To Infinity and Beyond! – The Value of Super Hero Play.
With our super hero week coming soon I thought it was time to think about the opportunities this kind of play presents for children, parents and educators.
Years ago when I first entered the industry super hero play was actively discouraged, it was thought of as being too rough and encouraged violent behaviour. Yet despite all of the educators efforts at putting a stop to this I observed that whenever the children thought nobody was watching they would immediately engage in this play; this made me begin to look more closely at the issue, just what is it that makes this type of play so appealing?
Over the last twenty years we have seen a reboot of many of the super hero franchises; we have had very successful movies about the X-Men, The Avengers, Batman, Ironman and many more. The commercial success of these movies means that merchandise is everywhere and even though most of these movies are not marketed for preschool audiences the children are all very aware of the characters and even the plot lines.
Apart from being more accessible these new movies also featured female heroes, giving young girls role models to portray in play. Previously the only female heroes were just feminised versions of the males like Super girl and Batgirl or specially made marketing cross over’s where established characters like Barbie and Dora develop powers for an episode. The few genuine characters like Wonder Woman and Wasp were not widely portrayed.
According to Boyd (1997), superhero play is “the active, physical play of children pretending to be media characters imbued with extraordinary abilities, including superhuman strength or the ability to transform themselves into superhuman entities”. So apart from getting exercise what can we gain from super hero play?
For a start heroes are “the good guys” when I observe super hero play going on that is rough I start a discussion about who super heroes are; and it always comes down to this- they are the “good guys”. We then talk about what a good guy is – they help people, they keep people safe, they put bad guys in gaol and they always look after their friends. Some of the concepts involved with learning to share and resolve conflict in play are things that most children really don’t understand until school age; using the archetype of a super hero can make them easier to understand.
Most of the super hero play normally takes place within small groups; this is an excellent opportunity for assisting the development of the skills needed for cooperative play. It is one way that friendships begin and the super hero theme also provides a good opportunity to talk about right and wrong, good and bad and explore these concepts with their peers.
Pretending to be a hero can give a child the courage to try new challenges and to be brave when they are not feeling that way. Accepting that the hero always knows what to do can also encourage children to think about how to solve a problem. Role playing within a group and planning out how the game will go provides opportunities to develop language and begin to think about consequences. Being the hero and helping others can also promote the development of empathy through thinking about the needs of others.
In acting out super hero play the children are able to utilise their creativity and imagination; they can create their own stories and decide the outcome. For preschoolers the world is run by grownups and they often have very little input in day to day events; super hero play is a chance to feel powerful and in control. This can help them act out and process any inner turmoil and sense of powerlessness that they have and can help children to resolve issues of control allowing them to resolve or reduce fears and anxiety.
These are some of the benefits of super hero play for children, for parents and educators this type of play is great for using up energy, encouraging healthy eating (heroes only eat healthy food you know) and it is a lot of fun to do together. It can be a useful tool for talking about traumatic events that children are exposed to on the news; fire fighters, police officers and paramedics are also super heroes too. With some guidance this is a wonderful way to spend time together and as a parent, juggling all the necessities of modern life, you already are a super hero.