The Two Separate Issues of Superhero Play and Weapon Play
It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a preschooler with an ill-fitting cape costume.
Children love superheroes. Superheroes are magic. They are all powerful, full of bravery and can solve any problem. Children use pretend play to understand their world. They pretend to be superheroes to understand power. They wonder what it would feel like to be a hero. They want to know how it would feel to lead rather than be led. When I was a girl, I loved watching “Bewitched.” I would twitch my nose and hope something would happen. I hoped anything would happen. I would twitch my nose to see if a noise from outside would stop. I wasn’t a big fan of “I Dream of Jeannie” but I admit that every so often I tried the eye blink and nod, too. If the noise did stop, I could pretend that I controlled the universe. In many ways, adults still try to pretend that we have such control.
Superhero play is a natural experiment with power and control. When children play superheroes, we see them rescue people as they fight the bad guys. It would be far less controversial if it weren’t for the bad guys. None of the children want to be the bad guy. When they do pretend to be the bad guy, it is short lived. They succumb to the power of the hero rather quickly so they can change roles. I am always amused when no one is willing to play the role of the bad guy and I have a classroom of preschoolers cast in the roles of different superheroes as they try to defeat an invisible nemesis. When the children argue over who will be the good guys, I have been known to suggest that they can all be good. Pretend the bad. Wanting to be a hero is good. Wanting to save people is a noble aspiration. I would venture a guess that many of today’s law enforcement officers started with a superhero costume.
Weapon play is a more difficult situation to navigate. I have come to believe that it is natural for children to use pretend weapons. When my sons were young, I did not have toy weapons in my house. That wasn’t a problem for my children because they would simply make them out of whatever toys they had available. When no toy is available, children simply use their hands. I recognize that weapon play is on the same theme of power. The problem is that this activity, which is not unique to this generation, is taking place at a time of heightened sensitivity due to the violence in our world. Schools have a zero tolerance policy. Just as children entering kindergarten should have learned that there is a time and place for different behaviors, they need to know the correct time and place for weapon play. In this world – in today’s society filled with the fear of school violence – school is not the place for weapon play. Do what you would like at home. I do not believe that every child who plays with pretend weapons will grow up to be violent. I do believe that a reasonable school boundary is respect for people and property. When we respect people in a school, we don’t pretend to shoot them or stab them with a sword. That simply is not acceptable school behavior. When children inevitably try to use toys as weapons, I believe that there is a lesson to be learned. Egocentric preschoolers don’t always understand that when they hit someone, it hurts them. They also need to learn that weapons hurt people. Police have guns. Police are real life superheroes. They have weapons to protect us and they learn how to use them properly. I believe that such distinctions can be explained simply to children. When they put on their ill-fitting capes and run around the room pretending they can fly, I encourage them to rescue, to save and to make the world a better place.
For more information about how children play, click on these titles: "How to Play WITH Your Children - It's Harder Than It Sounds", "What is the Most Important Activity in Your Young Child's Day?" and "Putting Imaginative Play Back Into Childhood".
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