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Banning Superhero Play Won’t Put an End to Playground Cruelty

kid superhero

No superheroes on the playground, kids — that’s what a Philadelphia preschool recently announced, much to the chagrin of geek parents everywhere. As ROBOT 6 reported earlier this week, a notice went around to parents of preschoolers asserting that “the imaginations of our preschool children are becoming dangerously overactive.” The letter goes on to state that “wrestling, Super Hero play and Monster games will not be permitted.” After one parent posted the letter on Reddit, the entire weight of internet fan culture came down on this preschool. While I strongly disagree with the language the school used to describe these pre-K crimes of imagination, I think this letter hits on a deeper problem with children and modern media.

Playgrounds are cruel places. As a child, I used to play with a set of friends (all female) who would re-enact movie scenes from Disney films. Because I was born in the 1980s, we will call these girls “Jennifer”:

rafikiJennifer #1: I’m Simba!
Jennifer #2: I’m Nala!
Jennifer #1: That means you’re Rafiki!
Me: But …
Jennifer #2: You have a monkey butt!
Me: No, I don’t!
Jennifer #1: Your monkey butt is hanging out! I’m going to hit it with a stick!
Me: In the movie, Rafiki has the stick …
Jennifers: Monkey butt! Monkey butt!

I was not a popular child, me with my monkey butt and slowness to pick up my own stick to fight back. Anyway, the point of this illustration is that children do not play out actual movie scenes — they play what they want to play (namely: hit the weaker child with the stick) and will cloak it in whatever characters and scenery they think is interesting that week. This same game played out with a variety of characters, including the entire gamut of Disney princess stories, all of which ended in tragedy for me.

I can see how even the most benign of superheroes, in the hands of hyperactive children, could end up with a lot of name-calling and bruising. In my parents’ era, they had cowboys and Indians. Before that, I’m guessing something about Nazis vs. G.I.’s. Before that, it was the Depression, so maybe Okies vs. Rampant Hunger. Children spend a lot of time doing what adults tell them. When they go out to play, they’ll often act out a variety of power dynamics to see how they feel about them. Stopping a specific genre of play isn’t going to change the desire to experiment with power.

Allowing kids to act out superhero stories might permit adults to intervene and suggest play that isn’t hurtful or violent. “Superman helps others. Why don’t you help Emmanuel get up?” “Superheroes don’t hit bad guys, they call the police to come help.” Even if it isn’t true, it’s the age-appropriate lesson. Because preschoolers are unlikely to get the nuance of Kal-El, it might just be better to help them understand the overarching theme of what makes a superhero super. A teacher friend of mine once worked with a kid who was absolutely in love with Star Wars. By relating to him about being a Jedi knight, she was able to convince him to do his work and play with the other kids. She channeled his tiny fanboy energy into something positive that helped him learn and grow.

Of course, we’re living in an era of antiheroes. These are great for teens, but difficult for littler kids to understand. One study found that preschoolers watch an average of 4.1 hours a day of television, but Nielsen claims the number is closer to 32.5 hours per week of screen time (including video games and DVDs). Some of that time is spent on Sesame Street, but some of it might also include whatever mom and dad, or older siblings, are watching. I don’t believe violent media leads directly to violent behavior in adults, but kids don’t always understand the difference between real and make-believe. They need to reach a certain phase of development before watching The Dark Knight on Blu-Ray. And that phase is definitely NOT preschool.

Kids should be free to pretend to be whomever they want, but American children are exposed to entirely too much media entirely too soon. According to the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, increased screen time for preschoolers is linked with obesity, language delay, and disrupted sleep. Rather than curtail how children play in the schoolyard, we should worry about what they’re doing when they’re inside and glued to the screen.


  • Guest

    As a 3rd grade teacher I find that children must be taught to navigate with one another in a social and behavioral environment – it starts at home and is pretty much cemented in elementary school. The major problem is when the home rules conflict with the school rules – often the home rules are considered appropriate for the school culture. My hope is that parents realize that as teachers we are trying to promote life long attitudes of behavior in which everyone is treated with respect – the respect each individual deserves. Play time should never be curtailed, PROVIDED the foundation of respect and tolerance are taught first. Injuries can happen regardless of policies and procedures – kids are kids. BUT, don’t punish an entire community because of one or two problems; micromanage the problem children until they learn to take part in a positive manner. Yeah, it takes more time and energy, but think of the eventual outcomes – like you said teach!

