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”:
Jennifer #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.