Many years ago, on a very rainy Friday, our two Chickadee groups joined together and met at the big yurt at Fairview Gardens (where we all remembered why we teach outdoors instead of indoors, but that is another story for another time). We had about 14 of the children come that day with all of the regular mentors. We brought several crafts and quiet activities to set up around the edges of the yurt and left the center open for more active play.
I went back and forth about bringing a set of 5 super hero masks and capes that I had but in the end I decided, why not? This could be interesting. I was in no way prepared for that magic that unfolded that rainy Friday, and while I loved superhero play before, this day drove home for me the need to defend this play even when others strongly oppose it.
After the children settled into the morning of being indoors, moving around the outer edge through the activities, we pulled out the superhero capes and masks and laid them on the floor in the open space in the middle. We said nothing about what was there and just waited until it was discovered. A short time later, 5 of the more energetic boys of the combined groups picked up the props and began to play. Now this play was loud and big and they leaped high and battled fiercely as they worked hard to defeat the bad guys and rid the world of evil. This drew a crowd and it wasn’t long before many other children jumped into wanting a turn with the props and they did a terrific job of taking turns, asking if they could be next and waiting patiently for a turn to be over. There was a huge and rapid turnover of the props. I noticed 3 of the more quiet, even shy children watching the play as well, children who typically did not engage in rough and tumble play. This day, they happened to be girls. Slowly, they inched closer to the play until they were ready to ask for a turn with the props. The play stopped and the boys wearing the props got quiet and stared at them for a long moment before eagerly handing over capes and masks.
Here is where the real magic began. As soon as the 3 quiet and reserved children put on the capes and masks, they completely transformed into strong, powerful, capable superheroes with super strength and super abilities. They could take out the bad guys with a single blow, wrangle them to jail single handedly and stop potential jailbreaks all while protecting the children on the edges of the play and working with the other 2 superheroes in a confident and good way. My favorite part of this play was when the boys went running fast past them in a circle, the girls would stretch out their arms and “clothesline” the boys who would fall down onto their bottoms, laugh joyfully, and get up and do it again. And then came the requests to be next that did not play out how I expected. Not once did another child ask one of the girls to be next with the props. The 2 boys left with the capes and masks would say “use this one!” and offer up a turn. For the rest of the play, many children circulated through the 2 sets of props. The children went so far as to declare that the girls wearing capes and masks were going to wear them the whole time.
This play happened to be with boys and girls, however, it was not about gender so much as it was about role playing and trying on different personas. You could enter feisty, flexible and shy temperaments of any gender and the magic would be the same. Playing the role of a superhero gives children the opportunity to play with themes of power, courage, to be in control, capable, confident, and invincible.
Often children feel the opposite in their world, small, weak, powerless, scared and out of control. Superhero play allows them to practice restraint and resilience, to be relied upon, to be needed by their peers and they are exploring morals and values.
It is important to note that not all children who play superheroes have even seen a movie or know exactly what super powers a particular hero has or what they do, but they figure it out. Many children are just going off of what other children know and play. They really do not even need to have firsthand experience, but they do have an understanding that there is an implied “goodness” to superheros. They have an understanding that they are working out good versus evil, right versus wrong, power versus helplessness. I like to find out exactly what children do know about the superheroes they want to play. Sometimes they can get stuck in a theme, as if it is scripted and they cannot deviate from the script. Sometimes they do not have enough information to play in a good way so we, as adults, have to guide the play just a little bit.
The young child is generally egocentric and it would seem that many superheroes are also egocentric in that they often single handedly take out the bad guys and save the world, and that may be one of the reasons that children connect with superhero play so much. They can see themselves in the characters and they can see how they want to be and feel, at least to try on. Again, we get to help them learn more about the superheroes, what actually makes a hero, what other gifts they have, because it is not just a “super power”. This often leads to conversations about real life, everyday heroes who, when faced with difficult decisions, choose to do the right thing. Have any of you heard of Katie the Brave? She is a real person in our WYP community.
When we talk about where the superpowers come from, the children often realize that they can find those “super powers” in the natural world. Some animals can be invisible through camouflage, others can breathe underwater, still others have super speed. This can lead to the creation of their own superhero based on the natural world. One year, some of the little ones were very into the power rangers and running around saying “Go go Power Rangers!” Right then we saw a gray squirrel jumping from branch to branch as it was being followed by a cranky woodpecker. As we watched the action in the trees it seemed like the perfect time to make a connection to their theme of play. It was not long before they took on new characters and started running around shouting “Go Go Power Squirrels!”
One of the families in our community challenged her boys to create their own superheroes for Halloween one year. They were so creative with their characters and their costumes were pretty fancy but more than anything, they were proud of their creations that were like no other we had ever heard of. When children are super excited about superhero play, why not encourage them to create their own super hero, complete with origin story, powers, other important qualities, and how they work within their community. Do not forget the costume! And why not make a mask to go with it? “Go, Go Power Squirrels!”