Super Heroism and War Play In The Preschool

Does Super Heroism and War Play Have A Place In The Preschool Classroom?

Parents and educators often show concern about superhero and war play. More recently there has been a greater concern for “violent activity” after the events of 9/11 and the war in the Middle East. Television, movies, video games, and comic books are constantly saturated with the depiction of violence, and children are at our front lines – looking and listening.

However, war play and “super heroism” play have always existed well before the advent of television, comic books, video games, as nations are commonly found on the premise of hostility, violence, destruction, and death. The “good versus evil” psychology is heavily indoctrinated into western society and is quite evident historically.

The American Revolution War, the Civil War, the World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and more recently the war against Iraq, constitutes our western pathological dependency on “power,” through violent means. Yes, the world of war is deeply entrenched in a militaristic and political landscape, and our children are being exposed.

Understanding super heroism and war play

Violence is often in the home, on television, and in our communities. According to Diane E. Levin, in Beyond Banning War and Superhero Play, (Meeting Children’s Needs in Violent Times) comments, “children who seem most obsessed with war play have been exposed to the most violence and have the greatest need to work it out.”

From both therapeutic and cognitive perspectives, children use play to work out an understanding of experience, including the violence to which they are exposed. Young children may see violence in their homes and communities as well as in entertainment and news on the screen. We should not be surprised when children are intent on bringing it to their play. Children’s play often focuses on the most salient and graphic, confusing or scary, and aggressive aspects of violence. It is this content they struggle to work out and understand.

Kids who are feeling powerlessness or insecure have a higher need to create power through play. And this is evident by a child’s real need of creating a superhero or princess character. A strong need for creating a superhero or princess persona, is a sign of the internal struggle occurring to control and understand, a rather complicated world.

And so the question arises: are humans innately violent? And young people take on these highly physical roles in their play? Alfie Kohn in Psychology Today (1988) states multiple references stating why war is not humanistic trait, but a product of politics:

We conclude that biology does not condemn humanity to war, and that humanity can be freed from the bondage of biological pessimism. Violence is neither in our evolutionary legacy nor in our genes. The same species [that] invented war is capable of inventing peace.

However, we need to be cautious of places that are exclusively labeled as non-violent or peaceful places because this sets the stage for standardizing and stereotyping behavior. For example a liberal parent may propose maintaining a “peace house,” where “aggressive” behavior is not allowed. Restricting the natural emotions instincts, especially among boys to engage in physical play and free expressionism, only suppresses a human need to explore. In other words the need for some to have physical dramatic super heroism or war play will be robbed of this freedom of expression and of greater understanding of finding self empowerment. A “peace house” is also an illusionary approach to child rearing in a society where dissent and resistance is fundamental need for democracy. Instead the home or school need to be places where young people can have honest and authentic reactions to conflict, unfettered at times by adult expectations in behavior. Youth who are more apt to use super hero or war play, should never be punished – this only perpetuates a cycle for rage, resentment, and confusion.

There are many schools that have a zero tolerance for playing guns at school. Penny Holland from the University of North London focused her research on a book titled: We Don’t Play with Guns Here: War, Weapon and Superhero Play in the Early Years (2003.) Holland discovered that a zero tolerance on toy weapons is “ineffective” enforces further gender demarcation, and results in boys “receiving negative attention.”

In her conclusion Holland has found that adults need to:

“Model the use of power in our relationships with children . . . and must use it wisely” especially at a junction in history where the world is witnessing “an unending spiral of resistance and revenge” as a result of terrorist events unleashed by the events of September 11th.

