Photos by Gabriela Braga and T.K. Hammonds of Unsplash and PublicDomainPictures and Raman Talpadi of Pixelbay; composite by Christopher Hooker
The Origins of Superhero Play
In every schoolyard, there lurk multiple children, ready to don masks and fight crime (as they define it). Little budding superheroes are all around us, and they often carry lunchboxes that feature their own image.
A superhero is a tricky concept for children to learn from. At first glance, they can seem to be a very problematic bunch. But like most things our children encounter in life, they can also teach important lessons if we use the moment as parents, teachers, and guides to explore the broad messages children are unpacking and repeating in the genre.
In this two-part series, we are going to look first at why children look to identify with superheroes and want to emulate them, what need they are fulfilling in children, and what it says about them and the way they see other children in social settings like preschools and child care centers. (Part two will be released in a few months and deals with the choices kids make about whether to play the hero or the villain and the narratives they follow and reconstruct).
A Brief History of the Superhero
In order to better understand the phenomenon of superheroes, it might help to explore how Superheroes became such staples in our culture. Superheroes began in 1938 with DC Comics and Superman: a man of steel who was gentle and kind to all but the lawless and cruel. Superman was based on Jerry Siegel’s reaction to the rise of the Nazis and Joe Shuster’s art, marrying in folk heroes and wrestlers of the day.
The success of Superman led the publisher to other offerings, including Wonder Woman and the immensely popular Batman. In the sixties, Stan Lee presented a relatable hero… a superhero with everyday problems. His ideas created Marvel Comics, which went on to invent the concept of serial continuity, a shared universe within a publisher’s rights for all characters.
By the mid-1980s, Superheroes were more of a footnote in our culture, something only very nerdy kids seemed to be able to admit they liked, as video games were all the rage. Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS brought Batman back to the masses by making a Batman comic book for adults (the ‘graphic novel’), but accidentally also created a glut of hyper-violent fare in the 1990s.
Eventually, as the millennium closed, the interest in superheroes also seemed to be dying out, at last. And then two things happened that would bring back superheroes in a big way.
The Return of the Superheroes
On September 11th, 2001, the World Trade Center was attacked. Going from a seeming imperviousness to vulnerability overnight created an atmosphere where culturally, Americans needed mythic heroes again. We needed bigger than life heroes to handle the fears we had about monsters lurking to kill us and destroy the American way of life.
At that same moment in time, the technology became possible to replicate the kinds of worlds in comic books that contain inexpensively on film through computer-generated effects. Impossible heroes and creatures were now possible with computer effects that became more accessible each year that followed.
What Does It Mean for our Kids?
The result of all this sudden resurgence of Superheroes is that, although they are now marketed to adults and teens now, young kids still love them. They recognize the colors the characters wear, with red and blue being heroic, and purple and green being villainous or possibly monstrous, and that makes it possible for kids to understand these heroes and villains simply by how color is used to bring them to life.
With the boom in superhero films and television, a push for diversity has led to kids being able to see themselves as the hero in ways they couldn’t before. There are heroes of all shapes and sizes, of all backgrounds and cultures, now. The new Batwoman will be played by a black woman. The next phase of Marvel films will include a female Black Panther and Ms. Marvel, a skin-stretching heroine of middle-eastern descent. This diversity has allowed children for the first time to ALL be invited to play. Kids no longer have to feel “last-picked on the playground” in a sea of white, mostly male heroes.
Children have never needed an excuse to be into superheroes. It makes perfect sense that a child would gravitate towards superheroes. The bright costumes, the strange powers, the ability to enact change for the better in the world– these are the kind of elements kids will always be attracted to, as they are mostly powerless to decide things such as, what they wear or how they live and have little control over their world they inhabit.
Beyond that, perhaps kids need, in a very worrying time, some kind of belief in heroism, and are expressing a wish that they could be the agents of change and order that superheroes are in their fictional worlds. What they are expressing goes back to Jerry Siegel’s childhood impetus for Superman: a hero that could protect us from the everyday horrors of crime, violence and disease. Kids who wear superhero costumes often do so in order to emulate the heroes that inspire them to be better citizens.
The real issues surrounding superhero play are what out kids choose to do with their play. They are trying to express good and evil themes written by much older people who did not understand that young children would be processing these things even if they had never seen the full narrative. A child can absorb much about a hero from a few minutes of a movie trailer, and in seeing something they want to aspire to– to be brave, to stand up for others– may miss the context of the full narrative, or simply repeat depictions of the violence in the original material.
In Teacher Tom’s blog, he describes a class rule-making session where half of his kids wanted to ban superhero play. By getting the kids to talk about what was offensive about the superhero play– scares, and perhaps a slight threat of potential violence– the superhero kids began to see the effect their play has on other kids, and empathized. Rather than stick to their guns or shut down the play altogether, they openly reassured each other and worked on making Superhero play less scary for the rest of the kids. That kind of respect for the needs of others and willingness to compromise is the kind of heroism we need in kids: empathy and trust.
Because most superhero narratives are actually written mostly for adults and not for children, it is important that we monitor what kids are expressing in their superhero play. Some stories are violent and even play-violence can be traumatic to a child if it disrupts their core beliefs or they are accidentally hit/hurt by an overly dramatic friend.
Having a conversation with young children about their stories can also help them learn to be better at cooperative storytelling, too. It can also be useful in teaching kids that the path to the resolution of a conflict doesn’t have to include violence. Superhero narratives often begin with heroes in conflict with each other. Then they often resolve their differences as equals and unite against a common threat. On a playground scale, this offers kids the chance to enter the cooperative narrative as any hero or villain that they find attractive, and then express good through that character, by joining with the heroes to save their fantasy world.
As we monitor superhero play, it’s important to take into account the child’s social/emotional state and needs that are being expressed in the story:
- How they are treating others in their superhero persona?
- What vocabulary are they using?
- Are they ‘Othering’ kids or forcing them to be villains in their narrative?
- Are they using their story to bully kids of different backgrounds?
Queen Abby the Donut Protector and Other Tiny Superheroes
I wanted to share with you an example of superhero play on a smaller scale that includes a parent interacting well with their child’s superhero play. The following video went viral in early September, from the YouTube channel AlongCameAbby. Abby likes superhero play and donuts. In the video, her father plays with her by making up a story of a donut burglar, knowing Abby loves donuts:
As Abby works things out in cooperative play with her dad, she asks if she is the donut thief, understanding that her father is targeting her love of donuts for their exchange. When her Dad reflects the question back on her, she quickly and guiltily answers “No”, until she processes that the donuts she loves and eats are at her own home and bought for her. “I only eat MY donuts…” she says, processing the difference between her love of the donuts and the crime of going into someone else’s home and taking their donuts.
Abby declares herself a ‘goodie’, and that she is a hero protecting other people’s donuts, asserting her heroic persona. She is building an archetype in play with her Dad here, and it’s about her values. She has no clear powers yet as a superhero that she has defined, but she still insists she IS one.
When asked what reward she gets for being a hero, the obvious answer would be, for most kids and most adults, ‘I get to eat my donuts.” But for Abby, her answer is heroic in itself: “I get to be a superhero.” Free of a sense of entitlement, for Abby, being good is the reward. Her Dad calls her noble and compliments her for that, and she even demurs from being complimented.
While group play is something kids have difficulty navigating without adult interference, Abby’s one-on-one play and gentle guidance from her Dad is a good lesson in how kids can be their own heroes, with just a little guidance from adults and a clear understanding of right and wrong, and that does make it right.