I am currently writing a book on superhero play which I’m finding very enjoyable! Superheroes are a huge part of popular culture. They are instantly recognisable and whatever our viewpoint about them, they find their way into our early childhood settings. Children regularly engage in play that involves heroes and villains and within our settings, superheroes come in all sorts of guises and disguises - literally! From Batman to Wonder Woman, and from ‘Tree Fu Tom’ and ‘Go Jetters’ to doctors and firefighters. Play themes observed frequently include ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, ‘killing’ or ‘death’ and this type of play can often attract more boys than girls. Early childhood educators sometimes feel in conflict about whether to embrace this type of play or to ban it.

Over the next few articles I intend to explore the various themes that arise through superhero play, including aggressive play, killing and death, fantasy play and teaching children about real-life heroes. Despite some people’s reservations, there are many benefits for allowing children to engage in superhero play.

Superhero play:
  •  Offers a great context for imaginative play and creativity.
  •  Provides opportunities for children to develop detailed storylines and narratives.
  • Can engage even very shy children in fantasy play.
  • Presents children with opportunities to problem solve and resolve conflict.
  • Helps children to explore the triumph of good over evil.
  • Offers opportunities to discuss sensitive issues such as death, killing, and gender stereotyping with children. Opens up conversations with children about everyday superpowers that we can all foster, e.g. resilience, friendship, listening skills.
  • Is usually very physical and active and provides plenty of opportunities for gross and fine motor skills.
Creating a learning environment fit for a superhero!

The great thing about superhero play is that you don’t need to invest in expensive equipment or special costumes. There are plenty of superhero resources available to buy if you choose to, however I don’t think that this always enhances their play. Providing children with loose parts and open-ended resources will allow them to create their own superhero environments. For example, you could follow up on a child’s interest in Batman and create a bat cave by draping a large piece of dark material over a table. Add a few UV pens and torches and it becomes incredibly inviting! Children can then draw their own logos or we can print images to decorate the cave… Sticking a bat shape to a torch makes bat signal and a Batman utility belt can easily be created if you provide children with long pieces of yellow or gold card or material. Children will come up with their own ideas and all we need to do is ensure that there are accessible materials available.

In addition, although there is sometimes a place for ready-made costumes e.g. Spider-Man outfit, or Batman mask, providing children with open-ended materials and non-hero-specific costumes will enable them to develop their play in their own way. This is because sometimes a specific outfit can be restrictive and limit a child’s play.

For example, what if they are playing a game and they want to fly – in a Spider-Man outfit they might not feel that they can because he can’t fly. Offering children generic capes, large pieces of material or non-specific eye-masks can open up their play to many more opportunities. You may like to make superhero capes with your children. Perhaps make less traditional ones too - can you make a flowery cape or a pink-lined cape, as well as blue, red and black?

In one reception class, the children created their own superhero identities, designed costumes and thought of names for their alter egos and, with a little help, had a go at making the costumes. They drew themselves as superheroes and talked about the sorts of superpowers that they might have. The practitioners skilfully wove together ideas of superpowers such as invisibility and flying with super listening and resilience. They were able to link this with the characteristics of effective learning and think about concepts such as goodies, baddies, being kind, helping others and obeying rules.

Top tips for supporting your superheroes!
  • Allow children to lead the play trying not to take over their play and storylines - it’s their play and in the words of Julie Fisher, you should be “interacting not interfering”!
  • Ensure all staff are consistent in responding to this play – discuss your response as a team.
  • Find out about the characters that your children are most interested in and do your research - read their back story as context (your children may not know this - but it might be helpful for you).
  • Support the children as they set the scene and help them to make any props that might be useful.
  • Talk about who the goodies (and baddies) are and what they do.
  • Problem solve and use conflict resolution techniques when difficulties arise.
  • See this play as an opportunity to openly talk about more difficult issues like killing, death, good, bad, power etc.
  • Keep an eye on the time so that the children can find a resolution in their game before the next transition, e.g. tidy-up time or lunch time.

Finally, join in with the children’s play, role-modelling how to be respectful, kind, powerful and resilient and find your own superpowers to resolve conflicts without judgement and bounce back after difficulties. All that remains to be said is, “Where’s my cape?”

About the author

Tamsin GTamsin Grimmer photo2rimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.

Tamsin has written two books – Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children and School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning.

You can contact Tamsin via Twitter @tamsingrimmer, her Facebook pagewebsite or email info@tamsingrimmer.co.uk

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