Superman leaps between hotel room beds wearing nothing but a terrycloth cape as Mom pleads with him to go to sleep.
Wonder Woman enthusiastically ties her smiling little brother to the kitchen table with her magic jump rope lasso while Dad makes mac-and-cheese.
Batman fights imaginary Joker henchmen to pass the time at Grandma’s funeral.
Superhero play. On the surface it is loud, violent-looking, messy, rowdy, hurly-burly, and rambunctious. It looks so out of control. It seems so chaotic. It often takes place at inopportune times in inopportune places—at least in the minds of nearby adults.
The thing is, if you peel away the surface annoyances and look deeper, Superhero play is valuable and rich in playful learning. Here’s just a small part of what your little superhero could be learning with all the leaping and yelling:
Superhero play builds muscle strength and control, visual tracking skills, coordination, balance, and kinesthetic awareness. All that running, jumping, and flying is especially good at building core strength as well as strength and control in the arms and legs—things that have to develop before a child gains full control of the small muscles in their hands and wrists used in writing. That’s right, superhero play is a pre-writing activity.
On the surface, superhero play sounds like a lot of yelling, but if you pay close attention you’ll find that this type of play drips with language. Children engaged in superhero play solidify their existing vocabulary, try out new words, develop listening skills, practice the give-and-take of conversation, and use language as a tool for problem solving and negotiation.
Social skills are learned through real-time practice and superhero play is ripe with opportunities for such practice. Among other things, Aquaman and those Ninja Turtles over there on the other side of the room are honing their self-control, practicing taking turns, learning to problem-solve, reading body language, negotiating, and delaying gratification.
Learning to “be good” requires an understanding of what bad looks like. This is one of the reasons some kids relish taking on the role of Bad Guy—it’s a chance to play at all the things they are repeatedly told not to do. Superhero play is also a great opportunity for kids to blow of some steam and manage stress. It is hard work for a lot of children to keep their hands to themselves, listen to their teacher, and live up to adult expectations all day long—becoming The Batman is a chance to let loose.
Children enthralled with the zip and zoom of superhero play also explore big concepts like Power, Control, Heroism, Leadership, Life, and Death. These are weighty concepts for young kids to contemplate–their play is rich in subtext and symbolism. Play provides a safe, non-threatening environment for children to explore them. Playing at Death with your friends makes it easier to cope with the death of pets and loved ones in real life. Being a powerful hero saving the world while playing makes it a bit easier to be a responsible and kind big brother when it’s time to share your Hot Wheels.
It may be hard to see that pummeling each other with imaginary laser beams and beating each other with foam pool noodles promotes healthy emotional development, but it does. For children to learn to manage emotions, they need to experience them. Superheroing around is a great opportunity to explore big emotions: Anger, Fear, Anxiety, Stress, Passion, Joy, Sorrow, Anguish, and more. Remember, play is a safe haven for kids to explore complicated concepts—and we all know how complicated emotions can be.
We don’t keep our kids safe by trying to remove all potential risks from their lives, we keep them safe by helping them learn to recognize and assess risk in real time; we keep them safe by helping them understand their abilities and limits. For example, knowing you can safely jump from the third step on the back porch requires lots of jumping experience. Once you have that experience-based knowledge, it’s easy to assess whether or not you can confidently leap from the retaining wall in your buddy’s front yard. Learning to assess and manage risk takes lots of practice—and superhero play is rich in practice opportunities.
As you see, under the surface superhero play is rich in playful learning. That means we adults should step back a bit and find ways to embrace and support it in our homes and early learning programs. One of the first steps is being able to identify it. You may be surprised to learn that the most popular form of superhero play is not usually LOUD and wild; flying, lasers, and super strength are rarely involved; and you may describe it as cute and sweet.
That’s because the most popular superhero by far is not Superman, Captain America, Iron Man, or The Incredible Hulk. The most popular superhero for young children to imitate, idealize, and play at is Mom.
Think about it—in the eyes of most preschoolers Mom is all powerful and always in control. She solves problems, brings peace, and vanquishes scary shadow-monsters at bedtime. If she says eat your peas you eat your peas. In the eyes of young children Mom is more Super and Hero than anyone Marvel or DC can put in a comic book or on a movie screen. In fact, the only superhero more powerful than Mom is Grandma…she has some strange psychic power over Mom.
A dichotomy exists in many early learning settings: Playing Moms, Princesses, or Fairies gets a green light, space, time, and props. Playing Batman, Hulk, or Pirate gets a red light, a sigh, and an eye roll. One of the biggest things we can do as parents and early educators to support all the playful learning of superhero play is to find ways to make Transformer, Ninja Turtle, Knight, Pirate, and Fantastic Four play as socially acceptable as Mom play.
Once we wrap our heads around the idea that all superhero play has value, we can start taking steps to support Batman as much as we support Mom; to support Power Rangers as much as we support Fairy Princesses. Here are some suggestions:
Provide children with big hunks of time where they are free to lead their own play.
Provide plenty of space safe for leaping, running, flying, and teleporting.
Provide lots of open ended materials so children can create the props they need. Think cardboard boxes, tape, paper, blocks, and markers, not store-bought costumes and plastic laser blasters.
Trust the children to lead their own playful learning—even if you have to dig deep to see the value in it. Try not to interfere too much. Trust that playing at Batman is as valuable as playing at Mom.