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The Year the Superheroes and Villains Came

on Wed, 03/13/2013 - 11:08

As a parent and early childhood educator, I thought I was well-equipped to deal with every developmental stage. I was grounded in the teachings of child development. I knew I was ready for anything that could possibly happen between birth and age 8— that is, until the year the superheroes and their villains arrived. I was overwhelmed and was not prepared for this type of play.

Superhero play at my house went beyond Ninja Turtles and pizza. It included venom-spewing characters and weapons. Villains were occasionally jailed, but quite a few were … um, murdered. Comic books gradually replaced the cute picture books about hungry caterpillars and pigeons driving buses. I panicked!

After getting over the initial shock and reflecting on my own childhood experiences, I began to observe and assess. I quickly noticed some of the benefits of superhero play. The vocabulary used by the children during this play was complex and included words like camouflage, potent, mutant, and psionic. Building a structure that would defend the world from a villain who had an arsenal of toxic chemicals required higher-level thinking skills. Superhero play promoted social responsibility and democratic principles. It was also a great physical activity.

Like with any other type of play, my role was to make sure the superhero play was both physically and emotionally safe. I prepared an environment that fostered imaginary play. Many of the toys used were made with household items. I also facilitated conversations that addressed ethics. We examined the role of violence as a problem-solving strategy and the lack of female and culturally diverse superheroes. We also talked about the heroes in our family and everyday heroic actions like recycling and sharing.

Whew, what a difference a year makes! Now on to the next challenge: competitive sports. I may need superpowers to deal with this.

Marica Mitchell is Director of Higher Education Accreditation and Program Support at NAEYC.


Great article and after reading and thinking about my own 3 kids play with toys I can see the higher vocabulary skills in play. My 5 year old who is developmentaly delayed speaks clearer and better in play. Thank you for bring this to my attention as I find it very interesting.    

I like how you observe your sons' play and think about how to talk about it.  I hear some parents say "no guns" automatically without thinking.  Better to have this play out in the open, observe it, talk about it, intervene if there's a problem.

I'm curious as to what age the children are who are engaging in this play and where they have learned about these superheroes. I am 47 years old. The superheroes of my day are a far cry from the avengers, batman, etc of today. My preschool students this year are actually watching the violent, murderous PG 13 "heroes". I think its great that you discuss real life heroes and talk about fighting as a poor method of problem solving. You empower your sons to recognize the good qualities of these men and women (my current favorite is Storm from the XMen) and give them the desire to "fight for right". My problem is the marketing of this violence to our youngest children and the parents who are exposing their children to this violence.       

I am a Head Start teacher and would love to do week theme or lesson plan on superheroes  but can't seem to find what is needed to make it a safe and age appropriate. Please help

Hah, as a former US Marine and a degreed teacher in Early Childhood Education, I GET the need for good guy/bad guy play.  Never understood all the "panick." Let them play!!

We see a lot of this in my preschool and while I have some understanding of the benefits of good guy/bad guy play, what I am seeing is children acting out movie scenes that they have little understanding of.  This is not the same as creative play or working through difficult social concepts.  Often one child is forced to play the bad guy, sometimes unknowingly, and the play consists almost exclusively of battle.  When asked what the battle is about the children say they don't know or that so-and-so is "just bad."  When teachers prompt them to extend the theme to make it more complex and meaningful children really resist because they just want to act out the scene from the movie.  With many of our boys it becomes an obsession that bleeds into almost everything they do; art time is spent making weapons, blocks become weapons, etc.   To be sure there is some creativity going on in the construction of weapons and some social learning opportunities, but I feel like it is really limited when they are basically parroting scripts from the screen.  Parents who do not allow these kinds of movies are also frustrated when their children become involved in this kind of play and ask that we not allow it.  This creates tension between families and teachers.   I am reluctant to "ban" any type of play, but I am certainly apt to limit any kind of play that seem like parroting scenes from the screen.

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