Superhero play is a common occurrence at any setting, but is this a bad thing? Tamsin Grimmer explains why superhero play is a fantastic tool in child development.
From exploring the themes of good and bad, to extending their moral awareness, playing ‘baddies and the goodies’ is more powerful than you might think.
Tamsin’s got some top tips for you to fully embrace superhero play at your setting, from adding in thought-provoking questions to encouraging independent play.
Heroes are all around us, from the mask-wearing, super-powered characters on television, to the busy adult who volunteers to do their elderly neighbour’s shopping.
We can’t escape superheroes in our settings either. With cries of ‘You’re the baddie, I’m the goodie’ or ‘Look at me, I’m flying like superman!’ superheroes are a regular part of setting life.
Superhero play is fantastic as it offers an opportunity for children to be creative and imaginative in their play. They’ll often invent detailed storylines and narratives to accompany their actions, and playing at being superheroes can engage very shy children as well as those who are more confident.
It generally focuses on the triumph of good over evil, so it offers children a chance to think about good and kind actions - the sorts of things a superhero would do.
We can also tackle some tricky issues through this play such as killing, death and gender stereotyping as we role model and talk about the characters or storylines. This sort of play tends to be very physical too, so it provides plenty of opportunities to develop fine and gross motor skills as well as opportunities to play socially with others.
But sometimes this play can be difficult to manage, and it’s not always easy to spot its benefits. I’ll be sharing what children can learn through engaging in superhero play, and touch on some of the challenges that can arise in our practice.
Making superhero play for everyone
Sometimes superhero play, and particularly rough and tumble play, is favoured by boys in early years settings. As most early years practitioners are women, they may not always value or understand it if they haven’t been exposed to it. However, if we shut it down, boys would be at a disadvantage as their interests are not valued or supported.
It’s very important that we are aware of this potential bias, and view superhero play as a way of engaging boys (and girls) in our provision. In doing so, we’re catering for all children in an inclusive way.
We occasionally hear children playing in ways that are very gendered or perhaps excluding others due to their gender, for example, ‘This tree is only for boys to climb…’ We need to challenge these stereotypes, and superhero play is a perfect opportunity to do this. We can share stories about heroes of both sexes and ensure that the female superhero gets to save the man, as much as the other way round.
Giving children those role models to use in their play is a great way to encourage inclusivity and respect from very early on.
Goodies and Baddies, Heroes and Villains
The themes of goodies and baddies and heroes and villains are very often explored as children jump into superhero play, and at this stage they’re still learning about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in terms of choices and actions.
They also quite like rules, because they help keep their environments predictable. However, as they develop, children will become increasingly aware that rules are context dependent and negotiable. For example: ‘I can have two biscuits at Granny’s house, but in my setting I’m only allowed one…’ In the Early Years, children are just beginning to develop their own moral awareness and thinking, and this is where we can use play to extend that awareness.
Playing superheroes lets children explore right and wrong, and presents children with moral dilemmas in a developmentally appropriate way. What if Luna Girl, one of the villains from PJ Masks, needed help, should Catboy and Owlette help her? Do superheroes even help baddies? These questions really help children develop moral reasoning.
Superhero play can also involve a narrative of killing or a use of weapons, which can sometimes be difficult to manage. However, we need to accept these themes and use them to support children to understand a little about death as part of a lifecycle, and to explain what words like kill, dead and die mean when we use them in fantasy play.
Research shows that aggressive play is relatively common and I would argue that this is, as its name suggests, play and should be accepted as such. There are many benefits for rough and tumble play - like developing children’s physical dexterity and proprioception, and letting them safely manage risk for themselves. It also increases our bonds with playmates as it includes teamwork and communication. That being said, it does require supervision to ensure it remains playful and does not become intentionally hurtful.
We are surrounded by ordinary people who do extraordinary things, and children will often have real people in their lives who they look up to and respect. These are real life heroes or everyday heroes that we can celebrate in our settings - like people who look after us, healthcare workers and waste collectors. We can plan activities that help children to explore situations from different perspectives and hold, ‘What if…?’ conversations to prompt thinking and discussion about this.
We can also build on this - consider how we can promote heroic qualities in our children like kindness, patience, perseverance and resilience. This links perfectly with the characteristics of effective teaching and learning in the EYFS.
One lovely way to do this is to create a kindness jar, where we can jot down or draw any acts of kindness we see and pop them in the jar. Then, every now and then, we can get the notes out of the jar and read them, celebrating the many acts of kindness that have taken place.
Imagine the difference our children can make in the world if they grow to be citizens passionate about social justice, sustainability and ecological matters. As Spider-Man knows, power and responsibility go hand in hand. So we need to empower our children to take responsibility for their future and the world around us.
Top tips for embracing superhero play
In our settings, we can use the context of superheroes to set the scene for discussions around inclusion, right and wrong, and becoming heroes ourselves.
However, in order to empower children to become heroes, we first need to instil in them confidence and self-belief. We can do this through ensuring that our children feel valued, loved and cared for.
Top tips on embracing superhero play in settings:
Allow children to engage in superhero play - restricting it isn’t the answer.
Ensure all staff are consistent in responding to this play – discuss your response to this form of play as a team to ensure you’re all on the same page.
Avoid taking over the children’s play and storylines - it’s their play after all, and they should be allowed to explore it themselves.
See this play as a perfect opportunity to openly talk about some of the more difficult issues like killing, death or goodies and baddies for example.
Find out which characters your children are most interested in, and do your research so you can support and extend their play narratives when you can.
Talk to the children about who the goodies (and baddies) are, and what they do.
Support the children as they set the scene, and help them to make any props that might be useful to accompany their play.
Problem solve and use conflict resolution techniques when difficulties arise instead of immediately shutting the play down.
Think about the qualities of everyday heroes, and how we can act in kind and loving ways ourselves.
Finally, join in with the children’s play. Role-model how to be respectful, kind, powerful and resilient, and find your own superpowers to resolve conflicts without judgement and bounce back after difficulties.
So pop your cape on and join your superheroes – together we can change the world!
Tamsin is an Education Consultant specialising in the Early Years, and, among other publications, has recently published an entire book on Superhero play titled Calling All Superheroes.
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