For preschoolers superhero play is a very fascinating topic. Children as young as three years old seem to be intrigued with guns, playing Star Wars and Batman – everything involving “good guys” and “bad guys”. While preschool age boys seem more drawn to the action of running, jumping and creating weapons from props, girls tend to engage in superhero play in less physical ways. Rather than engaging in epic gun play, laser attacks and sword fights, girls seem to explore superpowers through fantasy scenarios with magic spells and lots of verbal interaction. Sounds familiar?
If you’re wondering how to foster healthy superhero play, read along for some resources, projects and ideas we’ve been exploring. Make sure to check out these tips on how to support superhero play in your classroom.
Superhero play occurs everyday in preschool classrooms, yet many of us educators struggle to facilitate superhero play and parents often express concerns about ‘violent’ and ‘rough and tumble’ behavior. However, there are many benefits to superhero play and reasons why children are so attracted to it:
Young children, facing the challenges of learning many new skills, may often feel small, helpless, fearful, unable to accomplish what they desire, or troubled—in other words, just the opposite of superheroes. It’s no wonder that many preschoolers are drawn to superhero play. Through play they can feel brave, fearless, in control of their world, outside of ordinary, and just plain good. Research tells us that play is a major vehicle in development. Through play, children test the waters, try out roles and behaviors, investigate right and wrong, experiment with language, use creativity, find outlets for physical activity, and learn more about difficult skills like impulse control and conflict resolution. Clearly, many children have a need to play superheroes, and this form of rough and tumble, free play, can contribute to healthy development. Early Childhood News, From Superhero to Real-Life Hero: Encouraging Healthy Play, Shelley Butler and Deb Kratz.
Full article with lots of helpful tips here.
Supporting superhero play:
Art projects that involve making costumes or props are great to extend superhero pretend play into something more meaningful and complex. If we want children to feel empowered and become their own persons, we have to stimulate their imaginations and create opportunities where they can follow their own ideas and expressions. Through exploring superpowers and becoming their own superhero, we can engage and empower children deeply in exploring their own individuality, allow them to try out different roles and behaviors, see a variety of perspectives, develop their own voice as well as emphathy and a personal and social consciousness.
To introduce the topic of superheroes we read this wonderful book about courage, focused on what makes “good guys” good (determination, kindness, helpfulness, bravery and courage create a superhero) and collected stories from everyday superheroes and real ‘superhelpers’ (“Who helped a friend lately?”, “Who did something especially brave and kind before?”, “Who tried something difficult?”). In our week-long exploration of superpowers we’ve created our own superhero papier mache masks and capes, visualized our superheroes and powers in clay and pictured ourselves as superheroes in Mixed Media Collages (click on the links below).
Superheroes Part III: Mixed Media Collage
Superhero masks and capes
- Paper/Styrofoam plates
- Cardboard scraps
- Masking tape
- Modge podge
- Kwix Sticks Paint Markers
- Collage materials (feathers, sequins, glitter, foam shapes, pompoms, tissue paper shapes, scrap construction paper, pipecleaners etc.)
- Hole punch
- White paint (or spray paint, it’s faster!)
- White capes
- Sharpies (optional: thick foam brushes and liquid watercolors)
Step 1: Collage
Set out a tray with cardboard scraps, scissors and tape. Place individual trays with a precut paper plate mask in front of each child (cut 2 eyes, hole punch the sides, attach a string). Show how to securely tape cardboard pieces on the mask and invite the children to assemble their own superhero mask. I asked the children to use their imaginations, think about what powers they’d like to have and who they would be as superheroes. They had to come up with their own superheroes and couldn’t create something that already existed (Batman, Spiderman etc.). If you’re working with 3-4 year old children consider to precut some tape and stick it on each tray to allow them to work independently without the frustration of trying to cut the tape.
Tip: Children usually get excited if materials are set out on the table and likely just start creating with them. If you need to refresh ideas about sharing first, explain a project or show how to use the supplies safely you can play a game where you gather the children around the table and ask them to put their hands on their head, on their ears (“tug a little bit to turn on your listening ears”), behind their backs, on their shoes, and on their bellies where the hands rest until you’re done explaining and have refreshed a few rules and sharing scenarios (e.g. “what can you do if someone else has the color you want to use etc.?”).
