Who was your favorite superhero in your childhood?
Superman? She-Ra? Batman? Wonder Woman? Spiderman?
Mine was Mighty Mouse. I know. Laugh yourself silly. But it’s true. I have no recollection of the cartoon or story lines, but recall deeply admiring his flying skills. I used to stuff dish towels into the collar of my shirt for a cape and pretend to fly, arms hyper-extended in front of me, hands balled into tight fists, my head bowed in noble concentration. The indoor flying area was the hallway that ran between the kitchen and my parents’ bedroom. The preferred outdoor area was a set of concrete steps at the corner of a patio in the back yard. I was convinced that if I jumped high enough, I’d go airborne. It didn’t matter that I never actually took off, of course. The point was that I imagined I was flying.
In an article in the January 18 Chicago Tribune, Geoff Ziezulewicz profiles a local group of costume-donning adults, self-named “Chicago’s Real Life Superheroes.” This group of men constitutes a local chapter of a national legion of adults whose goal is to do good deeds — ranging from distributing food and clothing to the homeless to participating in neighborhood watch patrols. In true superhero fashion, they carry out their good deeds in disguise, to protect their real identities — and create memorable acts of kindness.
I’m not here to offer an opinion on the activities of the RLSH – they may strike many folks as odd. But I was taken by their effort to help the vulnerable — a primary function of superheroes. In this case, it involved a recent morning walk through downtown Chicago on one of the most frigid days this winter, to provide food and clothing to people who were somehow still surviving on the streets.
Ziezulewicz’s story also got me thinking about the steady controversy that superheroes pose in early childhood classrooms across America.
Superheroes are fascinating to young children for many reasons. They’re big, attractive, strong, powerful, fast, courageous — and magical. Super powers are simply irresistible to a young child: you can leap, run at supersonic speed, fly, disappear, morph into another being, deflect dark forces, capture and defeat bad guys, help people — and be revered for all those qualities. (Are you remembering your superhero now? Have you perhaps never truly forgetten him or her?)
Wouldn’t you enjoy having even one of those traits at your disposal in your regular daily human life?
Those of us who work with young children know that superhero play is a reflection of general fantasy play, which holds tremendous allure. When productive, it has enormous benefits: dramatizing someone allows you to get a sense of what it feels like to be that person; make some sense of experiences; it helps you see from another point of view; figure out how to negotiate ideas; manage and express emotions — all elements of emotional intelligence, by the way (skills most of us still need assistance with as adults). Throw in some simple props — a crown; a cape; a glove; sparkly boots, maybe; some sun glasses — and poof! You have a new identity. You’re a different you.
Children very naturally act out things they’re thinking about, working on, wondering about. Fantasy play helps them figure things out and master events and experiences — whether they’re delightful, exciting, confusing, or upsetting. Play creates a safe haven for exploring the feelings associated with the experience, and it puts them in control. They can step into the play or away from it, on their own terms. No wonder we see children engage in some play themes over and over again. (It’s similar to their response to a beloved book — when children say, “Read it again,” you know you’ve got a winner.)
When it’s not so productive, superhero play reflects the less savory elements of good vs. evil play, when children simply mimic a character or focus on aggressive, or more violent elements of behavior. This is when doing harm or using weapons becomes the focus of the play. Diane Levin, professor of Education at Wheelock College, has written extensively on this theme. She points out that young children are typically drawn to the most prominent attributes of a character, typically, the most vivid and aggressive traits. That goes with the way very young children think, which tends to be rather sensory-oriented and in the moment. And since, on some level, they realize that they are not terribly powerful, a character with special skills can be quite attractive . It feels good to be powerful and in control.
This less-sophisticated, aggressive play stems from any number of sources, not the least of which includes the pervasive images of violence in media, in the news, and for some children, in their own homes and communities. This kind of play can quickly devolve into physical aggression, creating tension in a classroom and requiring constant adult intervention. Children seem to learn that violence and use of weapons (guns, especially) are effective ways to solve problems. This mindset bodes poorly for children’s emotional development, preparing them rather poorly for dealing with challenges and problems they’ll inevitably face as they grow up.
It creates real conundrums in early childhood settings, particularly for teachers who understand children’s drive to play and its benefits to development. A myriad of responses have been explored by many practitioners — everything from banning superhero play altogether to suggesting children dramatize the good guy- bad guy conflicts with gestures but no touching.
In the July 2011 edition of Young Children magazine, teacher Jaequeline Radell describes her effort to support children’s superhero play in a way that would preserve their natural desire to engage in fantasy, and still allow them to explore the roles of superheroes in positive and productive ways.
She first asked children to consider what superheroes do, and then encouraged them to develop their own characters based on those themes. Children indicated readily that superheroes are helpful, “save people,” and help people solve problems.
Radell and her colleagues provided materials for props, developed rules for safety, and in a clear effort at non-violence, established a guideline that the classroom was a “weapons-free zone.” This, along with a stronger focus on how superheroes are helpful — seemed to force children to come up with more clever and creative ways to cooperate together and solve problems with plot and theme. The magical powers abounded despite the deceleration in aggression (children flew, became invisible, leapt from tall buildings). Kittens were saved, transportation units were constructed in teams, and catastrophes were averted. Not too shabby.
An interesting aspect that came up during one of the preliminary discussions about the work of superheroes was the way they help people — some children mentioned fire fighters as an example. Police, fire fighters, doctors, ambulance drivers, and similar personnel are fondly known as “community helpers” in the world of Early Childhood. These are and should remain very important role models for young children.
A cartoon has been posted on my office door at my college for several years. It is by cartoonist Mark Parisi, published shortly after the 9/11 attacks. In the single-panel scene, a father is seeing his children off for Halloween trick-or-treating. He says, “I thought you kids were going to go as superheroes…” The three children, dressed as a police officer, a fire fighter, and a doctor, respond simply, “We are.”
Around this same time, children in the classroom at one of our lab schools dramatized the fall of the Twin Towers. With the cooperation and support of their teachers, they taped orange and yellow crepe paper to the loft to show the fire, then donned fire fighter outfits to douse the flames and get people out of the building. That’s an example of very young children working out a catastrophic event — not directly experienced, but of which they were aware –in the best way they know how, by playing it out, and imagining themselves able to do something about it. When real-life experiences, even events that are this devastating, are handled in appropriate ways — with caring adults who help children explore questions and feelings and concerns — play is at its best and most hope-filled.
So, my hat’s off to the RLSH. May you continue to do good deeds and make the world a little better. Hear, hear to all police officers, fire fighters and doctors who provide inspiration to young children with your courage and strength. And kudos to teachers who recognize children’s intense need to make sense of the world through play — for your courage to help them feel powerful and altruistic — and for knowing that these traits are not mutually exclusive.
So … who’s your superhero?
OK, sing it with me. All together now: “Here I come to save the daaaaaayyyyy!!!!!”