As children begin a new year of elementary school or preschool, their teachers may find themselves facing the same question that kindergarten teacher Gaye Gronlund did back in the early 1990s: how should adults respond to kids playing rowdy superhero games?

At first, when observing her students at play, Gronlund found the games to be excessively violent. However, she notes that when she asked her students to refrain from mock-fighting, “the children would nod their heads, mimic my words back to me, and then go off and play the same games, but more surreptitiously.”

Gronlund writes in the journal Young Children that she changed her approach partly thanks to an article that appeared in the same journal several years earlier. This piece, by child development scholars Marjorie J. Kostelnik, Alice P. Whiren, and Laura C. Stein, argued that superhero play can be good for children.

To help teachers address superhero play, the authors start by exploring what makes the roles so appealing to young kids. They note that superheroes (at least in the sorts of media that young children typically consume) are unquestionably good, powerful, well-liked, in control, and inevitably victorious. The authors write:

Thus, superhero play gives children access to power and prestige unavailable to them in daily experience…It helps them build self-confidence at a time when they are struggling with real-life obstacles which are not always so predictably vanquished: dressing themselves, making friends, toilet training, eating without spilling, and otherwise meeting adult expectations and standards.

Kostelnik, Whiren, and Stein write that playing the role of superheroes lets children develop physical skills like running and jumping, experiment with moral values, and improve their language skills and cooperation. While these games may sometimes get physical, the authors argue that it’s a mistake to confuse play-fighting with the real thing. In fact, playing with aggressive behavior is valuable to kids, who can learn how to regulate their own anger and respond to strong emotions from others.

The authors offer ways teachers can help students benefit from this kind of play, including pointing out their favorite superheroes’ kindness and helpfulness rather than just their power, and encouraging children to end games they aren’t enjoying by clearly stating that they are done playing.

In her own classroom, Gronlun explored what students got out of playing “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” by encouraging the children to teach her about the characters. As she learned more about their play, she came to see the “aggressive” games as “fake-fighting”—though she noted that, given the five- and six-year-olds’ gross-motor skills, people still sometimes got hurt. Following a suggestion from Kostelnik, Whiren, and Stein, she explained to her students how stunt actors in the live-action Ninja Turtles movie carefully planned their fake fights. Then, when the kids’ play threatened to get out of hand, she could remind them to “fight like they did in the movie.”

Today’s kindergarten teachers may be more likely to face Spiderman than Donatello, but techniques for responding effectively remain the same.

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Young Children, Vol. 41, No. 4 (May 1986), pp. 3-9
National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)
Young Children, Vol. 48, No. 1 (NOVEMBER 1992), pp. 21-25
National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)