Princesses and superheroes

How role-playing helps kids try on different identities and encourages exploration of self -- really!

Annika Cudmore is a princess. Her mom, Astrid Van Den Broek, had reservations about princess play (“It seems so predictable”) and hoped her four-year-old wouldn’t catch the royal bug. Turns out, she has it tenfold!

But Annika isn’t just a princess. She’s also a pirate, a ballerina and a superhero. “I was thankful when she started branching out. She doesn’t really watch any superheroes on TV, but she takes one of my kitchen towels and wraps it around her neck and she’s ready to fly.”

Annika quizzes her parents about her alter egos, says Van Den Broek: “She asks, ‘Who is the mommy of princesses? Who is the daddy?’ It sets off a lot of thinking for her.”

Self exploration

As a preschooler’s world expands, she’s wondering how things work and where she fits in. Toronto play therapist Katrina Rees Hughes explains: “This kind of play is part of children’s exploration of self — it’s so important for this age group because they’re just beginning to see how they relate to others. They express their feelings about themselves and others through the roles they choose. Role-playing is the best way kids have to explore identity — including gender identity, relationships and power dynamics.”

The little superhero who recites his long list of powers might be wondering if he could be fearless one day. “That’s what they’re exploring — what it is to be powerful, magical and special,” says Rees Hughes.

As magical as this play is, parents sometimes cringe at the roles kids take on — like the princess who’s waiting for a prince. But don’t worry that your daughter will grow up to be passive and dependent — it’s make-believe, appropriate for the age. She’s trying to understand relationships — including how she will (years from now) relate to boys. Rees Hughes suggests parents talk about it in the context of the play, at a four-year-old level: “Hmm. The princess looks pretty strong. I wonder why she thinks she needs a prince to save her?”

The aisles of princess and superhero paraphernalia in stores are daunting, too — and they may even take away from the essence of pretending. When roles (and the gear that goes with them) are prepackaged, there’s less for the child to discover for herself.

Simple props

Parents can provide balance by helping preschoolers begin to be smart consumers — they don’t have to adopt the commercial versions of super-heroes or princesses. Simple props that can be used in many ways will encourage your child to use his imagination: A pillowcase cape or a length of interesting fabric may offer more possibilities than purchased dress-up costumes. When your child is being a superhero, ask questions so he understands he can make up his own role rather than play out one derived from an action figure or movie: “What kind of superhero are you? What are your special powers?” Make sure that your little girl understands she isn’t limited to being Ariel or Jasmine. Rees Hughes suggests, “Ask her, ‘What could you do if you were a princess? What do you think it would be like?’”

Annika is definitely her own princess/pirate/ballerina/superhero. She’s been coming up with pointed questions — the kind that Rees Hughes says helps a child understand: What is this big world and how do I find my way? Van Den Broek laughs, “Annika asked her dad how she can get powers. He told her to exercise!”

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