With fewer and fewer opportunities for children to engage in dramatic or pretend play, the quality of play experiences becomes particularly important. The current study investigates superhero play, a type of play that is more likely to be exhibited by boys than by girls and has the three main presentations of capture and rescue, submit or vanquish, and attack and flee. Parents and early childhood educators often have concerns about aggression and violence associated with the viewing of television programs that feature superhero characters. However, the research literature presents mixed findings on whether or not superhero play is causally linked to violence and aggression.


The current study was conducted with 58 four-year-old boys and examined the influence of superhero and non-superhero toys. The authors collected information on the frequency of superhero play, the themes and roles enacted, the boys' level of physical activity, and the frequency of aggression. The children were paired and given two sets of materials with which to engage in 8-minute play sessions with both superhero and non-superhero figures. The boys were enrolled in full-time child care; their mean age was 54.95 months (SD = 5.28) Pairs of boys were created through a peer nomination technique to create preferred playmate dyads. After a 5- minute warm-up session, the boys participated in two counterbalanced play sessions. Each play condition included 1 female and 10 male figurines. Parents of the children completed a demographic questionnaire that included information on television viewing habits. Data on the play sessions were coded in 15-second intervals across the four areas of the study.


Results revealed that the boys engaged in a variety of roles and themes of play. There were no observed incidents of verbal or physical aggression in either play condition, but the researchers observed a low frequency of play with aggressive play objects. With regard to the roles that the boys assumed, there were more character roles associated with the use of the superhero toys and more familial, occupational, exploration/negotiation, and lack of roles with non-superhero toys. The themes associated with the two play conditions indicated that a nurturing/caring theme and the domestic/housekeeping theme occurred more often in the non-superhero play. Greater physical activity also was found in the non-superhero play condition. Examination of correlates with television viewing indicated that boys who preferred superhero television programming were more likely in both play conditions to engage in attack/battling behaviors.


This study helps broaden the literature on the role of play with superheroes and non-superheroes. Research that focuses on exploration of play in natural settings with superheroes, as well as in home environments with and without exposure to television viewing, is also important to conduct.