Janise is not a blogger - but, you tell me, after reading this, don't you think she ought to be? Enjoy!
I attended a workshop at the P.A.C.T. conference by Geetha Ramani, Assistant Professor of Human Development, University of Maryland, entitled "Superman and Cinderella; Benefits of Dramatic Play." Superheroes and princesses seem to play a large part in many preschoolers’ lives, and the question is not whether there are benefits from dramatic play but what this type of fantasy play has to offer.
Dramatic play offers abundant opportunities for children’s development. Children develop interpersonal skills, particularly cooperation and conflict resolution, and improve their language and problem solving abilities in pretend play. Their social skills are promoted as they communicate and negotiate their roles and actions. Children use language more frequently and more elaborately in make-believe play than they do in virtually any other activities.
Play is pleasurable; it is freely chosen, actively engaging, and most importantly, in the moment. Superhero or princess play focuses on children’s fantasies of bravery, danger, good/evil, and above all, power. We’ve got Batman, Superman, and Superwoman being brave, facing danger, fighting the bad guys and winning. There are fairies, witches, and unicorns who can cast spells, make things go their way, and put them in charge of others. Monsters have sharp teeth and claws; princesses dress up and dance at the ball. All of these fantasies allow children to feel as powerful as adults. It makes them feel powerful and invincible in a world where they often feel very little control over their own lives. Think about it – we are telling our children what they have to do or what they can’t do all day long. Fantasy play gives them a sense of empowerment.
There are emotional benefits to superhero play. It provides a way to understand and act out feelings. Through play, feelings can be explored through symbols: monsters = fear; wands = take control of the situation; guns/swords = stopping what feels out of control or harmful. If children are fearful or confused over things they have seen or experienced, it can be played out in a fantasy.
Okay, so we know why children enjoy fantasy play, but how do we keep them safe and how can we help them understand the difference between reality and pretend? First, we’ll talk about safe play. Limits need to be clearly established.
When playing a game with superheroes/guns/swords, where and when are the activities allowed?
What are the rules of the game?
What happens if a rule is broken?
What can children do if someone is treating them unfairly in the game?
Do they know how/when to stop the game?
All of these need to be talked about BEFORE the play begins – or at least when you see that this is the game they have started to play. Set the children up to be successful.
“Okay, it looks like you want to play Spiderman. Where did we agree that the game could be played?” Outside.
“Good, and what are the rules for the game? You do not use your body or objects to hurt your friend’s body. This is a game, and you don’t want to hurt one another. If someone does get hurt, the game will come to an end. Is everybody clear on the rules?”
Second, how can we help the children with understanding the difference between reality and fantasy? Look for those teachable moments. With princesses – do the children know about real princesses or only the ones in movies? What does a princess do? With heroes – discuss the qualities of the superheroes. Who are the real heroes in our world? Get non-fiction books that tell what a princess does or about the jobs that people such as police or fire fighters do. What kinds of things do they do to help others? After watching the movies of princesses or superheroes, initiate a conversation about what is pretend and what is real. A “reality check”, if you will. Talk about what they could have done in a real life situation – even if it was fun to watch what they did in the movie.
Pretending to be someone else clearly has many benefits. I am not advocating squelching the fun and fantasy of this kind of play. Parents can actively encourage dramatic play at home by capitalizing on their children’s interest at the moment, developing themes from stories their children have heard or movies they have seen, and providing props for pretend play. But it’s important to check-in with where the play is taking them. If it’s just become all about fighting, then maybe they need an outlet for that energy; karate classes, gymnastics, bicycling, baseball or soccer. If it’s all about the dress and looking in the mirror, then we want to move them outside the box. Encourage them to do things that a princess would do while dressed-up; painting, sewing, building things, dancing, reading, helping others, playing music, or taking care of animals.
With careful adult guidance and lots of discussion, children can understand the difference between fantasy play and how we ordinary human beings deal with good and evil that we encounter in the world. Now excuse me while I go get my cape and tiara on – I’m late for soccer practice.