Superhero play is a popular subject that continues to intrigue and alarm adults in equal measure. It is important that early years practitioners look beyond the debate, as well as the noise, gestures and action to see the benefits of this type of play.
Superhero play is a form of imaginary play where children use costumes and props or small-world figures to imitate characters or action heroes they admire. Historically, many settings adopted a zero-tolerance approach to this form of play for fear it could get out of control. But in recent years there has been a shift in attitude and practitioners are now either embracing it, accepting it, or at least tolerating it.
The renewed interest in superhero play has come on the back of the Government's push to raise achievement by boys. Confident, capable and creative: supporting boys' achievements (DCSF, 2007) states that images and ideas gleaned from the media, which may involve characters who have special powers or weapons, are 'common starting points' in boys' play.
The document recognises that adults can find this type of play challenging and may have a 'natural instinct' to stop it, but it states, 'This is not necessary as long as practitioners help the boys to understand and respect the rights of other children and to take responsibility for the resources and environment.'
THE POWER OF PLAY
Superheroes come in many different guises. They range from the traditional caped crusaders such as Spiderman, Superman and Batman, to modern-day action heroes such as Power Rangers, Iron Man and Ben 10.
Eric Hoffman (2004) includes monsters, space aliens, army action figures, knights, martial arts experts, and good guys and bad guys in his definition of this kind of play. 'They all involve play that centres on children's fantasies of danger, bravery, good and evil and, above all, power.' He also includes witches, princesses, stepmothers, magic potions and fairies, because 'villains, superpowers and death are still important to the play of many girls'.
FEARS AND FANTASIES
Superhero play is particularly prevalent in fourto five-year-olds. Children of this age want more control over their lives but they are also trying out new experiences that can incite feelings of fear. They are drawn to the power and strength that superheroes possess, and when they put on a cape and act out a rescue scene, it lends them strength and courage and helps them feel in control.
I witnessed this with my four-year-old son Josh, who wore his Superman outfit every day during his chickenpox outbreak this summer. He had been terrified about getting the illness. When he eventually got it, he felt compelled to put on the costume, fly around the garden and act out rescue scenes. The sense of control that he was experiencing was evident from his pose, his gestures and the expression on his face. He was literally fighting his fears.
Child development expert Dr Maria Robinson says, 'In this fantasy world, a superhero might be troubled or even a little afraid of a really dreadful "baddie", which represents their particular worry. But they are always brave, face the terrible monster or person and overcome them.'
Hoffman (2007) says that children choose superhero play more than any other type of dramatic play when they want to focus on feelings. 'Fantasy monsters are most often symbols that represent children's fear, worry and anger,' he notes. 'Magic wands, weapons and superpowers are the symbolic tools they use to take control of those emotions and feel safe, powerful and alive.'
TRYING IT ON
Throughout the re-enactment of narratives, children are exploring good and evil, life and death, what it means to be powerful and how to make people safe. Acting out fairy tales or playing cowboys and Indians served the same purpose for past generations. Here are some additional reasons why children enjoy this form of play.
Testing times: Children want to test their physical abilities, and superhero play provides the perfect framework for running, jumping, chasing, capturing, bumping, twirling and pouncing. It also satisfies some children's desire for rough-and-tumble activity, which includes harmless wrestling, tackling, kicking and rolling around. Through these activities children are learning about their bodies by exploring space and distance. There is also a mathematical element in terms of estimating how far away you need to be from someone if you are going to do a karate kick.
Right and wrong: Dramatic play centering on themes of good and evil helps children explore the concept of right and wrong. They are keen to identify themselves with the 'good' characters as they struggle to control their 'bad' impulses. They are able to try out good guy and bad guy roles - they rescue people and feel noble; they cast spells or commit evil acts - and they experience vulnerability if they are the victim.
Creating bonds: Friendships are often developing at this age, when co-operative play is increasing. For some, superhero play may be an effective vehicle for bonding. They may have been influenced by their exposure to mass media, such as television, DVDs or computer games, or they may have seen the images or costumes on older children and based their own fantasy play around this. Despite their cultural backgrounds or language and social skills, they can easily join in chasing or running games where they experience a sense of belonging.
