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Not all superheroes wear capes!

date January 28, 2021Tamsin Grimmer


A global pandemic is the perfect time to explore superhero play with our children. The young children we are working with are surrounded by stories of heroism in real-life – NHS workers, refuse collectors, supermarket employees and delivery drivers to name a few.  As these heroes are ordinary people, we can explain to the children that they can also be brave, resilient and strong. Playing at superheroes should not be limited to those with superpowers or extra-human strength, instead, children can explore heroic abilities relating to real-life scenarios too.  We want our children to develop a growth mindset where the sky’s the limit, or rather, where there are no limits!  Children will pick up on these themes in their play and as early childhood educators, we can encourage this. There are some great books available to help us, such as Real Superheroes by Julia Seal and we can role model and share stories about people overcoming adversity and problem-solving in everyday scenarios.

When I was writing my book, Calling All Superheroes, I included a chapter which considered real-life heroes and encouraged children to think about how ordinary people can, and do, do extraordinary things.

When discussing heroes with young children, here are a few questions which may be useful:

  • What is a hero? Focus on all heroes, not just superheroes. (Ordinary people who do extraordinary things?)
  • How can someone act like a hero? What does heroism mean to you? (Doing good, being the first to help, putting the needs of others before yourself?)
  • What do heroes have in common? (Amazing at what they do? Help us? Brave? Overcome problems?)
  • Do you have any heroes?
  • How can we be kind-hearted and caring heroes to our friends? children dressed as superheroes

We also need to teach children how small actions are also heroic in their own way and might make a big difference to others. For example, asking someone to play with you if they are on their own or smiling a sad friend and asking if you can help. These everyday acts of kindness can make a huge difference to someone’s day and even their life! We can explain that heroes come in all shapes and sizes – men, women, boys, girls, all nationalities, all ethnic groups, all socio-economic statuses and so on. Everyone can be a hero when they show compassion or care for others.

As well as playing at ‘real-life heroes’ we will also regularly observe children engaging in play that involves heroes and villains and within our settings, superheroes come in all sorts of guises and disguises – literally! From Batman to Wonder Woman and from ‘Tree Fu Tom’ and ‘Go Jetters’ to doctors and firefighters. Play themes observed frequently include ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, ‘killing’ or ‘death’ and this type of play can often attract more boys than girls.  Early childhood educators sometimes feel in conflict about whether to embrace this type of play or to ban it.  Despite some people’s reservations, there are many benefits in allowing children to engage in superhero play:

Benefits of using superhero play:

  • Offers a great context for imaginative play and creativity.
  • Provides opportunities for children to develop detailed storylines and narratives.
  • Can engage even very shy children in fantasy play.
  • Presents children with opportunities to problem solve and resolve conflict.
  • Helps children to explore the triumph of good over evil.
  • Offers opportunities to discuss sensitive issues such as death, killing, and gender stereotyping with children.
  • Opens up conversations with children about everyday superpowers that we can all foster, e.g. resilience, friendship, listening skills.
  • Is usually very physical and active and provides plenty of opportunities for gross and fine motor skills.

children playing

Top tips for supporting our superheroes!

  • Allow children to lead the play and try not to take over their play and storylines – it’s their play and as Julie Fisher advises, we should be interacting not interfering.
  • Ensure all staff are consistent in responding to this play – discuss your response as a team.
  • Find out about the characters that our children are most interested in and do your research – read their back story as context (our children may not know this – but it might be helpful).
  • Support the children as they set the scene and help them to make any props that might be useful.
  • Talk about who the goodies (and baddies) are and what they do.
  • Problem-solve and use conflict resolution techniques when difficulties arise.
  • See this play as an opportunity to openly talk about more difficult issues like killing, death, good, bad, power etc.
  • Keep an eye on the time so that the children can find a resolution in their game before the next transition, e.g. tidy-up time or lunch time.
  • Join in with the children’s play, role-modelling how to be respectful, kind, powerful and resilient and find your own superpowers to resolve conflicts without judgement and how to bounce back after difficulties.

About the author
tamsin grimmer kinderly collaborator

Tamsin Grimmer is an experienced and excellent consultant and trainer, the early years director of Linden Learning and a part-time lecturer at Bath Spa University. Tamsin is passionate about young children’s learning and development and is fascinated by how very young children think. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and passionate about teaching them and has a keen interest in the different ways that children learn. Tamsin is particularly interested in play, active learning, promoting positive behaviour and supporting early language development. She has written three books (Calling All Superheroes, School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning and Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour) with a fourth on Developing a Loving Pedagogy due to be published in Spring 2020.

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