Superhero play is a great context that engages children and it can be useful to reflect upon if both boys and girls are participating in this play. Sometimes the children’s heroes of choice can be male dominated and we can find ourselves drawn towards the stereotype of the damsel in distress rescued by the strong male hero. What messages does this type of play give our children in relation to gender, overtly or covertly?

We all know boys who are sensitive and good writers and we know girls who like nothing better than to kick about with a football or dress as Spiderman. But being masculine and feminine is not about which sex you are born into, it is about gender, which is a concept steeped in culture and strong opinion.
Children appear to enjoy deconstructing polar opposites like good and evil, death and life and also love to unpick gender roles in terms of what would be considered male and female. Superhero play is the perfect opportunity to incorporate these ideas and explore these extremes, and even to blur the lines a little. This play involves power and powerlessness, control and chaos and can enable our children to consider what is meant by these ideas.

There are a number of ideas that we encounter when considering gender, such as the nature-nurture or mars-venus debates, however, it is not always helpful to think in these terms. Effective practice would suggest that we always start with the child as a competent learner and build our provision around them. On the other hand, it is helpful to for us to know how an understanding of gender develops.

Kohlberg’s developmental theory (1966) suggests that children’s understanding of gender develops with age. The first stage, gender labelling, occurs by the age of around three years old when children can label themselves and others accurately according to gender. A year or two later, children in the gender stability stage can appreciate that this gender classification remains constant over time, for example, that a boy grows up to be a man. However, it is not until around six or seven years of age when children enter Kohlberg’s final stage, gender consistency or gender permanence, where children realise that gender remains consistent and is not linked to time, context or physical features. So by about eight years old, a child would probably realise that if I were to cut my hair short and wear my husband’s clothes, I would remain a woman, despite appearances. A younger child might not be sure or may even say that I had changed into a man. Therefore within early childhood education, the children we are working with do not have a full understanding of the permanence of gender, they are developing their own sense of gender identity and working out that of others, mainly using behavioural and visual cues.

Here are some ideas which will help you to use superhero play when supporting children in relation to gender:

  • Allow children to play with gender and accept their choices, if a boy wants to dress as Wonder Woman, that’s OK, just as we should accept a girl dressing as Spiderman
  • Allow opportunities for children to celebrate as well as resist gendered ways of playing
  • Reflect upon how you react to children playing in gendered ways or children who resist playing in these ways
  • Ensure that all practitioners in your setting have an understanding of gender issues
  • Help children to use inclusive rather than gendered language and model this
  • Practice flexible gender roles through pretend play i.e. a boy can be a caring mother figure and a female practitioner can be Superman
  • Talk with the children and encourage discussion about ideas relating to gender. Can boys and girls play the same games or visit the same places Are there any times when boys and girls need to be separated?
  • Observe the children as they play and make a note of the different play choices that both boys and girls make. Track where they play and how they engage with the resources and then compare this data for boys and girls. What do you notice?
  • Join in with children’s play and role-model by facilitating storylines and scaffold their learning
  • Avoid making generalisations about how boys and girls play, as this will reduce the likelihood of creating gender stereotypes

We also need to be cautious when we are choosing activities and resourcing our learning environment, for example, insisting that there are no boys or girls toys, just toys and no colours reserved for one sex, all colours are for everyone. It is important that these messages get through to our children within our settings. We must ensure that our resources are free from stereotypical images and avoid any bias that can so easily creep in. We can focus on strength in terms of character rather than muscles and think about our own super skills. Superhero play is like a gift, offering us many opportunities to work towards gender equity and explore issues related to gender in our settings.

Questions for reflection:

  1. How will you support both boys and girls to join in and learn through superhero play?
  2. How can you ensure a balance between competent, strong, girl superheroes as well as the damsel in distress, and how can you be sensitive to children’s needs as their understanding of gender develops?
  3. In the light of the female heavy workforce and limited male role-models within early childhood education, reflect on your own relationships with boys in your setting. Are there any aspects you want to develop to support boys further?

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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