- Be positive. Acknowledge children’s new accomplishments and skills. Help them feel powerful.
Do you encourage Superhero play in your home?