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Dr. Toy Talks about Superhero Play

Superheroes have abilities children only dream of -- they are strong, fast, courageous and can overcome obstacles... sometimes in a single bound. They also do many good deeds. After all, that is an important goal we hope children will internalize -- learning about doing good for others.
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Superhero play is of great interest and also often concern, especially when a new movie is released. Shazam!

With the burst of advertising, kids and parents learn about Ironman. Can Wonder Woman be far behind? An excellent documentary recently released presents my favorite heroine. I will share the details later.

Ironman, Wonder Woman, and many other icons (Aquaman, Barney, Batman, Buzz Lightyear, Captain America, Incredible Hulk, Sheena, Spiderman and Superman) have been around for as long as we can remember. Pow!

We can all recall the fun of role playing, being our favorite hero or heroine. They were the "go to" greatly demanded costume eagerly wanted for Halloween. Being that superhero or heroine was often an effective way to signal a younger sib to learn not to bother your things or they might be quickly stopped by the superhero's unseen powers.

Superheroes provide fantasy play, magical powers and help to expand a child's self-esteem. Children of all ages enjoy being engaged when they become someone else for awhile, especially a superhero.

Superheroes have abilities children only dream of -- they are strong, fast, courageous and can overcome obstacles... sometimes in a single bound. They also do many good deeds. After all, that is an important goal we hope children will internalize -- learning about doing good for others.

Young children face many challenges and have to learn many new skills. They often feel small, helpless, fearful, unable to accomplish what they desire, or are troubled--in other words, they can feel just the opposite of superheroes.

It's understandable that preschoolers are drawn to superhero play. Through superhero play, they can experience being brave. They are less afraid to try something new, and through imagining life through a different lens, can often better handle their own life and the world around them. They feel good, if not extraordinary.

Research tells us play is an essential element in development. Through play, children test the waters, try out roles, behaviors, investigate right and wrong and experiment with new language.

They also expand their use of creativity, find new outlets for physical activity, and learn more about the difficult skills they need to manage like impulse control, self defense and conflict resolution.

Clearly, many children have a need to play superheroes.

What is superhero play? This is imaginative and dramatic play. This play is a form of rough and tumble, free play and can, if allowed to be experienced, contribute to their healthy development.

So, why would any preschool or parent ban superhero play?

Controversy arises when teachers must cope with an increase of aggression. Loud sounds as little ones play out roles can become larger, and louder as they play.

You can imagine what it's like to hear the sounds of one superhero or another, and then consider the din when you multiply it by 25. Kids who act out do dramatically change, as you will notice at home.

3- to 5-year-old children use sounds, signals and action to respond. Their voices get louder as they internalize their favorite role-playing model. They also like to chase each other.

Pretending is not passive. It takes a lot of imagination and energy to be a superhero of any size.

Teachers have to keep all children safe. If any child gets carried away with his or her fantasy, and inadvertently hurts another child, there can be pain and crying. The sounds in a school yard can quickly add up to a lot of noise.

Parents and teachers both share in wanting children to be safe and secure at home and at school. So, a balance must be drawn so that children may play and enjoy freedom within prescribed boundaries.

There are a variety of skills parents and teachers need to possess to help children sort things out. Children need to understand good and bad, how to limit rough house play and to be able to shift gears. This is not easy for young children to do. It takes practice and patience on the part of adults also, good humor, tact and guidance without infringing on their need for experience and self-expression.

How can children act out safely, within limits, and not trample on each other's explorations? How can all of the needs of young children be met at the same time? Some flexibility is required. Young children also need to learn boundaries, what is safe and how to limit noise and change activities.

Where and when does fantasy play begin and end?

Children use props, costumes, action figures or just imagination and memory to imitate their favorite superheroes. They are greatly influenced by movies, TV programs, commercials, games, stories, their sibs, friends and neighbors. They can act out with a mere suggestion, or a prop.

Superhero fantasy play is normal, natural and an important part of childhood experiences. Some act out stories they have heard or seen.

This form of play brings children together in play groups to talk, laugh and act out scenarios. Children feel more in control by playing out roles. They also enjoy the social connect with other children who share their attitudes, preferences and excitement.

Children are personally attracted to specific aspects of superheros -- power, strength, mannerisms, ways of speaking and acting. They also have questions, or are uncertain. They need clarification about certain actions or expressions. Their questions and concerns vary with age, experience, maturity and exposure.

Another issue is acting out of violence which is challenging, especially if themes presented are about war and show of strength. Most parents and teachers would prefer to support peace, cooperation, fair play, gender equality and balance between children.

My childhood included being an enthusiastic fan of Wonder Woman. I still am inspired by her personae and cherish bracelets as a symbol of the magic she possessed. If you are interested in learning more about the powerful impact of Wonder Woman, you can view the new 55-minute documentary, "Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines." The film traces the fascinating evolution and legacy of Wonder Woman from the birth of the comic book heroine in the 1940s to today and looks at how women reflect society and its views. Available through educational distributor, New Day Films, where a complete curriculum guide is also available to help teachers use the video with students.

A long-time toy executive shared with me the following story:

Superman has always been my personal favorite superhero. I watched every TV episode of the original Superman TV series over and over for many years. I created capes from towels to imitate Superman when I was a little boy. In the early '60s I bought every Superman and Batman comic book that was ever published. I saved each cherished edition in perfect condition until my family moved. But, without knowing years later there would be a large market and great value for previously owned comic books, I voluntarily threw out my entire comic book collection... I don't think I read another comic book after that. Nothing else interested me like the storylines in Superman and Batman.

Controversial issues arise about heroes and the wide range of products that are licensed and based on them, including action figures, backpacks, Band-Aids, bedding, books, caps, comic books, costumes, games, posters, props, T shirts and more.

Two good books on the subject for kids are How to Be a Superhero by Rachel Yu (a colorful, fun children's picture book) and The Superhero Starter Kit by Klutz.

Have fun with your child and whatever Superhero character is selected. And may the force be with you.

To learn more read my book, Dr. Toy's Smart Play Smart Toys: How to Raise a Child with a High P.Q. (Play Quotient), visit my website, Dr. Toy's Guide,, or download my new App, Dr. Toy's Best Gift Guide.

© 2013 Stevanne Auerbach, PhD, San Francisco, CA

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