No `Morphing' Allowed In Class -- Power Rangers Play Is All The Rage For Kids

SHORELINE - A dozen or so preschoolers stretched on their bellies in Deanna Steklenburg's Head Start class recently and stuck out their tongues.

It was OK because they were snakes. HISSSSS.

Then, they quietly stood and raised their arms above their heads. Now the 4- and 5-year-olds were trees. Then, arms open wide, they were birds: big, big, big, eagles.

Minutes later, at play time, they made yet another metamorphosis: They "morphed" into Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

"Hi-yah!" said Julian Willis, 5, kicking up one, then both legs, and hardening his tiny palms into karate-chopping weapons. Tonna Njoku, 5, and Elliot Rivera, 4, were a bit more flexible. When they kicked, their tiny legs soared to their heads.

The television characters the children were imitating are so popular that sales of Power Rangers paraphernalia this year are expected to hit $1 billion worldwide. So popular that a black market has sprung up to resell merchandise for a profit.

But more troubling than the push and pull of holiday supply and demand are the sounds of alarms coming from preschool teachers. Too many tiny tots are karate chopping and high kicking like the televised teenage superheroes, scaring playmates and startling adults.

The problem, researchers say, is that the children "watch up," meaning they become riveted to action/

adventure shows designed for older children. Power Rangers, who become powerful robots to fight bizarre-looking enemies and ride in stylized dinosaur machines, draw in thousands of young viewers.

But the plot line and moral of the day are lost on the youngest viewers, said Katharine Heintz-Knowles, a University of Washington assistant professor in the media studies program.

Preschoolers are "the ones we really need to worry about, more than the older kids, because of the way they process information," Heintz-Knowles said.

What does stick in the youngest viewers' minds are the punches, kicks and fight scenes - accented on the screen with lightning bolts, sparks and sound.

Of seven Puget Sound preschools surveyed by The Seattle Times, Shoreline Head Start was the only one where Power Rangers haven't become complete pariahs.

That's because the Morphin wannabes can only play their games in "empty space," open sections of the gym that are leaps and bounds away from other kids.

The Power Ranger players have become skilled at kicking within inches of one another - without striking flesh.

"They gain this wonderful control over space and they're learning about their space. It's about boundaries," Steklenburg said.

If something goes awry, the children must resolve their conflict before they can return to play.

Questions about whether the Power Rangers are appropriate role models for very young children sprang up when the show returned to the airwaves this fall.

Should educators allow Power Rangers play - which critics say is violent, aggressive and asking for injury? Or should it be banned outright?

"If you suppress it, then you can't help educate them about it," is one argument, said Marty Jacobs, executive director of the Washington Association for Education of Young Children. "People have turned Power Rangers around. . . . They're using things like `Power Helpers' and have little slogans that help the kids feel powerful."

The Power Ranger debate continues to rage.

"Eeeww! I don't like them," said Sheree Mackner, owner of Children's Niche, which serves about 34 kids as young as 2 1/2. The Ballard preschool has banned Power Rangers play.

"I didn't know exactly what Power Rangers were. I had observed a lot of kicking and kung fu-ing . . . and things I didn't recognize coming out of their mouths," Mackner said.

"They kind of `warp,' I guess, into a Power Ranger. `Morph,' that's it."

She said she was disgusted watching the show. "It just promoted violence. That's how they solved all their problems was to fight some creature."

Mackner said she learned some lessons when kids, acting like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, tried to beat up bad guys on the playground. If you post a sign saying no Ninja Turtle paraphernalia, parents howl as well as kids.

"This time, all I wanted to stop was the fighting. So I put no notice up. I simply informed the children there was no Power Rangers at school," she said. "They still came with the lunch boxes. They still had the shirts and they still had slippers, but the fighting stopped."

At Children's Niche, kids are taught to find peaceful solutions.

At The Early Learning and Development Center, in Greenwood, which has a no-violence policy for its 1- to 6-year-old charges, youngsters can't play with guns, swords or anything that hurts people.

Children toting cartoon movies for Friday afternoon sharing time at Bambi Early Childhood Learning Center, near Southcenter, have been forewarned not to bring Power Rangers.

Youngsters at a downtown branch of La Petite Academy in Redmond can't play Power Rangers, but kids at the Lake Sammamish Plateau branch can - for now.

"They haven't gotten out of control yet," said the director, Chris Young.

But some straddle the line. As Young spoke, she spotted a 4-year-old sporting an outfit like the Power Ranger who wears black.

"In the outfit, he's OK. If you involve any of the figurines, or any more stimulation, he just wigs out," she said. "He starts the kicking and hollering, (singing) the Power Rangers' song - the whole nine yards."

An East Coast research team - which has written papers critical of war toys and Ninja Turtles - sounded off against Power Rangers this month. Forty-nine of 56 teachers polled had negative comments about Power Rangers play, including linking the show to increased violence and aggression on the playground. "Recess is hell," one teacher wrote.

And Canadian broadcast regulators last month successfully pushed for a less-violent version of Power Rangers, with fewer kicks and karate chops, to air north of the border.

But children, themselves, may be the ones to pull the plug on Power Rangers play.

When a group of kids "morphed" on the playground of Learning Tree Montessori on Capitol Hill this fall, frightening playmates with their kicks, the staff called a series of class meetings. The 2 1/2- to 5-year-olds eventually stopped kicking and punching.

Same thing for Ninja Turtles, when that was the rage. The children's vote: nearly a unanimous NO to Ninja Turtle play.

"But the kids who played the most Ninja Turtles had no problem at all. They almost seemed relieved," said head teacher Vinnie Duffy. "We wouldn't allow kicking and hitting. People would just get hurt. Some things aren't an option. But (children) get to make a lot of decisions and, generally speaking, they'll be pretty responsible."

-------------------- WHO ARE THE RANGERS? --------------------

Black (Adam) - Shy and mysterious, into a form of martial arts known as Shaolin Kung Fu, draws power from mastodon.

Blue (Billy) - A nerd with a heart of gold, member of the debate team, draws power from triceratops.

Pink (Kimberly) - Into shopping malls and gymnastics, very popular, draws power from pterodactyl.

Red (Rocky) - A black belt who helped his mother raise his six siblings. He draws power from tyrannosaurus rex.

White (Tommy) - The Power Rangers leader, formerly a green Power Ranger, he was reincarnated as the white Ranger.

Yellow (Aisha) - Strongly opinionated, a terrific hip-hop dancer, draws power from saber-tooth tiger.

----- ON TV ----- "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" airs at 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and at 6:30 a.m. Saturday on KCPQ-TV (Channel 13).