Superhero Play - At the ready?

How can early years practitioners encourage children to become active helpers, rather than passive bystanders? Tamsin Grimmer explains

Many people assume bullying does not happen within early childhood settings, due to the young age of the children involved. Sadly, this is not always the case, and there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that bullying can begin at a very young age, usually between three and six years (Kirves & Sajaniemi 2012, Repo and Sajaniemi 2015).

Bullying could be defined as an occasion when an individual is repeatedly aggressive towards, or deliberately tries to hurt or cause distress to, another individual.

This is usually linked to an imbalance, when the bully dominates the victim and the victim struggles to defend themselves. However, aggressive play, sometimes in superhero scenarios, is a normal type of interaction that many children engage in, and thus it is important to distinguish between bullying and aggressive play by young children.

When a child is deliberately aggressive towards a specific child, and this happens on a regular basis, we would need to ascertain whether they are meaning to cause harm and, therefore, are acting with real intent to hurt.

Many aggressive behaviours in early childhood are actually a result of frustration or an impulsive response. For bullying to be deemed as taking place, the child who is being aggressive will want to harm the other child, and so lashing out in frustration may not fit the description of bullying.

Children who bully also need to have an understanding that other people have feelings and can feel hurt, and so they recognise that they are deliberately inflicting pain on others.

Aggression may also be a sign of an emotional issue or an undiagnosed learning difficulty (see case study). In the light of this and our uncertainty relating to young children’s real intent to harm, we must express caution in labelling a child as a bully at a very young age.

Repo and Sajaniemi (2015) ask educators to express caution when using the word ‘bully’ with young children as they argue that it can cause stigmatisation of either the bully or the victim.

However, they do highlight the importance of addressing the issue and putting preventative measures into place. One way to do this is to teach children how to speak out and be the first to respond.


Staub, who has conducted a considerable amount of work in this field, defines bystanders as: ‘People who are in a position to know what is happening and in a position to take action’ (2005).

In one research project, he found that if a child had been told not to go into a certain room, then heard sounds of distress coming from that room, the child was less likely to go in. If they had been given permission to go into that room, for example, to get more pencils, they would help 90 per cent of the time. However, if they had not explicitly been given permission to go into the room, they acted as if they had been prohibited and were less likely to go in (Staub 2018).

This is interesting and possibly demonstrates the importance of rules and boundaries with young children. Perhaps we also need to explain to children that there may be times when we can bend, or even break, the rules to help someone else. Some of our everyday heroes have done just that; for example, a firefighter might need to break a window to allow a person to escape from a burning building.

Some studies have found that young children did not readily act as bystanders, as they are more likely to help than older children regardless of whether they are alone or part of a group. However, Staub found that some children actually help more when they are able to talk to others about the situation and when they have more opportunities to practise being helpful (2018).

He refers to ‘active bystandership’ and how being a bystander presents people with an opportunity to act positively. This has implications for us in our settings as we can foster helpfulness and link this in with being a real hero ourselves.


To help counter the bystander effect in young children and encourage them to become active helpers:

  • Use social stories which show how other people think and feel in different situations.
  • Ask the children how they know if someone needs our help and talk about being helpers.
  • Offer children plenty of opportunities to be ‘helpers’ in the setting and to help and care for others.
  • Share stories with alternate endings and discuss with children which was the kindest response.
  • Use puppets and share a narrative that involves a bully and the puppet witnessing bullying. What should the puppet do?
  • Plan role-play scenarios that present children with choices of how to act and what to do.
  • Talk about being the first to respond, being the first to act and how it feels to be the first to do something differently from friends.
  • Celebrate difference and diversity and instil the ethos that it’s OK to be yourself, even if this is different from others.
  • Share stories where doing nothing was the wrong choice and being apathetic caused more harm than good.
  • Talk about defending other people or defending those who are not able to defend themselves; for example, pets, wildlife, etc.
  • Use conflict resolution techniques such as the problem-solving approach to address potential bullying and remain non-judgemental.
  • Support children’s self-regulation skills and actively promote their understanding of theory of mind.

Case study: a parent’s perspective

When Sarah was aged between 18 months and three and a half years, she went through a phase of hurting other children. Prior to this age she would spend most of her time watching others playing and playing on her own. Sarah would go up to another child, then reach out and grab their face. This would clearly hurt the other child and once she even drew blood.

I would have to try to shadow her, chasing her around the various toddler groups watching for signs that she was about to strike! This was particularly difficult as I often had her siblings with me. There didn’t appear to be any pattern and it certainly didn’t happen when she was upset or angry; if anything she appeared to hurt others more frequently when she was happy.

Over time, I began to realise she was actually wanting to play with these children and was reaching and grabbing their faces out of a desire to interact. Although Sarah had a good grasp of language, she didn’t appear to know how to begin playing with other children.

This phase was a really difficult time for me, as there is such a stigma attached to children who hurt others, and other parents began to give me horrified looks when we arrived at groups. Thankfully, I often attended groups with friends who knew Sarah and how delightful she could be; they also sympathised with my difficulty in having my three children with me and would keep an eye on Sarah when I needed to feed or change her younger sister’s nappy.

When Sarah was six we referred her via our doctor because we suspected that she was on the autistic spectrum. She was eventually diagnosed as having ASD (autistic spectrum disorder) when she had just turned nine.

During these years, we noticed that when Sarah wanted to play with someone else, she would poke them, kiss them or play with their shoes or hair. Looking back, I realise that grabbing faces was her way of saying, ‘I want to play with you!’

Calling All Superheroes

Calling All Superheroesby Tamsin Grimmer highlights the enormous potential of superhero play in supporting learning and development in early childhood. Using examples from practice, the book provides guidance on how to manage and implement superhero play effectively and set appropriate boundaries in early years settings and schools.

Illustrated with engaging photographs and case studies, the book gives ideas about how superhero play can be used to promote positive values and teach children essential life skills. Topics covered include the Characteristics of Effective Learning, how to approach difficult play themes, such as weapons, and the adult role.

This is an edited extract from ‘My dad is my hero!’, Chapter 6 of Calling All Superheroes by early years trainer and lecturer Tamsin Grimmer (Routledge)

Nursery World Print & Website

  • Latest print issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Free monthly activity poster
  • Themed supplements

From £119 per year


Nursery World Digital Membership

  • Latest digital issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Themed supplements

From £119 per year


© MA Education 2020. Published by MA Education Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, London SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 04002826. MA Education is part of the Mark Allen Group. – All Rights Reserved