'Superhero play' can perplex and alarm parents, so be prepared to address any queries that families might have about their children's sudden interest in becoming action heroes - and fighting baddies!
1. ESSENTIAL READING
For background information on the subject, there's:
Two of the best-known books on the subject are Magic Capes, Amazing Powers: transforming superhero play in the classroom by Eric Hoffman (Redleaf Press) and Boys and Girls: superheroes in the doll corner by Vivien Gussey Paley (University of Chicago Press).
In recent years, there has been a real shift in thinking about superhero play within the early years sector. Where once it was discouraged, it is now largely accepted. That same change of heart may not be the case with parents, many of whom remain uncomfortable with this sort of play and uncertain about how to respond to it. Equally, a change in attitude across the sector doesn't mean that all practitioners are comfortable with superhero play, so discuss attitudes within your setting and agree, as a group, how to respond to parents' queries.
There is much that children can learn through superhero play. In particular, stress to parents that it:
- enables children to explore their fears and feelings in safety
- 'centres on children's fantasies of danger, bravery, good and evil and, above all, power' (Hoffman, 2004)
- allows children to develop their language and creativity through developing rich narratives, with complex plots and characters
- promotes children's social skills and problem-solving abilities by working together to negotiate and act out complicated plot lines
- allows children to test their physical abilities and limitations
- enables children to explore space and estimate distance
- can provide a way into children, particularly boys, sharing books and mark-making.
Where parents are concerned, explain aspects of behaviour in superhero play and allay parents' fears about the seeming aggression within it:
- There is no research evidence to suggest that superhero play, or war or weapon play, leads to real aggression.
- Only a minority of children may use superhero play to re-enact experiences that they may have observed, such as violence.
- Flashes of anger can occur, and spoil, any kind of play, not just superhero play.
- Disagreements are more likely to stem from relational differences between children or from too few resources to go round than from the fantasy play itself.
- Nurseries attempting to ban superhero play have found that children will take up superhero roles and 'weapons' regardless!
- Superhero play may seem loud, boisterous, even aggressive, to adults but is actually lively, physical and purposeful play.
- Nurseries that lifted their 'ban' on superhero play feared chaos but instead found a rich seam of imaginative play opened up.
- Make clear to parents the boundaries that you set children when they engage in superhero play, including a 'stop' phrase for children to say when they feel frightened in boisterous play.
- Where necessary, make parents aware of your behaviour policy on dealing with any incidents of anger or aggression by a young child.
5. ADDITIONAL POINTS
- A huge range of characters fall within 'superhero play'. It's not all caped crusaders, and in the case of girls, may be played out through witches and princesses.
- Superhero play is not new. While children today may be influenced by action heroes from TV, DVD and film, past generations looked to fairy tales, cowboys and indians or the early caped crusaders for inspiration.
- Superhero play belongs outdoors, where children have the space to chase, climb and test their abilities.
- Ask parents to tell you about their child's interest in superheroes so you can support that interest.
Advise parents on what 'superhero' picture books to share with their children. Among the available titles are:
- Nat Fantastic by Giles Andreae and Katharine McEwen,
- Mini Grey's Traction Man series, including Traction Man Meets Turbodog
- Eliot Jones, Midnight Superhero by Anne Cottringer and Alex Smith
- Superdog: the heart of a hero by Caralyn Buehner
- Ladybug Girl stories by David Soman and Jackie Davis. In Ladybug Girl and the Bumblebee, Sam joins Lulu in her quest to save the world from scary monsters and mean robots!
- Daisy's Picture Books by Kes Gray and Nick Sharratt, including Super Daisy and the Peril of Planet Pea and 006 and a Bit
- Super Guinea Pig to the Rescue by Udo Weigelt and Nina Spranger
- Charlie's Superhero Underpants by Paul Bright and Lee Wildish.
A PARENT'S GUIDE TO SUPERHERO PLAY
Don't be surprised if one day, your four-year-old wants to don a cape and rush off to catch some baddies. And don't be alarmed either.
'Superhero play' can appear to be aggressive - and might even include 'weapons' - but it should be harmless play fighting, and there is much that your child can learn from it.
AGE AND STAGE
'Superhero play' is a favourite with four and five-year-olds, and though more popular with boys than girls, girls do act out superhero stories as well.
Children imagine being all sorts of 'goodies' and 'baddies'. As well as caped crusaders, like Batman, or action heroes, like Ben 10, they also enjoy pretending to be characters like martial arts experts, knights and aliens. Witches, princes and princesses also count.
It's the power and strength of superheroes that your child will find so appealing. By this stage, they are becoming more aware of the 'scary' wider world, while you, the grown-up, are still making all the important decisions about their lives. Putting on a cape or taking up a magic wand to zap a villain lets them feel in control.
Pretending to be a superhero will give your child the courage to explore:
- their fears, and abilities
- 'good and bad'
- danger and new experiences, even
- life and death.
And it's all within the comfort and safety of your own home or garden.
Superhero play will also help your child to:
- make friends and learn how to solve problems - saving the world takes a lot of thought and co-operation
- understand other people's feelings, by taking on the roles of champion, villain, even 'victim', and
- learn lots of new language through their superhero stories.
Superhero play also satisfies some children's desire for rough-and-tumble, with its harmless wrestling, kicking and rolling around.
PLAY AND LEARNING AT HOME
Costumes As your superhero might be a knight today and an astronaut tomorrow, there's no point in buying specific costumes and toys. Ideal are simple home-made capes - just add Velcro fasteners to pieces of material at neck and elbow level - as well as masks and belts or cuffs.
Props Cardboard tubes and small plastic bottles make great 'weapons'; a tent or sheets of material are ideal for hideouts; and a sturdy cardboard box can become a castle or rocket.
In miniature Your child might also want to act out superhero stories using miniature toys, so it is worth investing in small-world people and vehicles (again, simple and flexible toys are best).
Books Superhero ABC by Bob McLeod, Max by Bob Graham and Avocado Baby by John Burningham will make great bedtime reading for your superhero. Your child's nursery might be able to lend you some superhero books and recommend other stories.
Fantasy play If you're feeling apprehensive about your child 'playing superheroes' with their friends, remember this kind of play may appear loud and aggressive, but it is, in fact, full of storytelling and co-operation. View the children as actors in a play, rather than as real adversaries, and don't confuse a child's fantasy role with their real personality.
Rules You will still need to set rules, though, particularly around the kind of rough-and-tumble that you will accept. Explain that superheroes always use their powers wisely and agree that if anyone feels unhappy during play-fighting, they will say, for example, 'Stop. I don't like it!', and the playing will stop. Providing enough capes, masks and so on should avoid any real arguments breaking out.
Guns? Many parents are uneasy about gun play but you'll probably find that your superheroes are more likely to have magical powers than guns. Many nurseries used to ban gun play, but found children would take up the roles and 'weapons' regardless. Nowadays, nurseries usually recognise the importance of superhero play and provide props for children to play with.
Outdoors It's always a good idea to head for the garden or a park, maybe with a climbing frame. The children will relish the space to run around and challenge themselves, and there's no fear of them knocking things off a shelf!And join in if your child and their friends want you to - and find out about the great stories that they've been creating.