By Pam Gelman, M.A.
At your child's preschool, a boy emerges from his "bat cave" ready to combat evil. Sound familiar? Superhero play is an everyday occurrence in numerous preschool classrooms. But many parents wonder if the violent behavior of superheroes in television and film negatively influences a child's social development. Experienced teachers know that superhero play is inevitable and can provide a valuable opportunity for young children to learn about helping others.
Preschoolers learn that words and actions have meaning. Pretending to be a superhero is one way for them to feel as powerful as adults. "This type of play allows children to feel in control and invincible at a time when developmentally they might be feeling just the opposite," says Erica Pelavin, an individual and family therapist in Palo Alto, Calif. It also involves moving their bodies in vigorous ways such as jumping, running and chasing.
Preschool-age girls also engage in superhero play, though typically with less rough-and-tumble behavior than their male classmates. Through verbal interaction with their peers, girls use fantasy scenarios to explore different roles and feelings of power. Girls engaged in superhero play may be less physical but require the same responsiveness from their teachers to reinforce positive values.
The line between fantasy and reality is momentarily blurred when a preschooler pretends to escape a villain by climbing a spider web, but he is still learning an important lesson. Young kids become familiar with the concepts of goodness and fairness and act out these themes through play. Preschool teachers and parents can help kids distinguish between powerful behavior that hurts individuals and actions that benefit others. Pelavin stresses, "Helping children to find their own positive superheroes and talking about their attributes can be a wonderful starting point. Parents and teachers can explain that true superheroes solve problems without violence. True superheroes are the people who are courageous and do things to help others."
Pretending to be a Power Ranger or Buzz Lightyear is also an opportunity for preschoolers to try on different personalities. While they may be intimidated to share their ideas on their own, as superheroes kids may find it easier to express differing opinions. Pelavin adds, "By taking on another persona, the child can practice responding positively to fearful and anxiety-producing situations, such as teasing and bullying. Often kids disclose aspects of themselves that they might not reveal without this type of fantasy play."
Kids engaged in superhero play use their imagination and learn to work well with others. Teachers can take advantage of this opportunity to support creative learning by setting up art materials and encouraging students to make props, costumes and sets. Working with peers supports developing skills in cooperation, negotiation and compromise. The job for preschool teachers is to make sure this play is productive and fun for everyone and has strict boundaries so that all participants feel safe.
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