When a child is done assembling their mask, cover everything with a layer of Modge Podge (glue) and newspaper strips. Let the children tear newspaper in small pieces, show them how to apply some glue, press a newspaper strip on it and apply some more glue on top. Explain that this will hold their mask together better so they can play with it later. Let dry overnight. Once dry, paint the masks white so the children can color them.
Step 2: Paint
Once the masks are dry invite the children to color their mask with Kwix Sticks (easy to handle, mess free tempera paint in marker form – we absolutely love them!). We also used normal tempera paint which will cover the surface more evenly. Set out cups of paint, put a paintbrush in each color and let the children take one color at a time. Remind them to put the paintbrush back in it’s color.
Step 3: Decorate
Set out glue and a few collage supplies (tissue paper shapes, pompoms, feathers, beads etc.) to further decorate the masks.
Step 4: Make a cape
Invite the children to make their own cape to complete their superhero outfits. Let them brainstorm ideas of what they could draw on their superhero cape or what they could use it for: Does it hold or show your superpower, is it a shield, which colors are you going to use? Draw on the capes with sharpies. If you have cotton capes you can paint on them with liquid watercolors (mix some water with just a few drops of liquid watercolors until you like the hue and intensity of the color). The sharpies will shine right through.
Step 5: Reflect and discuss
During snack I often let the children show their projects to each other. Each child introduced their superhero, mask and cape. We talked about the particular superhero strengths and powers and what their superhero character would do out in the world. Look at these way too cute and surely empowered superheroes with some truly amazing powers!
Also read closely how much the children defined their role and characters, how they explore their individuality when they become their own superhero and how deeply they are in dialogue with their character, sometimes picking up on personal themes and refining their characters for play (e.g. “I’m a jaguar, he bites when you come too close!”), making sense of their surroundings and finding personal empowerment (e.g. “If I want to knock the snow off the roof I need to be very strong. Red and pink are strong. My power has lots of red and pink!!”).
You bet superhero play got much more nuanced and girls and boys played together for weeks! I really hope you’ll give this a try!
I have sun power, love power, ice power, fire power, hot lava power, animal power, flower power and lion power. On my mask is a catcher that catches sunlight and makes sun power.
My power is red bing power. Red has bings in it and they come out. Red make bings. It goes “Psshhh”.
My power is a jaguar, he has sharp teeth. It’s a type of tiger who is black and he chases food. You can carefully touch one but you have to watch out because it could kill you if you get too close.
My power is sunrise power. I touch the earth and the water.
I’m strong. My power knocks all the snow and ice off the roofs. I have a lot of pink and red powers.
I have ladybug powers that squirt water out and get birds and knock down trees. My power is real because water can knock trees down.
I have ice powers. I suck up all the powers from others. And I can take on the spirits of all animals.
Tips for superhero play:
Superhero play can be a perfect opportunity to pick up on group dynamics, establish rules of consent and encourage empathy and awareness. E.g. if there is an imbalance of power or control we have the opportunity to talk about how others might feel and might end up not want to keep playing anymore etc. To encourage positive superhero play it’s best to discuss and establish rules together with the children right from the start:
- have designated areas where children are allowed to play superheroes (building block area, outside),
- establish rules of consent and safety (e.g. what’s an acceptable choice of weapons: foam noodles and rolled up newspapers; always ask who wants to be in your game, aim at those only who agreed to play, be careful not to disrupt other children’s games if someone says stop – STOP, that means I’m not playing anymore, keep your body safe, keep your friends body safe, keep our materials safe, be kind and have fun!),
- clarify unacceptable, aggressive behavior that will end the game (e.g. teasing, name calling, touching each other’s bodies with weapons, excluding children),
- practice/model conflict resolution, coordination, negotiation and compromise (e.g. observe and only stop the game if the children have troubles finding a solution, make sure everyone is heard, point out what you observe as part of the problem “I think Julie might feel excluded, is that right?”, ask for children’s ideas on solutions and make sure they realize they have choices, control and power over themselves),
- communicate the positive sides of ‘superhelpers’ and what exactly makes a hero (determination, kindness, helpfulness, bravery and courage – real heroes don’t use violence to solve problems!),
- invite or visit local, real life superheroes (e.g. firefighters),
- talk a bit more about ‘bad guys’ (e.g. sometimes we make bad choices but we’re mostly good people. Really ‘bad guys’ make really serious mistakes like killing etc.)
I hope this helps!