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In Power Play, children play at wielding imagined power (“I’m Spiderman”) or place their real power (“watch how fast I can run to the trees”) on display.
Power play involves:
- Controlling people and events
- Displaying great physical strength
- Exhibiting great natural ability
- Acting in a forceful way
- Facing adversity and overcoming challenges
Common Power Play Categories
Here are some common categories of power play that children are drawn to. Please note that there can be a lot of overlap between these categories–the boundaries are fuzzy.
Authority Figure Play
Children play at being powerful people. Princess, police officers, doctors, and veterinarians, for example. Playing at being The Mom is something children are drawn to because mothers wield so much authority and control over their lives. What counts as an authority figure should be seen through the eye of the child playing. For example, the grocery store cashier, the person driving the garbage truck, and the barista at the corner coffee shop may be seen as authority figures by a four year old and spark grocery store, garbage truck, and coffee shop related power play.
Hero And Villain Play
Kids enjoy taking on the roles of heroes like The Batman and villains like The Joker. Or maybe they play at being antiheroes like pirates. Good Guys need Bad Guys–princesses need evil witches, cops need bank robbers, the Smurfs need Gargamel. All the superheroes and the enemies they battle fit into this category. Hero and villain play can be seen as a subcategory of authority figure play.
Brain-starved zombies, rampaging giant robots, invading aliens, mutant sewer turtles, big bad wolfs–they are all powerful beings kids like to imitate. Playing at being bad or scary characters is empowering. Such play helps kids get inside the heads of these evil beings. Taking on the personas of evildoers brings some level of understanding of the differences (and similarities) between Good and Evil characters and what motivates them. Such play can also dissipate fear and anxiety children may feel about the powerful monsters living in their heads and under their beds.
Kids play with power by playing at being strong, scary, vicious, and raging animals–Or helpful, heroic, dependable, goodhearted animals. They may play at being attacking tigers or the heroic pet dog who leaps into the fray to save the day. Tiny animals can be powerful too. Spiders and other small critters appear in power play–especially when one of the playing children (or an adult a child knows) is fearful of the critter.
Children are exposed to weapons nearly everywhere they turn: movies, television, social media platforms, video games, real life, and LEGO building sets to name a few. Since weapons are such a big part of the world they live in, it makes sense that kids will bring them into their play. Even though weapons play is often banned in homes or early learning settings, kids will find a way. They’ll turn sticks into swords and gnaw toast into the shape of handguns–and if you take away all the sticks and toast, they’ll use their thumb and forefinger to blast the bad guys.
Physical And Mental Feats
Putting their physical and mental prowess on display is another way children engage in power play. Lifting, toting, pushing, and other heavy work shows the world they are strong and capable. So does play that involves cognitive challenges. For example, outsmarting a challenging jigsaw puzzle is a form of power play.
Sometimes kids play at being powerful by taking risks. Such play provides opportunity to both display physical ability and face fears. In some cases, such play may also involve exerting power by pushing back against an authority figure who does not approve of such risk taking. It should be noted that not all risks children take a physical. Sometimes risk taking play involves social or emotional risk.
Tool And Technology Play
Using tools and technology is another way kids take part in power play. Picture a three-year-old entrusted to use a stapler, hot glue gun, or handsaw, for example. Using tools and technology is a chance to display competence and physical skill. Like swords and laser blasters, tools and tech become symbols of power–“see how I used this hammer to pound that nail into the board? I’m so strong!”
Play With Behavior
While engaged in dramatic play with peers, children will often try on different types of behavior to display their power–maybe playing at being an angry giant or mean stepmother. It’s a chance to test drive and experiment with different ways of being. This behavior-focused power play can show up in real-world situations with parents and caregivers as well. Kids playfully experiment on their adults by trying on different personalities and behaviors.
These displays of power allow the child to test the adults limits and see how they respond to the challenge to their authority. Picture a usually compliant and helpful child stomping his foot with a plangry look on his face, defiantly refusing to bring his plate to the kitchen. Many power struggles erupt because the adult fails to see that the child is playing with a different behavior or way of being.
From Candyland to Freeze Tag, games are another way for children to display their skills and play at being powerful. Remember that child-invented games fall into this category as well. For example, many infants invent a game we could call Will They Get It For Me? You know the game–the child drops a toy while sitting in their highchair and waits to see if their adult picks it up and gives it back to them. When the toy is returned, the powerful child starts a new round of the game and drops it again.
Symbols Of Power
In power play, children often call upon objects to represent high-power status, leadership, or strength.
Weapons play is popular with some children because of the symbolic heft of a lightsaber or laser blaster. Those imaginary weapons transform the child into a hero out to save the day or villain eager to dominate the playground picnic table.
But the symbols of power don’t stop there. Princesses have their tiaras, kings have their scepters, superheros have their capes, wizards have their wands, and doctors have their stethoscopes. Speaking of doctors, every child who has ever played at being Doctor Who has dug up an object to use as a sonic screwdriver.
Same with playing Mom–she always has some symbol of her powerful momminess. It might be a purse, a pair of shoes, or a smartphone. I grew up with a neighbor kid who always insisted the mom have a wooden spoon when we played house. For that little boy, a wooden spoon was a symbol of the mom’s power both in play and real life.
Such object play tends to happen more in dramatic play and small world play where it enhances and reinforces the child’s role as a leader or powerful being. It shows up in other forms of play too–have you ever met a child who thinks she runs faster or jumps higher with her new shoes?
Power play can involve dark themes revolving around pretend violence, abuse, aggression, or death that adults may find aesthetically displeasing or inappropriate. Such play is often banned or made taboo.
Although it may be uncomfortable, such play should be supported whenever possible. One of Gray’s conditions of play states that play is non-literal and mentally removed from the ‘real’ or ‘serious’ world. Play violence is not real violence–and if the violence is indeed real, it’s not Play.
Another condition of play is that play is self-chosen and self directed. Children often chose these dark themes as a way to make sense of things they are observing in their lives. For example, I learned years later that my childhood playmate who expected the mother to have a wooden spoon as a symbol of power in our play had horrific experiences with his real mother and a real wooden spoon. In our play, he was trying to make sense of the real-life violence and exert some power and control over the situation in our play. These play scenarios can serve as self-administered doses of play therapy.
Developmental Benefits And Learning
We’ll wrap up with a look at the developmental benefits and learning that take place during power play. In short, such play can support all the learning in one way or another. As child-sized Batman and Spiderman save the world from evil they are also engaging in social emotional development, physical development, cognitive development, and the development of language and literacy skills.
Sometimes we have to peel away the veneer of power play to see the learning, but it’s there to see when we take the time to look.
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