Boys and superhero play

Whether it’s your five year old donning a flowing cape and attempting to leap across the sandpit in a single bound, or master two putting on a shiny raincoat and pointing a broom handle at the ‘fire’ he is bravely extinguishing, chances are they’re after the same kind of emotional high. Whether they are playing at being a rescue worker or a movie character, they are channelling a sense of power, control and wisdom. After all, an ability to save the world is not something the average child gets to experience on a daily basis. In fact, they’re probably likely to feel quite the opposite a lot of the time. Little children can often be searching for answers to very big questions such as, “What does it mean to be good?” “What does it mean to be bad?” “Which of these am I?” “What kind of world am I growing up in?”

Play is how children attempt to find answers to the things that puzzle them, and also how they express the ideas which appeal to them. In a confusing world, kids will favour games with simple and predictable scripts. “You’re a baddie – I’ll get you. You’re in trouble – I’ll save you.” End of story. Add to that the power of flash costumes and an excuse to run around making as much noise as possible and you’re pretty much in small child heaven. It’s no wonder superhero play is such an attractive choice. But should we be worried about the potential for violence that seems to go hand in hand with this kind of imaginary play?

Look deeper into what drives children to play at superheroes and it becomes obvious that banning these games will not be terribly helpful. Eric Hoffman, author of Magic Capes, Amazing Powers, reminds us that “play is a child’s best attempt to answer his or her questions about the world”. Forbidding certain types of play will not make these questions disappear. It’s more likely that children will continue the games away from adults, making it even more difficult to monitor what is happening. Attempting to restrict the play also ignores the potential for wonderful, character-building games and conversations that can be had through superhero themes. In Growing Great Boys, Ian Grant explains the age-old fantasy that young boys hold dear – being the defender and protector of the vulnerable. Other wonderful qualities such as sacrifice, generosity and gentleness will resonate with little boys and girls alike if these themes can be woven into their superhero play. There is so much scope in these games for adults to introduce values, goals and aspirations, that it seems counterproductive to enforce an outright ban.

But that doesn’t mean the negative potential of superhero play can be ignored. Yes, it can become inappropriately noisy, rough, even violent. While it’s comforting to know that research suggests it’s the violence children are exposed to through the media that increases aggression, rather than the kind of games they play, it makes sense for parents and childcare workers to set some boundaries around exactly what their little superheroes can get up to. How can we contain this play while helping our kids to get the most out of it?

Helping little superheroes save the world – not destroy it!

The best way is to get involved. Playing at omnipotence can turn even the sweetest child into a raging tyrant, so stay nearby, listen to what’s going on and intervene, if necessary.

Join the game

If possible, find a role for yourself in the game – perhaps as an intergalactic police officer who was patrolling nearby and heard something that worried you. Encourage your children to use their imagination and extend themselves. A game might be in danger of collapse due to lack of ideas but a new character invented by Mum or Dad could add a new angle that keeps things fresh for much longer. Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen is a treasure trove of inspiration and motivation for adults who struggle to join in children’s games.

Set boundaries

Make it clear where, when, and how superhero play is allowed (this is particularly so in childcare settings). Make sure kids know the rules. For example, play can only happen in the lounge or on the lawn, not at mealtimes or mat time. Another useful one is that only people playing the game can be captured/rescued/stun-gunned. Teach children from an early age to respect other people’s boundaries. Superhero play is not everyone’s cup of tea, after all.

Limit licensed products

Superhero games are far more likely to be creative and stimulating if children can be encouraged to use found objects as weapons or props, rather than official merchandise. The appeal of these is obvious, however there are usually very few ways in which the toy can be used. But the limitless possibilities of a straw or a ruler will encourage kids to use their imaginations to create, transform, and combine objects to meet their needs.

Make it a time for learning

Violence can be tricky to monitor and address when kids are playing at superheroes – a bit of conflict is often integral to the storyline. Don’t jump to conclusions about something you see or hear! If you stay closely connected to your child’s play it will be much easier to know when someone has gone too far. Deal with violence with the same consequences you would apply at any other time, and discuss with the kids how pretend fighting (in a game we’re all enjoying) is very different from really hurting someone.

Keep them grounded in the reality of what they play at by occasionally drawing their attention to how it might really feel to have your head light-sabred, or to be karate-chopped across the room. The distinction between the no-consequences kind of fighting they see on TV and what happens in real life is a vital one to make. Remember, your children want to know exactly what a hero does and says, so grab every opportunity to inform them what being truly heroic is all about – all while having heaps of fun!