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Beyond Banning War and Superhero Play Meeting Young Children's Needs in Violent Times

By — National Association for the Education of Young Children
Updated on Feb 20, 2009

Four-year-old Jules is particularly obsessed. Telling him no guns or pretend fighting just doesn’t work. When he’s a good guy, like a Power Ranger, he thinks it’s okay to use whatever force is needed to suppress the bad guy, “because that’s what a superhero does!” And then someone ends up getting hurt. When we try to enforce a ban, the children say it’s not superhero play, it’s some other kind of play. Many children don’t seem to know more positive ways to play, or they play the same thing over and over without having any ideas of their own. I need some new ideas. This experienced teacher’s account captures the kinds of concerns I often hear from teachers worried about how to respond to war play in their classrooms (Levin 2003). These expressions of concern about play with violence tend to increase when violent world events, like 9/11 and the war against Iraq, dominate the news. Play, viewed for decades as an essential part of the early childhood years, has become a problem in many classrooms, even something to avoid. Teachers ask why play is deemed so important to children’s development when it is so focused on fighting. Some are led to plan other activities that are easier to manage and appear at first glance to be more productive. Reducing playtime may seem to reduce problems in the short term, but this approach does not address the wide-ranging needs children address through play.

Why are children fascinated with war play?

There are many reasons why children bring violent content and themes into their play. They are related to the role of play in development and learning as well as to the nature of the society in which war play occurs (Carlsson-Paige & Levin 1987, 1990; Cantor 1998; Levin 1998a, 1998b, 2003; Katch 2001). 

Exposure to violence. 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. Typically, the children who seem most obsessed with war play have been exposed to the most violence and have the greatest need to work it out.

Need to feel powerful. Most young children look for ways to feel powerful and strong. Play can be a safe way to achieve a sense of power. From a child’s point of view, play with  violence is very seductive, especially when connected to the power and invincibility portrayed in entertainment. The children who use war play to help them feel powerful and safe are the children who feel the most powerless and vulnerable.

Influence of toys linked to violent media. Children’s toys give powerful messages about the content and direction of play. Open-ended toys, like blocks, stuffed animals, and generic dinosaurs, can be used in many ways that the child controls. Highly structured toys, such as action figures that talk and playdough kits with molds to make movie characters, tend to have built-in features that show children how and what to play. Many of today’s bestselling toys are of the highly structured variety and are linked to violent media. Such toys are appealing because they promise dramatic power and excitement. These toys channel children into replicating the violent stories they see on screen. Some children, like Jules, get “stuck” imitating medialinked violence instead of developing creative, imaginative, and beneficial play.

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