Superhero Play – May 12

By: Poppy Ivone


Boys of all ages have been known to be overly fascinated by superheroes. It is almost like it is part of their genetic coding! My own 4-year-old adores Super/Bat/ SpiderMan (and I suspect everything and anything that ends with ‘…Man’). Most of his male peers are the same. And herein lies the problem for me, with superhero play often comes the dreaded rough-and-tumble play. This is physical playing that involves noisy and slightly violent behaviour. It emerges at about 3 years of age, peaking at 8 to 10 years and is 3 – 6 times more common in boys than girls. Naturally, this type of play elicits some type of worrying since it often ends up in tears and someone getting hurt. Banning it just makes it covert, escalates the thrill factor, and makes the boys obsess about it more. Trust me, I have tried and failed.

Despite my reservations, this type of play is actually healthy and beneficial from early childhood perspective. Young children, facing the challenges of learning many new skills, may often feel small, helpless, fearful, or troubled—just the opposite of superheroes. Through superhero play, they can feel brave, in control of their world, and just plain powerful. This play also often involves much negotiation between children and so promotes social and conflict resolution skills, which are difficult yet invaluable skills to master.

Many have suspected that superhero play may lead to real violence later on, but researchers have found just the opposite to be true. Dr Louise Porter (2008) states that play fighting is used to establish and test dominance in a group without violating social norms by being truly aggressive. It allows children the opportunity to de-escalate the play when it becomes too arousing, which teach the important lesson on how to regulate their emotions. This helps children learn how to handle adversity without aggression later on. This a particularly important lesson for males, which ensures that, as adults, they can step back from the brink of violence.

So the next time your child dress up as a …Man, punch his fist in the air, let out a blood-curdling yell while jumping off the couch in a mock-attack on his bro / Dad / dog, take a deep breath and try to hold your “NO! Stop!” knee-jerk reflex. You can watch warily for when it is really necessary to intervene but remember that this phase too shall pass. Seize the teachable moment by discussing that Jesus is the real superhero (Acts 10:38) so above all, they should try to emulate Him.

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