Adults need to rethink their want to interrupt or deter fantasy and play if it is physical in nature. There are countless times when working at a preschool that I have heard the words “kill” and “gun.” Yes most schools don’t endorse weaponry at school but educators need to use their wise discretion about what is appropriate developmentally and what would be considered threatening. There is a difference between a four year old sticking tinker toy in someone else’s face and saying, “I’m going to kill you,” then a child who has built a tinker toy gun and is firing it imaginatively across the room. The concern with the tinker stick in front of their peers face is that it may intimidate or disrupt the other person’s play. I am not advocating for superhero or war play that completely disrupts another person’s play. However, some youth this age won’t hesitate to tell you: “oh…I’m just pretending.” And this is a sincere response, as young people often are absorbed in a world of fantasy and mean while are measuring up to the complexities of life, especially around exploring subjects such as mortality. “Heroism” and war play is their vehicle to finding ways of indentifying individually and socially, to their natural environment.

When is super heroism and war play acceptable in the classroom?

I would argue that it is developmentally appropriate for young people to engage in super heroism and war play. Physical play is acceptable as long as no one is being seriously threatened or hurt, and those involved have each other’s consent. Our rule of thumb at a independent school I teach at is: as long as the play does not disturb other peoples play or provide a unsafe environment, then there is a place for it. The kids in our class came up with the rules: no hitting, punching, or hurting each other. It certainly does not mean that rules are not broken or stretched dependent on individual needs. Normally, if I observe super heroism or war play, I’ll ask them if they all are “o.k.” or if they “feel safe” with this sort of play. And if someone is not “o.k.” with, it then we request that they ask the other person to Stop or find another activity.

If a conflict arises out of super heroism or war play into full on physical contact, it commonly does not last longer then it took for the short-lived tension to develop. Often a sticky conflict among playmates amounts to laughter and smiles. Preschool age kids are resilient when it comes to conflict and seldom hold grudges or animosity for long; love takes care of the rest.

Punishment for violent play is not the answer?

Understandable, teachers and parents become concerned when fists and feet our flailing and young people are upset. The number one goal is to provide a safe playful environment for learning. But, the reality of fantasy in play often contributes to some unpleasant and often annoying instances of tension. The worst we can do as teachers to inflict punitive measures during these times and set unrealistic limitations. Punishment of play, only breeds dishonesty, while they wait for the teacher to turn their back.

Working with three, four, and five year olds, the “good versus bad” interaction is constant. War like play is not going away, it is a natural course of childhood development. It does not need to be warmly embraced, but rather an accepted as an exploratory part of the growth of a child.

As educators may we create places understanding of our young “superheroes,” with more attention on the internal needs then what is occurring on the surface. As there is much more going on then meets the eye.

Preschool Punks. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint/publish, please leave a comment.

  1. #1 by Rosalind on June 15, 2007 - 11:55 am

    If a child is STILL doing these things at age 8,9 and 10. Should parents be concerned ?

  2. #2 by riseoutcenter on June 17, 2007 - 8:23 am

    What exactly are the “things” this particuliar age range, doing? Exactly what part of the play is the “concern,” and then I can honestly address your important question. Again, please, don’t focus much on the age, but rather the actual “concern.”

  3. #3 by Fannie Lewis on November 3, 2010 - 6:15 am

    I would like to use your information and picture for a class report.

  4. #4 by Lewis on November 3, 2010 - 6:17 am

    Book report

  5. #5 by Roc on November 3, 2010 - 5:26 pm

    Hi Fannie,

    Yes, go ahead and use what ever picture or writing you like for your report.

    I also love to hear back to see how it goes.

    I just encourage people to maybe mention my little blog:)

    All the best,


  6. #6 by Kim on May 10, 2011 - 9:29 pm

    Hi, I’m a preschool mentor teacher and I would like to print your article to pass along to a parent with questions about his preschool son’s gun play. Thank you for your consideration of this request.

  7. #7 by Debbie Bartlett on March 12, 2012 - 7:35 pm

    hi , think this is a great article.. Ive just read Holland s book. interesting read and has made me reevalute my teaching methods. Can i use part of this for a reference for a research project im doing at uni?

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  13. #13 by More Good Days - Parenting Blog on November 25, 2015 - 6:12 pm

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  1. Gun Play | More Good Days - Parenting Blog
  2. Gun Play – More Good Days – Parenting Blog

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