Around the age of 4, many children begin to exhibit behaviors, such as gun play or superhero play, which enable them to feel a sense of power or control. Teachers often feel unsure of the best way to handle this type of play. Traditional approaches of banning the play or allowing the play with limits often result in meeting the teacher’s need for classroom control but do not address the developmental issues with which children are dealing. Teachers who actively facilitate children’s gun play or superhero play provide for both children’s needs as well as their own.
Superhero play, gun play, and war play are types of power play that share common characteristics. Power play generally occurs among children between the ages of four and six. All types of power play share some common characteristics. First, there are always good guys and bad guys, or good versus evil. In power play, there is no gray area. You are either a good guy or a bad guy, never a combination of the two. Children at this age are very “black and white” in their thinking and often have a difficult time seeing two aspects of the same situation. For example, in the Piagetian conservation tasks, pre-operational children focus on only one aspect of the situation. In the conservation of number task, children concentrate on the length of each row of objects when making a decision about which row has more rather than focusing on the number. Another common characteristic of children’s power play is that there is always a conflict between the good guys and the bad guys. Regardless of whether children are engaging in superhero play or war play, it is the responsibility of the good buys to fight the bad guys. Lastly, control or power is the central theme of the play. Children are trying to answer the question of who will ultimately win or be in control.
THE APPEAL OF SUPERHERO PLAY
There seems to be a universal appeal of superhero play among young children. Bauer & Dettore (1997) suggest several reasons for this. Through this type of play, children have the ability to possess the power that superheroes have enabling them to perform amazing feats. Since children little control over their world, superhero play allows them to be physically powerful and to have control over the events around them. Children make the rules for the play and draw the boundaries, thus giving them another avenue for feeling powerful. They have the ability to stop the game, giving them the greatest power. Superhero play also allows children to try on new roles and become capable of solving problems. They have the pleasure of knowing that good triumphed over evil and that they had the power to overcome the bad guys. It also gives children an opportunity to engage in physical activities such as running, jumping, and kicking.
SUPERHERO PLAY IN THE CLASSROOM
Although power play is common among young children, teachers often feel uncomfortable when this type of play emerges in the classroom. According to Bauer & Dettore (1997) teachers frequently view power play as meaningless and aggressive. They believe that children will become out of control, disruptive, or threatening. Power play has a tendency to turn rough and noisy, and often creativity is diminished. Levin & Carlsson-Paige (1995) surveyed teachers about their concerns of this type of play in the classroom. Their concerns fell into two main categories: “increased levels of violence among children and violence, imitation, and lack of creativity in children’s play” (p. 69).
Teachers have several choices to consider when superhero play or war play appears in their classrooms. Carlsson-Paige & Levin (1987) outline the following four options:
Option 1: Ban the Play
With this option, teachers forbid children to engage in the play. They may or may not give an explanation to the children. This option may address the teacher’s need to maintain a peaceful classroom environment, but it does not adequately address the children’s needs. Kuykendall (1995) supports the banning of this type of play because children can work out feelings in other areas. She adds, however, that if teachers choose to ban this type of play then children must have other opportunities to feel power. Boyd (1997), however, opposes banning superhero play. When superhero play or war play is banned, children do not have an opportunity to work out their developmental needs. Banning the play sends a message to children that their interests are not valued at school.
Option 2: Take a Laissez-Faire Approach
With this option, teachers openly allow children to engage in the play, but do not take on an active role. Teachers may support this option because they realize the benefit of allowing the play and supporting children’s interests. However, this option does not usually allow a role for the teacher to actively facilitate the play and truly meet children’s developmental needs.
Option 3: Allow the Play to Continue with Specific Limits
This is similar to the laissez-faire approach in that teachers are allowing the play to continue, but in this case with specific limits. The limits may include where the play can take place or the types of materials that are permitted to be used. These limits help teachers to maintain a peaceful classroom environment while still attempting to address children’s needs. However, the limits that are set attempt to establish classroom values for the children (such as guns are not acceptable) rather than letting children discover their own values. Teachers have a limited role with this option as well; therefore children’s developmental needs may not be adequately addressed.
Option 4: Actively Facilitate the Play.
When teachers facilitate children’s play, they intervene to extend the play. Teachers may offer suggestions to children about new roles or materials, or take on a role within the play to help children enhance the quality of the play. For example, a teacher may ask a child who has made a gun to show her how the gun works. She may then ask question to encourage the child to expand his views of the play situation. She may ask, “What if you just wanted to capture the bad guy instead of hurting him. How would your weapon be different? How could you make a weapon like that?” When facilitating power play, it is essential that all of the children remain physically and emotionally safe. No one’s feelings should be hurt during the play. This option is often more difficult for teachers to accept, but is more beneficial to both the teachers and the children because it aids in children’s development. Carlsson-Paige & Levin (1987) point out that
The teacher is helping the children to gain control over their impulses, to take points of view other than their own, to distinguish between fantasy and reality, to work out their own understanding about what they have heard about the world around them, and to experience a sense of their own power and mastery through play. (pg. 49).
Teachers have several options when responding to superhero play in the classroom. Each option has potential benefits for either the children or the teacher, however the best option for handling superhero play in the classroom is to actively facilitate it. This option allows teachers to meet children’s developmental needs and become active in the children’s play. Teachers who take on a role, ask questions, or make suggestions show respect for children’s ideas and encourage children to extend their thinking and use creativity within their play experiences.