POWER PLAY: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Kathy Reschke, M.S.
Family Life Extension
Human Development and Family Studies
Iowa State University

Copyright/Access Information

One of the most frequently heard complaints among caregivers is that young children insist on playing super hero or fighting games. Around the age of four, a perfectly sweet and wonderful group of children can transform into a miniature commando unit, arms and legs flying as they challenge anyone and everyone wandering into their territory. It's as predictable as puberty, and often just as frustrating for adults.

Why do young children play aggressive games?

Anything that children do as often and as universally as power play must have some basis in children's typical development. If children between 4- and 6-years old consistently act out dramatic play scenarios that involve power, aggression, and good vs. evil, regardless of where they live, economic status, or family background, there must be something that they all have in common that is motivating this kind of play.

Many critics of modern media blame children's aggression on the high level of violence found on television and in films. There is no doubt that violence in the media is a valid concern that needs to be addressed. But power play among children is not a modern phenomenon. Long before Power Rangers® ever hit TV screens, children were playing good guys vs. bad guys.

Although the form that the characters take changes often, there are a few basic characteristics that are common in power play.

  • there are always good guys and bad guys; good vs. evil; there is no gray area, you are all one or all the other
  • there is always a conflict between the two; it is the responsibility of the good guys to fight the bad guys
  • control or power is always the issue – who will “win” or be in control?

What are children learning?

If we believe that children are always learning something about themselves and their
world through their play, then what can we conclude about the concepts learned in power play?
Some clues can be found if we look at other characteristics of children between the ages of
four and six.

  • Typically, children at the age of four begin testing their independence, as they did
    when they were two.
  • They are still quite “black and white” in their thinking and tend to categorize people in
    simple, one-dimensional ways (for example, how can my teacher also be a mother?).
  • They are becoming more aware of the effect of their own actions on others and the
    need for social rules of behavior. However, it is still difficult for them to see things
    from another person's perspective.
  • They are beginning to form an understanding of morality, a universal code of “right”
    and “wrong” that is beyond simply knowing which of their own actions will result in
  • Although they are given opportunities to make more decisions than they have at
    earlier ages, they still have relatively little control over what happens to them in our
    adult world.
  • The line between real and pretend is still fuzzy, particularly when it comes to threats
    to be feared.

Perhaps power play is a means for young children to grapple with these concepts. In a dramatic play situation, the children have made the rules and drawn the boundaries. Within this safe environment, they can take on adult or super-human roles and experience a feeling of control. They can feel the satisfaction of good winning over evil and of knowing that they had the ability to overcome the bad guys. The very real fear of evil is brought down to a controllable size. And in the end, the children have the ultimate power to stop the whole game, knowing it is only pretend, making the issues of good vs. evil and power much more manageable.

Where are the boundaries?

Of course, it is the responsibility of adults to provide an atmosphere in which children are physically and emotionally safe. Left unchecked, power play can become too aggressive, leading to physical harm and fear. How can caregivers allow children to work through important developmental issues and concepts while still maintaining a safe environment? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Make it very clear to children that one rule is always in force: everyone must be safe. If play will hurt anyone physically or make them feel unsafe, it must stop or be changed. You may need to write down this rule and post it for easy reference. Some caregivers even have children sign their names at the bottom to show their agreement with the rule.

2. Another good rule is that no one's feelings should be hurt during play. If you find that the same child is always playing the bad guy (possibly because he/she doesn't have
the social skills to join play as a good guy), you can use this rule to reason with the children, saying that always being the bad guy will hurt his/her feelings. Then you can suggest that they think of a good guy character that he or she could be. You may want to go so far as to say that no children can be bad guys, but that bad guys will have to be imaginary.

3. As you see a power play scenario begin, have the children take a minute to explain to you the plot and the characters. As you remind them of the basic rules, encourage them to problem-solve ways to play their game within those rules. Be supportive as you help children try to think through the ways that their play affects others.

4. Observe power play closely- both the children involved and the children close by. Children at this age are still developing self-awareness and self-control. Physically, they may not realize that their action could truly hurt someone, especially when they are immersed in a pretend role. They also may not be able to control the intensity of the feelings brought out in power play. If you sense that a child is getting too intensely angry or upset in his or her role, step in and help the child calm down and regain control.

5. Join in the play periodically. Allow the children to assign you a role and find out the plot. This will allow you the opportunity to ask questions and find out what they are thinking as they act out the story. It will also give you the chance to suggest more constructive alternatives to violence as a solution or to stretch their thinking about why people might do bad things and whether or not they can change. Use a light touch, however; children have selective hearing and will quickly tune you out if they detect a “lecture voice!”


It is possible to allow children to act out power play scenes and to still maintain your sanity!
The keys are to:

  • understand the developmental aspect of power play
  • recognize what children are learning
  • establish reasonable, understandable limits

Before you know it, you may find yourself involved, too. Who knows, you may find you rather like being SHE-RA, GODDESS OF THE UNIVERSE!

National Network for Child Care – NNCC. Part of CYFERNET, the National Extension Service Children Youth and Family Educational Research Network. Permission is granted to reproduce these materials in whole or in part for educational purposes only (not for profit beyond the cost of reproduction) provided that the author and Network receive acknowledgment and this notice is included:

Reprinted with permission from National Network for Child Care – NNCC.


Any additions or changes to these materials must be preapproved by the author .

Lesia Oesterreich
1086 LeBaron
Iowa State University
Ames, IA 50011
PHONE:: (515) 294-0363
FAX:: (515) 294-5507

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