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Child Caring

Making superheroes worthy of youngsters' admiration

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Staff / May 5, 2005

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Director Kelly Kacinski of the Peabody Preschool in Cambridge isn't big on media superheroes, but when she was sick for three weeks this winter, a Power Ranger card made by a 3-year-old was the best medicine ever.

''It made me want to shout with joy," she says. ''I thought to myself, I am getting through to them!"

Four words, dictated to a teacher -- ''Power Ranger helping Kelly" -- was all the validation she needed of a strategy she'd begun the year before. Frustrated by aggressive, imitative superhero play that made even bystanders feel unsafe and often ended with children hurt and crying, Kacinski instructed her skeptical staff to take the approach that if you you can't fight 'em, join 'em.

''Kids are attracted to this play because it makes them feel powerful and strong," she says. ''If you ban it, it doesn't go away, they just hide it from you. If you ignore it, they aren't learning alternative messages." What she wanted was to show children they could feel powerful without doing violent things. The next time she saw some boys (and yes, this is almost exclusively a boy phenomenon) playing Mr. Incredible, she put a flip chart on an easel and sat them down.

''Let's talk about Mr. Incredible," she said. ''Why do you want to be him?"

''Because he can fly!" came the chorus. She wrote that down.

''What else do you like about him?"

''He wears a cool costume!" She wrote that down, too. (''I know they can't read," she says. ''But writing it down adds a level of importance to their words. That alone can make them feel powerful.")

Then she told them, ''Real people can't fly on their own. How can people fly?"

''Helicopters!"

Aha! She told them about medevac helicopters that rescue people and land on a roof. They thought that was pretty cool. For days, they made costumes, painted boxes big enough to sit in, pasted on propellers, and used tape to outline a landing site. Then they climbed in. Teachers called them superheroes. They could fly and be powerful and help people, not hurt them.

There are typically two reasons why young children are drawn to superheroes. The first is that they feel powerless. Superheroes are powerful. As new levels of cognition and fears kick in sometime after age 3, the ability to assume the persona of a superhero feels protective and empowering: ''I'm Spiderman! I'm can kill that monster under my bed!"

The second attraction to superhero play has to do with friendship. In the preschool years, children are interested and able to play in groups. Superhero play makes that easy; it comes with a script. ''If you're 5 and you walk on a playground and someone says, 'Let's play Power Rangers,' you know exactly what to do to be part of the mix," says veteran preschool educator Eric Hoffman of Cabrillo College Children's Center in Santa Cruz, Calif.

But there are downsides.

That the toys and the play are scripted limits a child's creativity as well as his ability to work on issues that come from his life. Left on their own, ''Children's superhero play is almost always aggressive and violent because that's what they see on their screens. The media doesn't offer them a full range of how to feel powerful in the world," says Hoffman.

Children come to understand the world through play, so when they play out the characters as scripted, children come up with antisocial answers to basic, human questions: ''What does it mean to be male?" It means being tough and invulnerable, like Spiderman. ''What does it mean to be angry?" It means turning into the Hulk, so you can hurt people.

In a world rife with terrorism, children also increasingly are asking, ''What does it mean to be safe?" says early-childhood educator Diane Levin of Wheelock College. More and more, their answer to that involves guns and war play.

It doesn't have to be this way.

''Children are just as happy to feel powerful in positive ways, if only we show them how," says Hoffman, who is author of ''Magic Capes, Amazing Powers, Transforming Superhero Play in the Classroom" (Red Leaf). Like Kacinski, he prefers not to ban gun/violent play. ''Guns are the biggest power symbols children see," he says. ''Of course they want to figure them out."

Consider the 4-year-old who brings a toy Star Wars gun home from a playmate's and his parents have a no-gun policy. The typical parent might say, ''You know we don't allow toy guns in our house." Hoffman says, ''That leaves your child confused: 'How am I going to have friends? Doesn't mom want me to feel powerful?"' By banning the toy, the parent has also banned the play, and the feelings. ''You cut yourself off from him," says Hoffman.

Here's what he might say: ''I see you brought a toy gun home. Isn't that interesting? At Jed's house children can play with guns, and at our house they can't. But it looks like you're really wanting a toy gun." Now the child has a chance to share, rather than feel shut down and guilty: ''Yes! I want one, too!"

''What is it about a toy gun that you like?"

The answer is likely to be simplistic: ''I like it" or ''Jed likes it." But now you have a chance to interpret: ''I bet it makes you feel strong. I want you to feel strong too." Or, ''You want him to be your friend. I want you to have friends, too." And then: ''What can we allow in this house so you can feel strong and so your friends will want to be here?"

In his preschool, Hoffman uses this approach to stop children from getting hurt from karate-like kicks by spreading mats under a tree, hanging empty water bottles from a low branch, and showing boys how to high-kick the bottle and fall safely. He accompanies it with this explanation: ''I know you see superheroes do this in the movies. It's not allowed with real people because it can hurt, but it's fun to feel powerful with your body and here's how you can do it safely."

''They're satisfied," he says, ''because they feel listened to and they still get to feel strong." Usually, he adds, they will develop story lines around this activity.

Levin encourages parents to tune into the play and ask questions about it afterward (''How come the bad guys were in prison?"), or to join in the play and complicate it (''Oh! The bad guy is hurt! He needs a doctor!"). On the other hand, she warns against taking over the play or getting on a soapbox (''Just because he's a bad guy doesn't mean he can't get medical attention!").

''Don't push it," says Levin. ''This is a process that happens over time, not in any one moment." She is co-author of ''The War Play Dilemma," second edition (Teachers College Press), due out next fall.

Bobbi Cohen is another preschool teacher of the ''let's join 'em" variety. Founder of the Belmont Cooperative Nursery and currently teaching the 4-year-olds, she hosted a ''Star Wars lunch" yesterday for six boys whose Star Wars play was disrupting the class. Her plan was to let them play with the Star Wars action figures her son has collected over the years and then to have them tell her a story about their play that she will write down for them.

It's a strategy she uses frequently in the classroom. ''It diffuses aggression," she says. ''They end up wanting to draw pictures to go with it, and they get caught up in the storytelling."

The Stars Wars luncheon is bound to do something else, too. When she invited the boys, ''I thought their eyes would pop out of their heads," she says.

Contact Barbara Meltz at meltz@globe.com.

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