Part of our role as early childhood educators is to facilitate play by observing what our children do, how they use resources and the themes that regularly lead their play. Then we provide opportunities to extend this play and develop their understanding. It is vital that we accept differences between children’s preferences and value their interests, using them to tailor an exciting and relevant learning environment for them. My forthcoming book, “Calling All Superheroes” argues that a child’s interest in superheroes, in all its various guises, is no less important and should be equally valued as an interest in dinosaurs, tractors or princesses. To deny children the opportunity to engage in their interests disempowers them and gives them a negative message about themselves.
This article is the last in the current series on superhero play and acknowledges that this type of play can be very difficult to manage. It involves balancing the needs and interests of the children with supporting different viewpoints of staff and parents and carers. Some may love nothing more than to engage in this play with their children, whilst others might strongly oppose it! The first and most important thing within your setting is to consult with staff, parents and children and then decide upon your approach. This will be unique to your setting and dependent upon your context and the views of all those involved. For some providers, limiting superhero play or banning gun play outright may appear to be the easiest option. However, I believe a simple ban is not the best choice for the children as it would limit their learning opportunities.
In my book, I share a case study about Ben, who has created a gun in the construction area. When a practitioner asks him what he has made, he insists that it isn’t a gun but a ‘zapper’ which changes the TV channel. Ben then uses his ‘zapper’ suspiciously like a gun when far enough away from the practitioners! Often educators turn a blind eye to this play, which can be seen in many settings around the world, or Ben might be told to create something different or play elsewhere. However, banning superhero play in all its guises can give the message to children that their interests are wrong, bad or unacceptable. This is not how we want children to feel! Therefore we must think carefully about our approach and perhaps design some appropriate rules which will allow this play, but on our terms.
Secondly, put a policy in place which represents what you do in practice and incorporates your values about children’s play. This should summarise your approach and clearly state what you believe and why. It should also refer to any rules that you have put in place, for example, superheroes rescue and protect other people, superheroes do not hurt others or superheroes only shoot people who are part of the game.
A superhero policy could include the following points:
- How you will observe children playing in your setting
- Your rationale about superhero play – what you believe and why
- Your approach – how you will respond to superhero play, e.g. role model, join in, supervise
- An acknowledgement that there are different perspectives on this
- How will children be involved or their voice be represented in the policy
- Your approach to liaising with parents and carers
- When you will review the policy and evaluate how things are working.
It can also be useful to agree a pause button or way to stop the play with immediate effect and reflect this in both policy and practice. This could be calling, ‘freeze!’ or ‘stop!’ Helping children to be in control of when full-body play starts and stops is also an important way to empower and safeguard them. If children know that they can say, “stop it, I don’t like it!” at any time and that other people MUST stop at that point, they might feel more confident if they need to safeguard themselves in the future.
Thirdly, do your research – find out which characters your children are most interested in and use these to support and extend their learning. You could look into the back stories of the heroes they are fascinated by and gather information relating to their superpowers, costume, logo and any arch enemy or nemesis to assist you in playing alongside the children.
It would be helpful to link with home and work in partnership with parents and carers around this. They will be able to tell you about any interests that stem from TV, film, comics or books and may have more of an idea where their fascination with particular heroes has stemmed from.
Finally, do not micro-manage the play! To use Julie Fisher’s phrase: “Interact, don’t interfere!” (Fisher, 2016). Children may need support in moving away from the ‘bish, bash, bosh’ of superhero play by thinking together about plots, storylines and how these can develop over time.
This series of articles has looked at superhero play and covers many of the themes that I explore in my new book. I have shared the benefits of letting children engage in themes relating to superheroes and how we can create an enabling environment which embraces this play. I discussed both rough-and-tumble activities and how children engage with themes like killing and death and also how sometimes more boys than girls engage in this type of play and how superheroes provide us with an opportunity to consider our approach to gendered play. In addition, I have discussed how it can link fantasy with reality and how we can develop super skills in children and share with them how we can be heroes in real life. So in calling all superheroes? Will you respond to the call?
Questions for reflection
- In what ways do you find managing superhero play challenging or otherwise?
- Is this type of play covered by any of your current policies? If not, what could you include in a superhero policy?
- Are there opportunities to notice children keeping your rules and being gentle and kind when engaging in superhero play?
- Which superpowers do you value in your children and to what extent do you celebrate them?
About the author
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.