Home About Us Customer
Events Our Authors Distributors
and Resellers
Partnerships Press
No
Redleaf Press: Superman and the Powder Puff Girls by Eric Hoffman, childrens books author

Spiderman and the Powerpuff Girls
Author Eric Hoffman on Superhero Play

interviewed by John Wurm

<em>Magic Capes, Amazing Powers<em> by Eric Hoffman Superman and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Wonder Woman and the Powerpuff Girls. For as long as there have been heroes in our movies, books and on our television screens, children have used their imaginations to step into the shoes of their favorite larger-than-life characters. As common as this form of play may be, however, teachers and parents often have concerns about what this type of play means to children and their everyday social, emotional, and educational development.

In his new book Magic Capes, Amazing Powers, Eric Hoffman looks closely at issues that arise when superhero play appears in the early childhood classroom. He recently took some time to answer a few questions about his experience with superhero play, as well as how he came to write a book on this topic for teachers.

Q. What gave you the idea for Magic Capes, Amazing Powers?

A. I have always enjoyed facilitating children’s fantasy play, and I love to help them write down their stories. For a long time I resisted superhero play and avoided working with those stories because of the violent images involved, but I realized my opposition was not helping children answer the questions they were investigating. Once I accepted the play and brought it into my curriculum planning, I found that children were much more willing to listen to my adult concerns about it. I wrote Magic Capes, Amazing Powers to help teachers who are looking for a different way to approach this play.

Q. Why are children so attracted to superhero play?

A. Preschoolers want to feel powerful. They also want to have close friendships, so finding a balancing between power and relationships becomes a huge challenge. They’re looking for ways to express their hopes and fears, feelings that grow as they become more able to imagine the past and future. They’re starting to think about deep questions:  Am I good or bad? What is death? What is fair? 

Young children don’t explore these issues passively—they turn their questions into play so they can actively explore them. Superhero play touches on many of the questions preschoolers are asking about themselves and the world. 

Q.What do you see as the biggest misconception about superhero play?

A. Many adults want to ban superhero play because they worry it will create violent teenagers. While research does connects watching too much media violence to aggressive behavior, that doesn’t mean playing with guns and pretending to be a superhero or bad guy will turn children into criminals. Most children use superhero play to explore their feelings symbolically. They are not necessarily learning to be violent—in fact, when adults facilitate it, superhero play can help children learn non-violence.

There are children who use the play to reenact the real violence in their lives—abuse, rage, fear, humiliation, racism.  They need adults who acknowledge this unfair treatment, work to eliminate it, and set clear limits on violent play.

Q. Should all superhero play be considered a negative form of play?

A. I avoid looking at play as negative. Play is a child’s best attempt to answer his or her questions about the world. It’s our job to make sure the answers they get are positive ones. When we ignore their questions and refuse to bring them into our curriculum, or when we try to ban their play, children can come away with a distorted, violent vision of how to be a powerful person in the world. That’s what many children learn when they observe the adult world, unfortunately, and that’s what I see as negative. 

Q. What are some positives that can come from this type of play?

A. Adults can use the play to help children understand the difference between symbolic, imagined violence and real violence by clearly and firmly stopping all behavior that is hurtful, either physically or emotionally. Children can learn the joy of creating stories and playing them out with friends. They can start to hear about some of the important adult concerns about violence in the world.  And in conjunction with the play, they can become real heroes by learning to solve problems respectfully and by helping others through anti-bias and environmental action projects. 

Q. What role does television play, if any, in the amount of superhero play seen in children?

A. Superhero play has always been based on characters borrowed from the stories adults tell children. TV and other media have taken over this storyteller role. They now provide the shared images children seek to hold their play together. Walk into any preschool, shout “Power Rangers!” and you can have a game going in minutes! But many children’s action shows are loaded with mindless violence just to keep children’s attention. There is very little character development or focus on positive values. The main lesson the media teaches is to consume. These messages are so confusing that some children play them out obsessively, without ever coming to any satisfactory resolution.

Q. How can early childhood professionals approach the issue of superhero play with parents?

A. Parents have a wide range of feelings about superhero and weapons play. Some see it as harmless, while others don’t want their children involved in it. I haven’t found either of these approaches—ignoring the play or banning it—to be successful. But the feelings that come up around this play tie into some of our deepest worries about our culture’s future. You won’t reassure parents by telling them you are the professional who knows best. You have to listen to parents’ concerns and talk about how to use children’s interest in superhero play to teach positive values. Some parents will be skeptical, but I find that if you listen carefully to them and take their concerns seriously, then they will usually listen to you.

Eric Hoffman has served on the governing board of the California Association for the Education of Young Children, and he is currently master teacher in the laboratory preschool at Cabrillo College in Aptos, California. His new book Magic Capes, Amazing Powers, is available from Redleaf Press. Free shipping on this and all Eric Hoffman titles is available through December 15, 2004.