The dramatic nature of superhero play and the fear that it could become too aggressive or disruptive is one of the reasons why settings have adopted a zero-tolerance approach to it.
Other concerns include:
- Health and safety - the children may kick or hurt each other or there may be accidents
- Some children may feel intimidated or threatened by the characters or the physical nature of the play, and others may be excluded
- The noise levels become intrusive and the play 'takes over' the nursery, disrupting other children's play
- The themes reinforce gender stereotypes: that boys are stronger and not afraid of anything and that only girls can be fairies and wear dresses.
Penny Holland, who lectures in Early Childhood Studies at London Metropolitan University, challenges the zero-tolerance approach to war, weapon and superhero play in her book We Don't Play with Guns Here (2003). She acknowledges that any aspect of play can become negative if there's an overlap between 'real behaviours and the play'. But she states, 'When you look at what's causing the aggression, is it about resourcing? For example, are there not enough capes? Or is it about relational differences between children?'
She says that a 'minority' of children may use this form of play to re-enact particular experiences that they may have observed, such as violence, but it is not a judgement that can be applied wholesale to this kind of play.
Penny Holland's action research at an under-fives setting in the London Borough of Camden (2000) also found that there is no evidence to suggest that superhero play, or war or weapon play, leads to real aggression. She says that practitioners should examine their own understanding of 'aggression' so they can avoid using the term as a 'broad spectrum to describe lively, noisy, physical play often associated with young boys'.
SIT BACK AND WATCH
Settings that have lifted the ban on such games have remarked that far from creating chaos, it has led to an amazing outpouring of imaginative play. Referring to her action research (2000), Ms Holland says, 'Despite our most vigilant efforts, weapons were being made and superhero games were being played ... We had got to the point where we felt that all we were doing was teaching a small group of young males to lie creatively.'
Jan Dubiel, national development manager at Huddersfield training organisation Early Excellence, says that in his former role as a nursery teacher, he noticed that staff were intervening in boys' play disproportionately.
'At the point where we were going to intervene, we sat back, did a narrative observation of what was happening and we shared it,' he recalls. 'We found that what we were responding to was loud, boisterous and physical play, but once you got past that, the actual learning that was happening was amazing. There was storytelling, negotiation and problem-solving. But we'd been stopping all of that because it was challenging.'
Other benefits of superhero play include:
- It helps children use and develop language skills. As they develop more complex plots and scenarios, their creativity is enhanced and their vocabulary is expanded by interacting with other children and practitioners. If they are encouraged to play these stories, children will be more likely to want to write them.
- It contains useful links to schemas - patterns of repeated behaviour. Spiderman provides outlets for rotational, linear, trajectory and connecting schemas, and Batman and Superman, with their capes, for enveloping.
- It helps children develop problem-solving and negotiation skills as they examine possible solutions to a problem. They learn how to work as a team to sequence a story together and work out how the story will proceed.
- They develop empathy as they pretend to be someone else and become more aware of how other people behave and feel. This, in turn, also helps them reflect and establish their own identity.
SUPPORTING THE PLAY
Practitioners may find it difficult at first to respond to such play in a positive way. Helen Bromley, independent early years consultant and author of Come Alive Superheroes, suggests using storybooks around a superhero theme as a 'way in' to help build links between home-based reading habits and those that are traditionally valued in education. For example, Traction Man Is Here by Mini Grey (Red Fox) tells the story of an action hero who explores the 'foamy waters of the sink' and narrowly escapes the evil intentions of the poisonous dishcloth while befriending a trusty Scrubbing Brush.
Ms Bromley also suggests following the same pattern for superheroes as you would for other children's interests like minibeasts, pirates, or Knights and Dragons (see column).
MAKE THE MOST OF IT
To help children gain the most from superhero play, practitioners should:
Be responsible. Spiderman's uncle said, 'With great power comes great responsibility.' Make these points to the children and talk about how superheroes use their powers wisely. Introduce licences for their powers and make it clear, as part of your whole setting policy, that no child is to be intimidated or physically harmed.
