I have a confession to make: In my five-and-a-half years as a mom I have lived with no less than a pirate, a superhero, a train conductor, an amateur tower builder, a chef and an aspiring rock star. No, this isn’t my husband going through an identity crisis; it’s the number of obsessions my sons have plowed through in their short lives.
With every new developmental milestone there appears to be a fantastical character or role they identify with, some more realistic than others. And while I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the current chef phase my kindergartner is enjoying sticks around long enough for me to pass off actual kitchen duties, I’m not holding my breath. But it certainly begs the question, what do these phases of play mean to kids?
“They relate to development and children’s intellectual abilities,” says David Elkind, a child psychologist and author of The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally (Da Capo Press, 2007), who encourages parents to let kids take the lead in regard to play.
“Don’t try to push them to something,” he says. “They sometimes have their own affinities for things. You expose them to a lot of different things like musical instruments, toys that they can construct or painting. We find that usually children have some kind of interest of their own and you support that interest.”
The Preschool Years
In the early years, Elkind explains, preschoolers have limited reasoning ability, which in turn affects their play.
“In the beginning, with princesses and Legos, it’s kind of trial and error,” he says. “They’re really not that well-coordinated yet.”
Sure, your three-year-old may be happily playing with blocks and making a construction that you consider a masterpiece, or choosing to play princess, but they don’t necessarily have a solid idea of what they’re doing.
“If you ask a child how many boys are in a class they might say eight. How many girls in the class? They will say nine. But if you ask how many children in a class they don’t understand how someone can be a boy and a child at the same time,” says Elkind. “That’s why in fairy tales all of the characters are one-dimensional. Kids can’t deal with something being two things at the same time.”
Because this developmental stage is ripe for being influenced by everything they see, obsessions with princesses, pirates and the like can be heavily manipulated by marketing, which hasn’t gone unnoticed by major corporations looking to make a buck.
“So many of the themes that children develop today, there are marketers and media people who develop products and shows that connect to those developmental issues to lure children in, get them involved and sell them product,” says Diane Levin, author of Beyond Remote-Controlled Childhood: Teaching Children in the Media Age (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2013) and professor of Early Childhood Education at Wheelock College. “Something like princesses, which has become so huge, is a perfect intersection between developmental interests that children have, girls have, and [a company’s] ability and desire to make millions of dollars off of little girls.”
Children are trying to learn and understand gender in terms of what it means to be a boy or girl. With the advent of such in-your-face marketing in terms of characters like princesses and superheroes, kids no longer have to use their imagination to play in these fantasy worlds – they simply look no further than their TV or tablet.
“Try to avoid the media when they’re little as much as you can,” she says. “As it starts coming in, talk about it and try to avoid the more extreme graphic stuff. Try to choose media that’s the least gender stereotyped and commercialized.”
Ages 6 & 7
As children mature, the way in which they play changes as well. Instead of simply going through the motions, kids will generally become more innovative with their play, perhaps modifying that princess dress to their liking or going off the script, so to speak, with their Lego creations, not simply copying what’s on the box.
Levin advises gently changing the repertoire of play, particularly if your child has been sucked into the princess or superhero vacuum.
“What we want to do is ask, ‘What do you like about that princess? How come she always just wants to get the prince to do this or that? Does she do anything else, because you like to do other things,” she says. “Things to complicate the thinking a little bit. Or, similarly, ‘Batman is going around fighting all of the time, but does he ever go to sleep? Let’s make his bedroom. What does he eat? Let’s get some modeling clay and make him some food.’ We want to expand it into play instead of just imitating the stereotypes of what they’re being shown.”
At this age you may find it more difficult to limit screen time for your child as much as you did in the past now that your son or daughter is likely heading to friends’ homes to play more often. He or she may have more opportunities to catch TV or other forms of media with these families, drawing them into the marketing vortex. Keep your rules at home, but be a little flexible so that your policies don’t create a war with your kids.
Ages 7 & Up
If you can’t bear the thought of singing “Let It Go” one more time and the idea of throwing yet another superhero party has you pulling your hair out, you can start to breathe a little easier around this age when kids tend to move on to other things.
“By 7 or 8 they usually give it up,” says Elkind. “Now they’re in a realistic phase and they realize there’s no real princesses, except maybe in England. Also I think what happens is the princess thing becomes something little kids do. You don’t want to do it because it makes you a little kid. That’s the phase where kids begin to give up a lot of things and say, ‘I don’t believe in Santa anymore. I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny.’”
Wait, no more Santa? No more Easter Bunny? Now that I think of it, maybe another superhero party isn’t the end of the world.