  • Alex W

    In the end it all comes down to the parents. If you’re going to let the tv raise your child, at least put in the time to help your kid understand the subject matter in proper context.

  • Phillip Cole (Novah)

    Ruining kids creativity and imaginations. Good job schools. MY CHILD WILL NEVER ATTEND A PIECE OF SHIT PUBLIC SCHOOL THAT WILL HOLD HIM DOWN

  • demoncat_4

    that school might as well just ban play for good for a kid is going to pretend and play no matter what the rules are for if its not super heroes then it will be some other cartoon character or even sports star or sci fi monster. for the ones who put that ban in place need to be reminded about when they were a kid and used their imagination. for kids are going to pretend no matter what rule or ban of what they can pretend on.

  • omegaeyes

    Pfft. Age of the Pussy. Age of the Adlerian nicey-nice. Kids are supposed to be cruel. It’s this cruelty that puts them in contact with the hard lessons in life. Outside of curriculum, I’d rather have my kid LEARN his lessons, then having them foisted artificially upon him.

  • Christopher Chance

    Pure stupidity! Just as bad as Seduction of the innocent was with comics. People!!! political correctness = WRONG!!!!! Banning Superhero play would remove inspiration to youngsters to be heroic and affect their morality in choosing right and wrong. This is more crap from the left to indoctrinate our kids into being brainless zombies who obey the government’s every word! It is wrong, it stifles kids imaginations and pushes them towards other more violent outlets. Fantasy play is normal and natural, they aret rying to make our kids less than human beings with this effort. They need to be sued and stopped!

  • omegaeyes

    I don’t know about “left” (depends on how you define it) or “obey the government’s every word” (I get what you’re getting at, but, still, I’m a federalist), but, c’mon, we’ve all know that preschool teachers and staff are nothing but Red-egalitarian dominatrices.

    Nothing that they do takes into account brain/psychological development. Kids are the way they are supposed to be; adolescents are the way they are supposed to be; adults…see where I’m going with this? Refinement comes with age. There are other factors, of course, like income and social atmosphere, that may have an effect, but, in general, the ones they’re worrying about growing up and becoming unnaturally violent, amoral adults, are the ones they’re never going to reach anyway.

  • ChastMastr

    ‘“Superheroes don’t hit bad guys, they call the police to come help.” Even if it isn’t true, it’s the age-appropriate lesson.’ Well, no. You don’t tell kids things that aren’t true in hopes that a lie will have a useful side-effect. That’s wrong.

  • Black Cesar

    I feel the same way. People in the US are raising a generation of pussies. PC crap, timeouts, telling people they did something good when the reality is what they did sucks. This does not build self esteem. It makes these kids unable to cope with the real world outside mommy and daddy’s influence.

  • Ron

    Like anyone’s ever going to have children with you…

  • Jamie

    Anna, like most commentators regarding this issue are commenting from a place of ignorance.
    School don’t like to ban ANYTHING. But due to a handful of parents, with a similar inclination to many here who summarily judge/ criticise something without the correct information, are the cause. When a child is hurt in the act of “playing” all it takes is one parent to complain to the school, ring the Education Minister, or threaten to sue, to negatively impact on the 99% of the school population. Schools are already underfunded – they can’t risk being sued. Teachers can now be personally sued by parents. Sure, the parents might not win the lawsuit, but the school and the teachers still have to spend thousands of dollars defending themselves in court. This is the reason things are banned – because of “helicopter parents” who hover over their children and are ready to complain, criticise, and demand unreasonable levels of supervision when their children are hurt playing. Getting hurt is a normal part of a child’s life. Unfortunately the days when most parents would tell their children to brush it off, give them a hug, and tell them to get back out there and play are gone.
    So, instead of criticising school and the staff who are dedicated to teaching your children, how about ringing your local politician, council member, or Education Minister and telling them some of the great activities your school is doing instead. How about you defend them from the small minority of parents constantly criticising and being “wowsers.”