Set boundaries. Many superhero narratives contain fighting in some form or other, and this needs to be discussed with the children. Work out with teams, children and parents what the boundaries should be and discuss how to deal with possible problems. Talk about how they can negotiate with other children to work things out for themselves. Teach them to walk away, accept the needs of others and listen to children who don't want to play. There needs to be consistency in the setting.
'Meet' the heroes. Be aware of the media that children are engaging with. Familiarise yourself with their heroes; explore the issues that are important to them and don't make assumptions about where children are in those themes. For example, just because they are playing characters like Iron Man, one of the Marvel superheroes from the X-Men, it doesn't mean they have watched age-inappropriate material. At the same time, be vigilant.
Follow the plot. Get down on the children's level: play the characters, be involved in the plot, but don't try to dominate the play or promote 'happily ever after' scenarios or declare, 'no fighting' or 'no killing', unless children are getting hurt or intimidated.
Take an interest. Observe individual children's interests, identify where that interest is coming from and plan according to their needs. Some children will want to be involved in the physical side of the play; for some it's trajectory and for others it's deeply emotional exploration of rescue of feeling safe. For a child with a strong trajectory schema, how you respond to their interest in superhero weapon play will be different to a child whose interest is in the weapon itself.
Plan resources. Provide open-ended resources such as lengths of fabric to make capes and raw materials for junk modelling and making accessories. Support children to use their imagination and creativity in this area of play.
Head outdoors. If you feel that your inside space is limited and the superhero play gets too boisterous, move superhero play outside.
LOOKING BEYOND IMAGES
Children's interest in superheroes is meaningful. Practitioners should look beyond the images, tune into children's play and support it to develop in more complex ways. Ms Holland says, 'Being fascinated by children's play in this area is a starting point. Ask questions about why they are playing in that way and wonder why.'
Paley (1984), in her struggle to make sense of boys' play, says that it 'may be easy to find comfort in the doll corner'. At the start of her journey, she admits that although she had 'not yet learned to love Darth Vader', she'd made some useful discoveries while watching him play. 'As I interrupt less, it becomes clear that boys' play is serious drama, not morbid mischief. Its rhymes and images are often discordant to me, but I must try to make sense of a style that, after all, belongs to half the population of the classroom.'
CASE STUDY: CHELWOOD NURSERY SCHOOL, LONDON
Children's enjoyment of popular culture was the key to reconsidering the approach to superhero and weapon play at Chelwood Nursery School in Lewisham, south-east London.
Nikki Oldhams, head teacher, says, 'We have always said our teaching and learning begins with children's interests, but with superhero play and other areas of popular culture we were not letting it happen, and failing to value it as highly as traditional tales like Goldilocks and Jack and the Beanstalk.
'Now, we encourage and build on what children bring with them from home and we run with them. Superheroes is one of the things children are really excited by.'
Since embracing superhero play, children have developed their play from familiar characters, to inventing their own characters such as Sun Man, who can heat things up until they melt, and Ice Cream Man, who wears a cape with the letter 'i' on the back.
Ms Oldhams says, 'We support the stories the children are creating in their role play. We encourage them to explore the characters by providing and developing costumes, helping them make props, developing the stories, doing story-boards and filming their role play. It develops really strongly in terms of high-level thinking because they develop the story and the whole characterisation.'
Reversing the process has challenged lots of rules that were already in place, particularly those involved with risk assessment. In the past, physical play was challenged for fear it could get out of control, and children could not climb when dressed up for safety reasons. Ms Oldhams says, 'Superheroes want to climb up a climbing frame, leap off and feel like they're flying through the air. If they're wearing something that's designed with that in mind - we made short-length capes with Velcro fastenings on the neck - you can let it happen.
'If you're allowing children to pretend to be good and evil characters, you're likely to come across some level of fight play. We looked at how we monitor, observe and remind children all the way through, about stopping when someone is unhappy or feeling frightened, and we gave them the words to say, "Stop it! I don't like it!" or "Stop. This is scaring me now".'
The setting does not have a written policy, she continues. 'It's about valuing children's interests in their personalised learning and not making snap judgments about the starting point.'
CASE STUDY: KID EASE DAY NURSERY
Amy Britton, head of childcare at Kid Ease, a chain of six nurseries in the south-east, undertook an independent enquiry based on gender differences and how to support boys play in the nursery for her BA in Childhood Studies.
