Superhero play should stay

Off to save the world ...
Off to save the world ... 

My son, at about three or four, didn’t leave the house for a good year without donning his own, self-designed superhero gear. This consisted of a generic cape (handmade by Nanna) and a bike helmet (yeah, I know – how could I let him?) Now he’s 10, he won’t leave the house unless decked head to toe in surf labels. I’m not sure which is more trouble.

There were variations – I believe rubber gloves played a role at some point – but the look was basically the same. Weapons were optional, but they could include a sword made from tree bark or a shotgun built out of the kind of textas that clip together via the lids.

Preschool was gracious enough to let him attend in his superhero outfit, and I noticed they did the same some years later when my younger son’s friend attended every day dressed as Spiderman, complete with padded abs. But I was aware that among my circle of mummy-friends, some preschools had out and out banned superhero play and the costumes associated with it.

My younger son also took his superhero obsession seriously, leaning less towards the sartorial and more towards dramatic play. Like his brother, he was creative with his arsenal. Although we now had toys like water guns and plastic swords, he would still enlist found objects to his violent cause – sticks, scraps of paper, sculpted twists of alfoil.

Weapons, violence, aggression. What did this mean?

Banning superhero play can prevent opportunities for creative, physical and social play as well as reduce opportunities for children and adults to discuss and explore issues of right, wrong, power, responsibility and self-control.

I’m not talking here about the troubled play of little boys from violent homes. And there is no excuse for condoning bullying or the kind of parents that (unbelievable as it seems) still apparently advise their kids to hit first, lest they be hit.

I’m talking about the bam-pow-kapow school of ordinary little boy shoot ’em ups. And if you don’t think that’s frowned upon at all, you haven’t been near a preschool or a play group for some decades. It’s hearts and flowers, yes; guns and laser swords, no, no, no.

But a senior lecturer at Macquarie University’s Institute of Early Childhood says banning superhero play disregards the opportunities it can offer.

“There is little evidence that this kind of response (banning) is useful or effective, and can simply cause children to hide this form of play from adults,” says Dr Sheila Degotardi.

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“Banning superhero play can prevent opportunities for creative, physical and social play as well as reduce opportunities for children and adults to discuss and explore issues of right, wrong, power, responsibility and self-control.”

She added that the reasons children are attracted to superhero play are broadly two-fold: children inevitably incorporate aspects of their lives (in this case, what they see on television and in popular media) into their play; and it meets important psychological and social desires.

“Some researchers suggest that children are attracted to superhero play because it allows them to assume powerful roles that they otherwise would not experience,” said Dr Degotardi.

“Children can pretend to be strong and invincible, which provides them with a heightened status within their group.

“Superhero themes are most likely to be played out in groups, so this form of play can promote friendship and provide children with a means of playing out shared interests and involvement in popular culture. Involvement in this play can provide children with companionship and opportunities to negotiate and cooperate with each other as they invent often long and detailed story-lines.

“By providing children with opportunities to explore issues of power and control, superhero play can help children to develop an identity, both within themselves and within their peer group. It also provides opportunities for children to explore moral values and dilemmas and to establish what they and others perceive as right and wrong.”

In a world in which they kids have very little control (and neither should they – they’re preschoolers), it can be a way of finding for themselves a sense of personal power (even if it comes from altered alien DNA).

My youngest is now six and the capes and swords are still on high rotation in my house. I expect it will remain that way until – perhaps – a football takes their place and a rugby field becomes their battle ground instead.