Superhero play teaches children to negotiate


    Superhero play ‘teaches children to negotiate’ and gives them ‘control over their world’ 

    Many children love superhero play where they can take on the persona of a brave and fearless hero with super powers. Yet some nursery practitioners are not so keen to embrace it, fearing it encourages aggressive behaviour and creates a chaotic atmosphere.

    super-hero-kidsThis negativity towards superhero play has led to some nurseries banning children using toy weapons and wearing superhero costumes.

    Their stance is backed up by the likes of Dr Sharon Lamb of the University of Massachusetts, who believes superheroes such as playboy millionaire Iron Man are too violent to be a good role model for boys, saying when they are not in costume they ‘exploit women, flaunt bling and convey their manhood with high-powered guns’.

    However Julia Sudbury, PACEY (Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years) Associate, who spoke at the recent Childcare Expo in London about the benefits of superhero play, thinks that rather than being a negative thing, superhero play can be harnessed and used in a positive way.

    She says: “Being a superhero makes children feel good about themselves and in control of their world.

    “Superheroes are larger than life and they can overcome obstacles and evil. If you are four years old and making that move towards school you may be expected to control your behaviour and learn to read and write. Many psychologists think that the reason why children are so attracted to superhero play is because it allows them to have control in a world that is normally controlled by teachers and parents.”

    The main objection to superhero play seems to be this belief that it incites violence and aggression in children. This is why it does need to be monitored to some extent, claims Ms Sudbury.

    “In superhero play some children can become aggressive and children can get hurt but you know your children and how to support them. You do need to manage the situation to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand.”

    ‘Rough and tumble play is healthy’
    kids-dart-vaderHowever, she adds: “It is important for children to have rough and tumble play like kittens and puppies. Rough and tumble play is healthy and helps children work out what is acceptable and how to negotiate with each other.”

    Some early years settings have policies of not allowing toy guns however this measure seems fairly futile as “children still pretend they have a gun and use their hands instead or use something else as a gun.

    “If you say no to guns and they run around using something else instead of a gun and you ask them what it is, you are encouraging them to lie and say it is not a gun, it is a wand. We are teaching children to lie and deceive us and telling them that what they enjoy should be kept underground,” she says.

    Ms Sudbury, who has worked as a nursery manager and has her own consultancy called Cambridge Early Years also warns: “We have to be very careful with policies of banning toy guns, as we have children in our nurseries who are growing up in farming communities where guns are used or their parents are in the armed forces and so you are telling them their prime role models in their lives are wrong.”

    Physically active
    If you watch superhero play, it is actually very physical and great for keeping children active and running about, she says. “There are lots of positive things that superheroes do. They run, jump, crawl and they are physically active.”

    It also involves developing social skills as “they are having to negotiate with their peers as superhero play doesn’t tend to be something you do on your own.

    spiderman-kid“If you watch superhero play and gun play, children will make up all sorts of reasons why they don’t actually die or stay dead. If you stop gun and sword play, you will find children will miss out on a rich, learning environment.

    “Superhero qualities are all qualities you want your child to have, such as bravery and good beating evil.”

    Ms Sudbury has also found that children who are shy and timid often find it easier to express themselves when they are superheroes. “They say it is not them talking, it is the superhero. It also makes them more willing to try new things.”

    The whole theme of superheroes can be extended into lots of areas of learning. For example, nurseries can look at the superhero Batman and construct a bat cave, explore the whole world of nocturnal animals through the life of a bat, make a bat mobile and discuss what superpowers the children would like to have.

    Good for engaging boys
    The gender gap between girls’ and boys’ development is already pronounced in the pre-school years and superhero play can be particularly good at engaging boys.

    “We know that boys under achieve and have to work harder to engage with the boy games especially being a female dominant workforce,” says Ms Sudbury.

    She does add the proviso however that it is important to identify some good superheroes for girls as well. “We have to be careful as most superheroes are male and what is this saying to our girls as girls often want to join in with superhero play”.

    On the downside, female and male superheroes often have very exaggerated macho and feminine characteristics so it can be hard to find suitable role models for girls.

    Features are accentuated on superheroes so male superheroes tend to be muscly with angular cheekbones and a square jaw.

    Similarly female superheroes tend to be slim, wear skimpy clothes and are sexualised with long legs, big eyes and big boobs.

    Certainly there is a paucity of positive role models for girls. Although films now are producing strong female heroes such as Merida in Brave, who is ideal material for basing developmental activities around. The Pixar film Inside Out also had the lead female characters of Riley, Joy and Sadness.

    Another positive way of using superheroes is to encourage children to think about real life superheroes such as police, paramedics, firefighters and their mums and dads.

    Some nurseries go as far as drawing up policies on superhero play to ensure children use it in the right way.

    Just as with everything when it comes to children, adults can have very definite views. Which is why the UK is split into nurseries with superhero-free zones and those who are determined to wear their superhero pants with pride.

    To have your say on superhero play in nurseries go to our debate

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