POWER PLAY: The Good, the
Bad and the Ugly
One of the most frequently heard complaints
among caregivers is that young children insist on playing super hero or
fighting games. Around the age of four, a perfectly sweet and wonderful
group of children can transform into a miniature commando unit, arms and
legs flying as they challenge anyone and everyone wandering into their
territory. It's as predictable as puberty, and often just as frustrating
Why do young children
play aggressive games?
Anything that children do as often and as
universally as power play must have some basis in children's typical
development. If children between 4- and 6-years old consistently act out
dramatic play scenarios that involve power, aggression, and good vs. evil,
regardless of where they live, economic status, or family background,
there must be something that they all have in common that is motivating
this kind of play.
Many critics of modern media blame
children's aggression on the high level of violence found on television
and in films. There is no doubt that violence in the media is a valid
concern that needs to be addressed. But power play among children is not a
modern phenomenon. Long before Power Rangers® ever hit TV screens,
children were playing good guys vs. bad guys.
Although the form that the characters take
changes often, there are a few basic characteristics that are common in
- there are always good guys and bad guys;
good vs. evil; there is no gray area, you are all one or all the other
- there is always a conflict between the
two; it is the responsibility of the good guys to fight the bad guys
- control or power is always the issue -
who will "win" or be in control?
What are children
If we believe that children are always
learning something about themselves and their
world through their play, then what can we conclude about the concepts
learned in power play?
Some clues can be found if we look at other characteristics of children
between the ages of
four and six.
- Typically, children at the age of four
begin testing their independence, as they did
when they were two.
- They are still quite "black and
white" in their thinking and tend to categorize people in
simple, one-dimensional ways (for example, how can my teacher also be
- They are becoming more aware of the
effect of their own actions on others and the
need for social rules of behavior. However, it is still difficult for
them to see things
from another person's perspective.
- They are beginning to form an
understanding of morality, a universal code of "right"
and "wrong" that is beyond simply knowing which of their own
actions will result in
- Although they are given opportunities to
make more decisions than they have at
earlier ages, they still have relatively little control over what
happens to them in our
- The line between real and pretend is
still fuzzy, particularly when it comes to threats
to be feared.
Perhaps power play is a means for young
children to grapple with these concepts. In a dramatic play situation, the
children have made the rules and drawn the boundaries. Within this safe
environment, they can take on adult or super-human roles and experience a
feeling of control. They can feel the satisfaction of good winning over
evil and of knowing that they had the ability to overcome the bad guys.
The very real fear of evil is brought down to a controllable size. And in
the end, the children have the ultimate power to stop the whole game,
knowing it is only pretend, making the issues of good vs. evil and power
much more manageable.
Where are the
Of course, it is the responsibility of
adults to provide an atmosphere in which children are physically and
emotionally safe. Left unchecked, power play can become too aggressive,
leading to physical harm and fear. How can caregivers allow children to
work through important developmental issues and concepts while still
maintaining a safe environment? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Make it very clear to children that
one rule is always in force: everyone must be safe. If play will hurt
anyone physically or make them feel unsafe, it must stop or be changed.
You may need to write down this rule and post it for easy reference. Some
caregivers even have children sign their names at the bottom to show their
agreement with the rule.
2. Another good rule is that no one's
feelings should be hurt during play. If you find that the same child
is always playing the bad guy (possibly because he/she doesn't have
the social skills to join play as a good guy), you can use this rule to
reason with the children, saying that always being the bad guy will hurt
his/her feelings. Then you can suggest that they think of a good guy
character that he or she could be. You may want to go so far as to say
that no children can be bad guys, but that bad guys will have to be
3. As you see a power play scenario
begin, have the children take a minute to explain to you the plot and the
characters. As you remind them of the basic rules, encourage them to
problem-solve ways to play their game within those rules. Be supportive as
you help children try to think through the ways that their play affects
4. Observe power play closely- both the
children involved and the children close by. Children at this age are
still developing self-awareness and self-control. Physically, they may not
realize that their action could truly hurt someone, especially when they
are immersed in a pretend role. They also may not be able to control the
intensity of the feelings brought out in power play. If you sense that a
child is getting too intensely angry or upset in his or her role, step in
and help the child calm down and regain control.
5. Join in the play periodically.
Allow the children to assign you a role and find out the plot. This will
allow you the opportunity to ask questions and find out what they are
thinking as they act out the story. It will also give you the chance to
suggest more constructive alternatives to violence as a solution or to
stretch their thinking about why people might do bad things and whether or
not they can change. Use a light touch, however; children have selective
hearing and will quickly tune you out if they detect a "lecture
It is possible to allow children to act out
power play scenes and to still maintain your sanity!
The keys are to:
- understand the developmental aspect of
- recognize what children are learning
- establish reasonable, understandable
Before you know it, you may find yourself
involved, too. Who knows, you may find you rather like being SHE-RA,
GODDESS OF THE UNIVERSE!
Reprinted with permission from National Network for Child Care - NNCC.