This is the penultimate article in this series looking at superhero play, prior to the publication of my book Calling all Superheroes. It considers real-life heroes and encouraging children to think about how ordinary people can, and do, do extraordinary things.

The young children we are working with are surrounded by stories of heroism in real-life, for example, the firefighters during the horrific events at the Grenfell Tower fire in London. They showed bravery, emotional resilience and physical strength amid such terrifying circumstances. As firefighters are ordinary people, we can explain to the children that they can also be brave, resilient and strong. Playing at superheroes should not be limited to those with superpowers or extra-human strength, instead, children can explore heroic abilities relating to real-life scenarios too. We want our children to develop a growth mindset where the sky’s the limit, or rather, where there are no limits! This will require us role-modelling, sharing stories of adults and children overcoming adversity and problem-solving in everyday scenarios.

One child that I have had the pleasure of working with is Tom. His dad is his superhero as this note that he wrote implies. It says, “To dad Soopu Hirow (superhero) luve (love) Tom.” He gave this note to his father and told him that the crosses were kisses.

Tom looked upon his dad as his hero and many of our children will look up to other people as their heroes. Sometimes these heroes are fictional, like Superman; sometimes they are famous, like a pop star or footballer; and sometimes they are heroes from our everyday lives, like Tom’s Dad or Uncle Fred! One idea is to talk to children about heroism, who real-life heroes are, and what makes them special. Harris defines ‘everyday heroes’ as, “heroes (in the local community or among the students) who are not wearing costumes and masks” (2016, p.212). You might like to explain that heroes come in all shapes and sizes and many are people that we can meet everyday and look after us, for example, mummies, daddies, doctors and nurses. Heroes do not need to be famous, they can be individuals who overcome adversity or do something very special to help others. Perhaps your children would like to draw a picture of their hero or make a card for their hero and invite them to talk about why they are great.

When discussing heroes with young children, here are a few questions that you might want to ask:

  • What is a hero? Focus on all heroes, not just superheroes. (Ordinary people who do extraordinary things?)
  • How can someone act like a hero - what does heroism mean to you? (Doing good, being the first to help, putting the needs of others first?)
  • What do heroes have in common? (Amazing at what they do? Help us? Brave? Overcome problems?)
  • Do you have any heroes?
  • How can we be kind-hearted and caring heroes to our friends?

We also need to teach children about how small actions are also heroic in their own way and might make a big difference for someone else. For example, asking someone to play with you if they are on their own or smiling at someone who feels very sad and asking if you can help. These everyday acts of kindness can make a huge difference to someone’s day and even their life! We can explain that heroes come in all shapes and sizes – men, women, boys, girls, all nationalities, all ethnic groups, all socio-economic statuses and so on.

  • Invite visitors into your setting who could be described as heroes, for example, fire-fighters, park rangers or police officers. Ask them to explain their daily activities, equipment, training, and why they enjoy their jobs.
  • Follow the children’s lead and allow them to plan areas, gather resources, imagine things and improvise.
  • Provide artefacts or props and encourage the children to create their own props, labels and signs to enhance their play.
  • Offer opportunities for role-play inside and outside.
  • Plan an event with the children which encourages them to be heroes too – for example a sponsored walk which raises money for charity or helping to remove plastic from the local beach, or visiting a residential care home for the elderly.
  • Show the children the various icons and logos that many heroes have and create a logo for an everyday hero of their choice.
  • Encourage the children to make ‘My Hero!’ cards for someone in their family who has inspired them.

Everyone can be a hero when they show compassion or care for others.

We can encourage children to engage in socio-dramatic play and pretend they are a variety of everyday heroes. Here are some ideas of how to play with the concept of real-life heroes and promote this in your setting:

  • Show children newspaper cuttings of heroes and heroic acts – courage or service to community.
  • Show children pictures of figures, living and dead, who have been called heroes – choose people you admire.
  • Notice and encourage kindness, for example through creating a kindness jar or promoting acts of kindness at specific times of year.
  • Encourage children to be involved in community projects, serving others in some way, for example collecting food for the local food bank.
  • Read stories and rhymes to the children which focus on heroism and overcoming difficulties.
  • Create a display about ‘Our Heroes’ to celebrate everyday heroism.

Exploring the real-life heroes can be a great way of combining the children’s interest in superhero play with teaching skills and attributes that we want to encourage, like kindness, compassion, bravery, resilience and inner strength. So put on your x-ray specs to view those heroes all around you and also don’t forget to look into a mirror and see the hero that lives in you!

Harris, K. I. (2016). Heroes of resiliency and reciprocity: teachers’ supporting role for reconceptualizing superhero play in early childhood settings. Pastoral Care in Education, 34(4), 202–217.

About the author

Useful Childcare Contacts and resources

Tamsin Grimmer 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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