Superhero play is a form of imaginative, dramatic play where children use costumes, props, or action figures to imitate the superheroes they admire. Children are drawn to the power, strength, and special attributes of superheroes and engaging in superhero play helps them feel empowered and in charge of their world.1
Benefits of Superhero Play
Superheroes are courageous and powerful and seem larger than life in being able to overcome any obstacle while doing great deeds. Young children who are facing the challenges of learning many new skills often feel small, helpless, fearful, and unable to accomplish what they desire to do. Role playing as superheroes they’ve admired from their exposure to media allows them to feel brave, fearless, in control of their world, and accomplishing good.
By role playing, children can test the waters, try out new roles and behaviors, investigate right and wrong, use creativity, and experiment with language while play fighting, running, chasing, and enjoying rough and tumble play with each other.2 By trying on different personalities, children may find freedom to pretend to be someone they are not and to practice how to face fearful situations in their lives.
Maintaining role play requires children to use their imagination as well as to develop skills in cooperation, negotiation, and compromise with their playmates.3 Engaging in superhero and rough and tumble play, children make and maintain friendships while developing the social skills necessary to be successful with their peers. They learn to self-regulate and interpret emotion by reading their friends’ social cues.4
Exuberant Play Vs. Aggression
The noisy, chasing, and wrestling of rough and tumble play can appear to be overly aggressive to adults, but there is a distinction between exuberant play and aggression. Dr. Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play describes exuberant play, which may seem nonsensical and chaotic to adults, as “falling down, hitting without hurting, diving, yelling or other loud mimicking vocalizations, etc.” Aggression includes domination, threats, humiliation, or real hitting and fighting.
Handling Play that Turns Aggressive
When children cease to have fun, show real anger or fear, or begin real hitting, the rough and tumble play has crossed the line. If adults refrain from intervening unless absolutely necessary, children will over time learn about limits, mastering their impulses, solving problems, resolving conflicts, and controlling aggression in play by trial and error themselves.5
Many parents and teachers are concerned with the aggressive behaviors seen in children who engage in superhero play. This play usually includes playing with toy weapons, and gun play is discouraged in many homes and schools. Banning superhero play, however, can have negative results. The strong draw on children to engage in superhero play may result in children learning to be deceptive to continue their play and then having feelings of guilt for their disobedience. They may receive the message that such play is wrong, which is confusing to them when they are trying to battle evil in their play. Opportunities to incorporate superhero characters as a positive influence in children’s development and learning are lost to those who ban this activity.6
- 1. Barnes, Heather. “The value of superhero play.” Putting Children First. Issue 27 September 2008. p. 18.
- 2. Butler, Shelley and Deb Kratz. “From Superhero to Real-Life Hero: Encouraging Healthy Play.” EarlychildhoodNEWS. < http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=567 > 14 Sep. 2016.
- 3. Gelman, Pam. “Superhero play: Is it cause for concern?” GreatSchools. < http://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/superhero-play-opportunity-or-cause-for-concern/ > 14 Sep. 2016.
- 4. Boyd, Brenda J. “Superhero Play in the Early Childhood Classroom: Issues in Banning Play from the Classroom.” EarlychildhoodNEWS. < http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=25 > 14 Sep. 2016.
- 5. Op. cit., Butler, Kratz.
- 6. Frost, Joe L., Sue Wortham, and Stuart Reifel. Play and Child Development. Upper Saddle Valley, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2001. p. 195.