Encouraging Positive Play

HFP Newsletter, Spring 2011

From Teacher Susan:

Much of today’s culture is centered on competition, power, scarcity, and hierarchy.As parents and educators we are faced with the challenge of helping our children feel confident enough to interrupt that cycle. How can we do this? In part by teaching them they are valued for more than their appearance, using inclusive language, and encouraging them to use play to process their experiences.

A growing awareness of physical appearance (such as clothes or hair length) is natural at this age, but we can help teach children that how they look is not who they are. Connecting with kids on something other than their appearance (a book they’ve read, weekend plans, etc.) helps put the emphasis back on the child. When reading books aloud, try to be aware of how characters are described. In many books (for kids and otherwise) the female characters are described as ‘pretty’ instead of ‘intelligent’ or ‘strong-willed’. Feel free to change the adjectives as you see fit!

Inclusive language can help reduce the need for competition in many circumstances. For example, though the phrase ‘best friend’ shows that you care a great deal about someone, it is also exclusive, since there can only be one of them.This can encourage competition to be the ‘best friend’ and cause others to feel excluded. Using the term ‘dear friend’ retains the sweetness without excluding the possibility of other ‘dear friends’.

Finally, allowing our children to experiment with power through their play can help them learn how to handle power positively.The term ‘superhero play’ covers everything from superheroes, cops and robbers, and firefighting, to princesses, fairies and space travel. This kind of play is about power and control, which fascinates kids, probably because they don’t have much of it in the rest of their lives.They can experiment with power and try out different methods of handling it. What is important is that we can find a way to enter in and support this play to keep it positive. In this way, we can help our children explore their interest in power together, safely.

Some guidelines for keeping superhero play safe and unthreatening:
1. If there is ever a ‘bad guy’ or someone to ‘get,’ that 
person needs to be an adult.
2. Superhero play needs to be inclusive of everyone 
(who wants to be included), safe, and collaborative
3. If two children are pretending to battle (sword fight, kung fu, punching) coach them to do these actions slowly and in the air, leaving significant space between them so that no child gets hurt.

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. 
Eric Hoffman, Magic Capes, Amazing Powers: Transforming Superhero Play in the Classroom

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