  • Z-Ram

    Ah…the great U.S. public education system…that pushes a distinct lack of competition…and promotes the next generation of whiny, passive aggressive, self-entitled victims that will spend the next 60 years in pursuit of not feeling bad.

  • Jonathan

    If its been identified that a significant amount of children are injured/injuring others in ‘superhero play’ then the responsible thing to do is prevent that behaviour from occurring. Sure, kids will be kids but the school has adult teachers and their role is to teach the children how to behave properly. Hurting other kids is not good. Adults who are violent are punished under law. Children need to learn that violence isn’t acceptable.

  • coalminds

    Those of you who want political correctness are getting what you deserve. Enjoy your pansy society.

  • Black Cesar

    These parents that are suing schools and teachers for the things that kids do are a bunch of pussies. And now they’re raising the next generation of pussies. You’re right about other well adjusted parents standing up to these PC jerks and tell them to get over themselves.
    BTW Where are you from? Because I have never heard the term “education minister” before.

  • Wrestlingroots

    Real or pretend, preschoolers need as many heroes as they can get.

  • Lyle

    I do think part of this is an overreaction of political correctness, but goes farther, because it is stuff that offends nobody. I had a friend who had an after school program where he taught kids how to draw. He originally called the program ‘Ready, Set, Draw.’ The school authorities asked for a name change because they were afraid that this would get kids to use guns. From what he heard, there were no parents who complained about it, but the authorities were concerned about that one imaginary parent who would complain about it.
    This is really an old story, because, in my day (and, yes, this will give away that I am old), they tried to stop kids from pretending to be cowboys because it promoted gun use. Now, its superheroes because they’re afraid it will promote fighting, but, guess what, there was fighting long before kids ever played superheroes. In fact, in my day, the kids who played superheroes were beaten up by all the other kids, so I cannot help but believe that this is progress. I cannot help but believe that the next thing they’ll ban is playing Harry Potter, since wands are essentially guns and it is promoting an interest in the occult (as some religious nuts have already pointed out).
    I think people should read a book called Killing Monsters by Gerard Jones. In it, he talks about how this type of play fighting is actually healthy and preventing it could actually be detrimental to the development of children. In his view, play fighting is about children learning to defend themselves against the bad stuff out there, and stopping it could create a weaker more afraid child. My favorite point of his is that there is a correlation between media and violence, but it is the other way around: If violence is going on in our world, the media is basically reporting it.

  • Jack

    If only people would overreact this strongly to something important.

  • Ron

    Australia. And I’m a teacher.
    We regularly get phone calls from the Education Minister about parent complaints and it inevitably ends up being the same handful of parents. It’s sad when a small group controls a larger group, but that’s the reality today in schools.

  • contrarian

    …Or adults need to reestablish a sense of innocence about violence.

  • Orphan

    People like you who immediately sue educational institutions on BS issues like this are why they have to make the decisions they make. They are responsible for these kids not you.Get a grip get back on your meds and GO AWAY!

  • Christopher Chance

    Dear Orphan,
    As the parent of three children, it is my responsiblity. I see you believe (like all libtards) that our children are not ours, well they are!

    Libtards like yourself can ruin anything with bad ideas (just like this) and think that they should spread it everywhere and make everyone suffer for it if they think they can get away with it elsewhere.

    I don’t want to sue every educational institution, just the ones that make very bad decisions and say it is for our childrens best interest. Sounds just like how the libtard-in-chief is trying to ruin this country. So follow in his footsteps would be your advice?
    As for drugs, I don’t use any, but until they find a cure for your destructive form of liberal idiocracy, I suggest both drugs and extreme psychological therapy for yourself.
    Have a great day! (but not at our kids expense!) :-)

  • RsquaredComicz

    Great piece, and you raise some good points.

  • webannie

    Superhero play has received a great deal of attention from parents and educators in…. for details.