Thursday, 27 February 2014

Superhero play

To many, Superheroes are a valuable learning opportunity which enriches children's imaginative role play.  To others they can be an aggressive variety of play which needs to be stamped out at the first sight of a web shooter.  Whatever your opinion is on superhero play, we as practitioners cannot escape its existence and how important it is to our children in the Early Years.

I'm not the first nor will I be the last person to touch on this topic.  I recently read this article by @qanursery which provided a brief description of the 'state' of superhero play in our settings to date.  It raised some interesting points about safety aspects and concluded that the modern day superhero is far more aggressive than his predecessors.  (I say his because sadly almost all modern day superheroes are male.)

Having read this article (and commented via twitter) I felt that I had a little more to it than this:
We, as adults, tend to regard superheroes as the product of an occasional fling between us as the cinema audience and whichever studio's turn it is to churn out the latest blockbuster.  For us, the action stops at the door and whilst we may watch again, we don't feel the need to emulate the behaviour of our favourite hero. 

For children, what they see is often completely different and they need to rehash each and every scene or scenario, copying skills and technique to fully understand the nuances of the hero.  That is what children do, they role play to understand something - we see this every day in our home corners.

My 'fling' with heroes started when I was very young.  I was fortunate to be just the right age when the Power Rangers franchise began and I was hooked from day one.  I loved every part of Power Rangers; the costumes, the cool looking baddie (Lord Zed - who can forget his cool staff?) and the fabulous action moves which led to each 'henchman' laying writhing on the ground.  It was pretty tame, I guess, from a violence point of view - no gore or blood, but still plenty of fight scenes to keep me practising for hours.  And I did!  I was always the red Ranger with my friends (I wanted to be the green one!).  I was never hurt but I needed to act out what it was like to be a Ranger to fully engage with the character and to understand everything I could.  

Flash forward 20(ish) years and now what do we have?  We have Spiderman, Batman, Thor, The Hulk, Captain American, Ironman, The Thing.  These heroes are no longer spandex-clad 'save-the-day' heroes; some of these men have a vicious and/or evil streak.  Studios have made them more human than their predecessors, with flaws and weaknesses to add suspense and thrills to the movies.  Can children cope with their favourite hero having a drug problem?  Can they handle them losing a fight?  

The concept of a superhero is meant to be one which embodies good triumphing over evil but in modern day stories it is often a rockier road to the happy ending.  But.. so is life.  I'm not saying for a second to expose your child/ren to this at an early age but eventually we all realise that life isn't so easy.  We expose our children to no end of horror on T.V, in games, in the street!  They see things for themselves with no explanation from us and they need to conceptualise what they have seen.  

I remember attending a talk many years ago, as a student, by Sue Palmer.  She talked about (and wrote two books about) toxic childhood.  The most vivid memory from her speech was telling us about forward facing push chairs and how your baby or child is seeing the whole world in front of them.  What horrors!  Your child needs to have a bond with you and your face and see the world bit by bit through what you choose to expose them to.  Now I am most certainly paraphrasing her message, but what worries me with this and the anti-superhero debate is that by restricting our children from the 'horrors' of the real word, we insulate them so that one day they wake up and can't cope with the real (horrible) world.  We're there to help them get ready for it, aren't we? 

Role models aren't a new concept to children. 

For the first half/three quarters of the 20th century (boys especially) had violent role models. How many boys did you grow up with who had a toy gun?  To us it was someone in the army who was a role model, overseas fighting for our safety and we still call soldiers heroes today - is that appropriate for children?  

There needs to be a point in the middle where we can settle on regarding superheroes.  Some of you may never allow it in your settings, some of you may love to see it, but for the majority I imagine you approach it cautiously.  

We don't usually allow it, to my frustration.  We allow low level superhero play (play with the Power Rangers figures etc) or to model a made-up hero (we have a box of capes etc.) but never a modern day Batman.  The truth is, I don't like our approach and I would like to change the way we do it.

I saw a really fabulous response on twitter to a question about superhero play:

"Look at what the learning is."  

Great point!  This is a practitioner's natural approach to any game or play they see.  You take action based on your immediate environment - what you see and what you hear.  If the play is meaningful, not disruptive and not upsetting to anyone, then follow it through, engage.  It's all too easy to tell children to stop it or pretend it isn't happening but what the children need is you.  You need to model the play, set the boundaries and explain that its not okay to hurt somebody, but Spiderman does, and tell them why.  You know your children better than anyone, help them understand this. 

I'll finish with one point

Someone tweeted  this article as well, this time about guns.  I do not allow guns of any kind and it worries me the children know about guns.  I tried to explain that guns make me sad because they are used to hurt people - but they did it out of sight.  

But then, I had a think. How can I allow children to 'make tea' in the role play area or 'cut the grass' outside but not allow them to role play something else they are interested in? (albeit from a T.V. and not something their parents do - I hope!)  The difference is that guns are used solely to harm and kill and that is not something I want children to feel they can do.  I have never fired a [real] gun in my life nor, I hope, will any of my class.  

I want to write, "There are some things we should just not expose our children to" - but then superhero play is teetering on the same edge also.  I hope that in 20 years time, we come to a sensible understanding of why our children love superheroes and why we worry so much that they like to be one - after all, its unlikely they'll become one!