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Observe and Imagine, Part 2: Super Heroes and Super Powers

March 28, 2012

exploring super powers

In the last post,  Observe and Imagine, Part 1, the idea of imaginary play and super heroes revealed  the often blurry line between fantasy and real life in the minds of preschoolers.  But there’s more to the story.

Once I determined that not everyone was clear that while pretending to be somebody else, our class guidelines and expectations were suppose to guide us, we were able to more deeply explore those guidelines.  It wasn’t an easy path to travel, but once we did,  got to do some  truly interactive imaginary play.  And grapple with the super powers we’re all possessed with, but often fail to recognize.

(There were some history lessons in there, too! This part dates me, and probably many of you, because really, how many kids out there know what a phone booth is?)

original Superman...a far cry from cartoons of today

We began with talking about ways superheros from today’s media use their powers.  Having not spent much time in the past several years watching children’s tv (nor did I ever watch much…but I knew enough to know what I did NOT want my kids watching), I was a bit surprised.  Much of the Buzz Lightyear story line was the same, but was it somehow blurred with Cars in the minds of these preschoolers?  Or did Pixar really overlap some of the plots and characters?  I couldn’t answer that one, but it became clear that the basic mission of superheroes seemed be consistent both historically and with what is generally accepted:

"What are Superheroes?"

"Ways Superheroes Use their Powers"

However, what was striking was the ways in which superheroes act.  Whether it’s “really” what is seen on tv or whether it is the way those images are perceived in a preschooler’s mind, the connotations that “good guys” can do what they want and disregard the rules, can be the source of conflict and undesirable social behaviors, particularly in young children who are just learning to internalize the rules and self-regulate.  What I was hearing (and heard from dozens of other kids over the years) is that it was “okay” for superheroes to hurt others in the name of saving someone. Or just ‘cuz they are Superheroes (proper noun).  Which begs the bigger question of whether or not it’s okay to harm someone because you hold the power and/or authority.  I wasn’t going there. Not yet. Maybe ever. Just listen to what some experts think on this juicy topic by clicking here.

In a 2003 article, Beyond Banning War and Superhero Play: Meeting Children’s Needs in Violent Times,  Diane Levin asserts that preschoolers use war play to “work out an understanding of experience, including the violence to which they are exposed.”  This can lead to both therapeutic and cognitive growth as they struggle to work out and understand conflicting ideas – another good reason to establish a climate for imaginary play.  Children also have a need to feel powerful – whether it’s in the words they use, their own physical skills or in they way they engage in imaginary play.  Levin continues, and the research supports, the idea that children use  “war play to help them feel powerful and safe” and often these  are “the children who feel the most powerless and vulnerable.”

Knowing these children as I do,  I am confident the kids most interested in acting out war play are not personally exposed to dangerous situations or people, but rather are those who are exposed to media violence (cartoons, movies, digital media, etc.).   But watching tv is not child’s play. It requires some carefully thought and even a little soul-searching as to what you want for your child.  Consider these two reports:

  • A 1994 National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) report stated that “much of what children watch on television is not specifically intended for children” – as much as 90% of what they watch.  Read the entire Position Statement on Media Violence in Children’s Lives.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics  recommends that preschoolers need to participate in nonscreen media experiences that promote language development, socialization, imagination, and physical activity.”

Read the studies. Consider what you want for your child. Then make your choice and stand by it.  I’m not saying it’s easy, because it’s simply  not.  But the choices you make today have a lasting impact. More immediately, their daily play reveals what they see and what they are sorting out.

After a couple more days discussing super heroes and their powers, I happen to mention  that in “the old days” superheroes did take care of people, but that the superheros I knew when I was a kid, saved people and did far less hurting of others. Heads turned. Hands went over mouths. And one small, skeptical voice said, “So what’s so super about that?”

“Well, ” I began, “each of us has our own super powers. It’s how we choose to use them that makes us super or someone who hurts other or something in between.”  The ensuing conversation gave me a sense of relief that those who previously didn’t think “bad guys” had feelings and/or that they deserved to be hurt, were starting to see people as people.  I went on to tell them that the “original” Superman was  a regular guy who went to work in a suit and hat. When he needed his superpowers, he went into a phone booth and changed into his Super Man suit.  Adults old enough to remember this giggled as the passed by our room, particularly when I attempted to explain the whole phone booth part.

To help illustrate my point that we can all call upon on super powers, and to provide us with the feel of a phone booth, we set to work planning how to build one.

Next week, I’ll tell you how these:

Superman's Phone Booth

…became Superman’s phone booth and let us harness our own super powers.

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