(Find instructions for superhero capes here.)
Superhero play is a theme that appears to enter into the imaginative play of every child at one time or another. In fact, researchers French and Pena (1991) have found that the theme of superhero play has greatly increased since the advent of television, specifically for children in the early childhood years. Other researchers hypothesize that boys in particular have a natural inclination toward “weapon play” that may be genetically tied to the Y chromosome. Whether hero play is brought on by media influences or genetic inclinations, there are many ways children can benefit from this type of play with the proper guidance.
Benefits of Dramatic Play. In general, dramatic play benefits preschoolers socially. A child’s propensity toward pretend play has been show to correlate with several positive social measures. As children negotiate roles and rules, they are building strong cooperative skills. Additionally, as they take on the viewpoint of another character, their ability to empathize increases.
Along with social skills, dramatic play has strong benefits for language development. The more complex the play becomes, the more children tend to use elaborate the language as well. As children add representative or symbolic aspects to their play, they are laying the groundwork for the symbolic nature of language, and of reading in particular.
Superpowers. In addition to the benefits of dramatic play, hero play has some added benefits. Young children have many opportunities to feel powerless. On a daily basis they are threatened by fears, challenged by potty training, and dominated by adult rules. Hero play gives them a sense of power and control that they often feel they lack. On the flip side, it helps them to recognize and reinforce the positive nature of self-control and power as they make gains in these areas.
The active nature of hero play is a natural catalyst for motor development. With proper guidance and a safe area, children will zoom, zip, and fly as they get great exercise and build physical skills.
With its inherent good vs. bad theme, hero play provides a window into a child’s moral awareness and growth. The narratives that children create may mirror their own moral dilemmas, or give opportunities for discussing hypothetical problems. It is also an opportunity to discuss the heroic aspect of helping. When my own son began his fascination with superheroes, he asked why Spider-man wanted to be Spider-man. Without a better answer, I simply told him that Spider-man wanted to help people. I didn’t even realize the impact of the answer until I noticed that my son had become more than eager to be a hero and a helper. If we needed someone to help pick up, we simply cried for Spider-man, declaring the state of emergency that we found ourselves in, and he was on the job!
A Hero’s Mentor. While there are many benefits to hero play, it is clear that there are some caveats to consider. It is important to limit aggressive behavior. Set ground rules such as, “You can’t make anyone feel hurt or afraid.” You may need to suggest that all participants play on the “same side” and fight imaginary bad guys. This is particularly useful for younger children who often believe they will become what they pretend. They will not want to play a bad guy, because they may believe they will become a bad guy. Likewise, they will not want to be put in “jail” because they feel as though they will truly be locked up. Being in a defeated position makes them truly feel threatened. Avoid these problems by keeping everyone on the good side, and assigning the bad roles to imaginary or inanimate objects. Clarify the difference between real and pretend, particularly with regards to safety concerns. Make certain that the children realize that jumping off a tall ledge will not make them fly, but that a swift kick to their friend will certainly cause real pain.
Take advantage of the expressed desire for power and control by emphasizing opportunities for children to make their own choices (red cup or blue cup?) or to master self-help skills like going to the bathroom, getting dressed independently, and cleaning up after one’s self. Exchange nagging over daily chores for the awe and amazement at the heroic feats.
Monitor closely the type of media that influences your children’s hero play. Many comic book, movie, and cartoon heroes are intended for older audiences. They often have an emphasis on violence over morals and are stereotypical in their presentation of what makes a hero. Explain the difference between real heroes and pretend heroes, without belittling the excitement and fun of being a pretend hero. Take the opportunity to discuss real heroes with your hero-oriented children. Point out a variety of heroes like firefighters on the news or neighbors who serve others and explain to your children that these are real heroes because they help real people.
My own hero-oriented boys were staying with an aunt and uncle, when their uncle was called out for a search and rescue assignment. As he was leaving, their aunt explained that some people needed help and he was going to try to help rescue them. My boys’ eyes widened as the realization struck them. Their uncle was a hero! The next time they stayed with the same couple, their uncle was called by his parents to come help them with a flat tire. Those boys still mention that Uncle Matt is a hero because he helps people. What a great model for these heroes in training!