Let’s call it heroic play

Could my child’s pretend play be a cause for concern?

On a few occasions, we witnessed and share the unease feelings of parents and educators concerning what we like to call ‘heroic play’. Especially when pretended ‘violence’ or ‘aggression’ is involved; when we listen to words and sentences that may sound cruel (like ‘to kill’) or witnessing roles apparently asymmetrical in the relationship between the players (there may be one child playing the ‘victim’ role and one other the ‘perpetrator’, or playing at “dogs and owners”, “bad guys/good guys” etc.).


Should ‘heroic pretend play’ be a cause for concern?

Whatever the reasons for your unease may be, remember that, unless the play is physically unsafe or not consensual, make-believe is actually very healthy.

We agree with Thompson (2021) who likes to stick to the term “heroic play” instead of “violent” or “aggressive play”, as he finds that already calling it aggressive contributes to the belief that children are hurting each other. 

Make-believe is the tool that our children use to process information and understand better some situations they have encountered which may trigger some emotional responses that they may have not digested yet or that are conflicting with other beliefs or information that they have. Pretend play helps the children with coping and overcoming trauma too.

It supports the children in understanding and exploring identities as well as social roles. Moreover, it helps them venture into the complexity of the different dynamics of relationships.


When to supervise or intervene?

  • If the topic or theme looks like unable to evolve, if the child seems ‘stuck’ in the same story and never find a positive end, we can intervene to help to liberate, ‘cathartically’, the protagonist of the story (the magician or savior or doctor can arrive and rescue the victim over and over).
  • If very disturbing images are present, we may interrogate ourselves from where these images come from, and decide to take action (for example, decide to supervise what our child watch);
  • If the topic emerges from real traumas the children have been exposed to, instead than rescue the protagonists of the story, we can ask questions about the stories the child explore in their play;
  • Especially at school, pay attention to whether the story, when it involves asymmetrical relationships in power dynamics, targets always the same child. Observe and decide to intervene if it does.
  • If the child doesn’t seem to differentiate reality and fantasy, instead, it may be the case to talk with a pediatrician or a professional psychologist.

Here are 5 tips for parents and educators

1. Don’t change the direction the play would take without you – let’s enter tip-toeing in the children’s imaginary world

2. Let your child guide you – ask them “Who am I going to be? Who are you? What am I supposed to do? Etc…” – by doing this, we will make sure we won’t change the direction of the play.

3. When you cannot be 100% immersed in and with your child’s play – i.e. putting your phone away– don’t join the play from the beginning.

4. Unless physical safety is an issue (someone can get physically injured or someone is unable to come to you to ask for your help) don’t intervene in the children’s play

5. Don’t be judgmental. Pretend play and Make-Believe are the ways our children learn to cope and overcome experiences they live in the first place or situations they witnessed. Pretend play allows them to revisit the experience, integrate it better with a new understanding, learn to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, understand others better, and process emotions and feelings.

Yes, pretend play is immensely powerful. Let it be.

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