She says, 'In a predominantly female environment, it became clear that some staff discourses were not supporting the nature of boys' imaginative play. This was subsequently impacting negatively on their self-esteem. By collecting views and opinions from all staff, parents and children and slowly examining our fears about change, the setting was able to make changes to the environment and practices.
'Boys are no longer challenged when constructing models that represent guns or weapons. Staff now extend their learning by using open-ended questions to encourage their interests as well as introducing resources for mark-making, planning and critical thinking. New resources have been added to the superhero role-play corner such as toy swords, masks and small-world play figures. Rules and boundaries have been developed with the children themselves, including restricting large-scale superhero play to the outdoors or superhero corner and not touching when re-enacting play-fighting scenes.
'Our observations have shown that boys are engaging in play for sustained periods and their involvement scales have improved. Boys are accessing mark-making opportunities more frequently by writing secret codes or devising plans for their next project. Staff report that the richness in language used by the boys has increased significantly and behaviour has improved because children are able to express themselves.'
What place do weapons, especially guns, have in superhero play? Gun play can be a feature when it's all about tackling evil. Sometimes it's about arch enemies who have superhero powers, and sometimes Batman could be dealing with mere mortals who are robbing banks with guns.
Early years consulant Helen Bromley says that there is a common misconception that relaxing your approach to superhero play could open the door to allowing gun play. 'People blanket-ban war, weapons and superhero play, so children don't get to explore any of the issues that are important to them. I don't know of any superheroes who have a gun.'
Academic Penny Holland says, 'I think there is a continuum and they are all very closely connected. Superheroes all have weapons: Spiderman's web is his weapon.'
BOYS AND GIRLS
Eric Hoffman (2007) says that in pre-school superhero play, the contrasts in the ways that boys and girls play are clear, with boys and girls 'often taking different roles and engaging in very different activities'. He says that girls use witches, princesses, magic potions and fairies to explore the 'same issues boys do when they are chasing and shooting monsters'.
Academic Penny Holland rejects any biologically deterministic view of superhero play and why boys are seen to be more involved. She says, 'It's an area of play that can be seen to be as much interest to girls as to boys. Girls will often involve themselves in settings where there is an open policy.'
Vivian Gussin Paley (1984), in her account of superhero play and the doll corner, describes the differences and the similarities of boys' and girls' play. 'The boys go off looking for Darth Vader with the same sense of wellbeing as two little girls on a picnic. They can yell "Help!" as often as a baby cries "Mommy", and the dying superhero is given the same gentle concern as the little sister whose kitten is lost in the woods.'
We have five complete sets of Come Alive Superheroes, written by Helen Bromley (Yellow Door, £90) to give away to Nursery World readers. The set includes a resource pack, wooden characters and single user CD-ROM. To enter, send your name and address on the back of a postcard or envelope, marked 'Superheroes', to Nursery World, 174 Hammersmith Road, London W6 7JP, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Winners will be drawn on 4 October. For product details, tel: 0845 6035309 or visit: www.yellow-door.net
- Bromley, Helen (2011) Come Alive Superheroes Resource Pack, Yellow Door, www.yellow-door.net
- 'Zap! Pow!' by Helen Bromley (Nursery World, 6 January 2010) is a round-up of superhero books (www.nurseryworld.co.uk/news/975724/ Learning--Development-Superhero-Books--Zap-Pow)
- DCSF (2007) Confident, capable and creative: supporting boys' achievements
- Hoffman, Eric (2004) Magic Capes, Amazing Powers: Transforming Superhero Play in the Classroom. Redleaf Press
- Holland, Penny (2003) We Don't Play with Guns Here: War, weapon and superhero play in the early years. Open University Press
- Holland, Penny (2000) 'Take the Toys from the Boys? An examination of the genesis of policy and the appropriateness of adult perspectives in war, weapon and superhero play'.http://creativevoice.posterous.com/ will-more-engagement-in-superhero-play-support
- Paley, Vivien Gussey (1984) Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner. University of Chicago Press
- Robinson, Maria Understanding Behaviour and Development in Early Childhood. Routledge.
Photographs by Teri Pengilley at Chelwood Nursery School, London.