By Susie Kohl
Batman swoops in, shocking his enemies and knocking them ferociously to the ground. This scene sizzles on screen. However, played out by four-year-old boys eager to feel powerful, it quickly ends in tears. Our school has long been reluctant to comply with children’s requests to paint their faces into a mask of their favorite superhero or to engage in superhero play. Over the years we’ve seen that imitating superheroes leaves too little to a child’s imagination, propelling boys to try to overpower each other. I say “boys” because superhero play usually leaves girls out. We haven’t set limitations on these activities because of a belief that these activities or children’s motivations are wrong, e.g., “Playing aggressively will encourage children to be violent as adults.” In reality, children start out with a burst of strength and end up feeling more vulnerable. Superhero “scripts” reduce creativity and compassion, and we don’t want children to scare or hurt each other.
Debates about superhero play resemble arguments about toy guns in people’s eagerness to delineate right and wrong. In a 2007 Washington Post article, Jonathan Turley described how a few residents of his hometown, Alexandria, Va., shunned his boys for occasionally playing with a toy gun. In addition, when he and his sons entered a city parade by building a covered wagon that included lots of Western equipment that included toy rifles, there was public censure.
I didn’t play with rifles or don a Superman suit growing up, but I did shoot caps and enjoyed the noise and smoky scent when they went off. However, times have changed. World violence has sobered us, and reactions to children pretending to be violent can be violent in themselves. A friend once witnessed a driver in Berkeley stop his car, walk over to a child playing with a plastic gun, grab it, and break it in half. Definitely a strange and scary experience for a child trying to make sense of his world through imaginative play.
Perhaps if we as adults examined our hopes for children’s play, we could observe their efforts to play out a wide variety of themes with compassion and understanding. Think about your own childhood play. What were your favorite elements—a feeling of power or freedom? Camaraderie? Creating new scenarios? Risk taking? Research has shown again and again how valuable imaginative play is for developing children’s social skills. Studies also show that young boys often bond through active play. (Ironically, people who grow up to commit violent crimes have usually experienced a deficit in imaginative play experience.)
Imaginative role playing helps children to understand what they see and hear about in the world. In Raising Our Children to Be Resilient, Linda Goldman describes how children who are concerned about the war or have a parent deployed gain strength by role playing about soldiers, when they rest, where they sleep. Yet play about war is often deemed unacceptable.
Adults can support children better by tuning in to the quality of their play and the feelings of some of those involved. Is someone feeling left out or dominating everyone else? The richer, more complex, and longer lasting the play, the more beneficial it usually is. Adults can help children sustain play by supporting their efforts to resolve conflicts at moments when the fun might fall apart. They can also make play richer by offering props that extend the children’s thinking—“Do you rescue workers need flashlights?” “Do you need to take lunch to the moon?” “Do you doctors need notepads to write things down?” However, the most important ingredient in play is not the objects involved but the vitality and sense of freedom children bring to the experience. I still remember Hopi children running delightedly on the hillside. They had no toys but were happy with the small sticks they were using as bows and arrows.
If we are the overseers of play and we feel uncomfortable with the level of aggression, whether it’s children pretending to shoot each other or Batman pushing people down, we can say, “I’m so happy you’re having fun. We can’t pretend to hurt or kill each other, but we can play hide-and- seek or play a running game.” Let’s concentrate our energies on allowing whole expanses of time for free play and encourage the abundant creativity that keeps children engaged with such whole hearts.
Susan Isaacs Kohl, is director of the White Pony preschool in Lafayette. She is the author of The Best Things Parents Do (Conari 2004) and four other books and numerous articles for parents.