Monday, August 30, 2010

Up, Up and Away!

Our classroom is regularly invaded by superheroes, the most memorable of whom was The Hulk, who also did business has The Snow Hulk, The Cardboard Block Hulk, The Hay Hulk, and the Quiet Hulk, depending on the day. This fantastically enormous and powerful being, operating through the body of one of our most diminutive friends, is only one of a veritable legion of impossibly gifted personas to have burst through Woodland Park’s doors.

We’ve spent time with Batman, Spiderman, Superman, Thor (the Norse god of thunder), and Wonder Woman – all characters from my own childhood. I myself have actually been each of these powerful characters at one time or another. (If The Hulk can wear a pink satin slip, I can pretend to be Wonder Woman.)

These, however, are not the only “superheroes” that regularly grace our classroom. I don’t think it’s stretching the term unreasonably to include the whole glittering spectacle of princesses who walk among us, Disney and otherwise, with their own magical powers. And then there are such stalwarts as Harry Potter, Barbie, and an endless parade of fire fighters, construction workers, dinosaurs and other animals with sharp teeth.

At some point all of us need to try on a powerful persona. Everyone needs to experience what it means to fly, to triumph, to be a big deal in the big world.

To paraphrase Desmond Tutu: it’s not the darkness within ourselves that we fear; it’s the light. I think that’s what we’re dealing with here, at least at some level. Young children haven’t yet learned to be afraid of that incredible, limitless potential that each of us possesses – the 90 percent of our brains that goes unused. That is what they are engaging when they play with superhuman power. (And sadly, I think, it's our adult fear of this light that ultimately causes many of us to give up playing at superhero.)

At the same time, our children haven’t yet learned to fear the darkness either. The violence is exciting. The romance of it is thrilling. As adults, our broader experience teaches us that the horror of violence must be reserved as a last resort; that the pursuit of impossible beauty standards can lead to diseased behavior; that none of us will ever actually possess the super powers in question.

Like it or not, this is our society. These are the models of power that the larger world presents to our children. I don’t know if they are any better or worse than the models of power presented to children in other eras (Did ancient Greek children play Apollo or Aphrodite?) but I do know they are more insistently pounded into our children than ever before. Marketers target children with these superhero messages because they know your children need to imagine what it means to fly.

As parents we’re caught in between. Of course we want our children to engage in robust and imaginative power play. On the other hand we want them to understand that there are other ways to be powerful than through violence and societal standards of beauty. You can try to block it out, but it still gets in, it’s everywhere; you can slow it down, but you can’t stop it.

The society our children see through the lens of the mass media is incredibly warped and it’s our job to provide the rest of the story. Understanding this, most of us try to limit our children’s exposure to these powerful media images, but that can’t be the only thing we do. One of our jobs as parents is to equip our children with tools for dealing with the parts of our culture that emerge from the darkness. It’s our job to make sure our own opinions are understood. We need to make sure our children know where we stand on issues of violence and beauty. If we don’t do this we are letting marketers decide what our children learn about being powerful . . . And we need to do it without browbeating or anger, trusting our own honestly held beliefs, expressed clearly and calmly, to guide our children to make the right choices.

And as we gently point out the flaws in the myth of superheroes and princesses, we also must provide other, more realistic ways to exert power in the world. We need to make sure they also experience some of the thousands of other ways to shine our powerful light in the world.

For instance, one of the most popular circle time activities at Woodland Park is giving compliments. I ask, “Who wants to make someone else feel good?” and one at a time the children are called on to demonstrate their “superpower” of saying something kind to a friend. More often than not, it’s an actual compliment (e.g., “I like your shoes,” “I like your hair.”) but we’re not sticklers. Sometimes it’s a statement of affection (e.g., “I like you.”) or a wish (e.g., “I want you to come play at my house.”). Sometimes it’s whispered into a friend’s ear and the only way we know it worked is by the resulting smile. In any event, all on their own, the children have added the convention of following up their “compliment” with a hug. Throughout the exercise I repeat the mantra, “Sally (or Billy or Johnny) is being powerful by making someone feel good.”

We keep track of each compliment by adding a “link” to a plastic chain that is hung from the ceiling. The goal is to encircle ourselves with compliments by the end of the year. Our plastic chain link set came with 500 pieces. That’s a lot of power play! I love the mighty cheer each year as we add the final link. I see in their faces and hear in their applause how (super)powerful they feel. Look what we’ve done!

Some teachers ban superhero play, but I’ve made peace with it and try my best to use the power these impossible heroes embody to help children develop their own powers. At school we try to point out that the real mission of superheroes is to help people, not to scare them or fight them. We find traits beyond mere beauty to praise in each of the Disney princesses (e.g., Ariel is adventurous, we know Belle is smart because she loves to read, Cinderella is kind to animals.) Those are the real world superpowers. And I think that’s the opportunity here. If we can, even in small measure, help our children experience their own light, to find their own real world super powers – that potential represented by the other 90 percent of their beautiful brains – then we help them actually become the superheroes they imagine themselves to be.

(Reprinted, with revisions, from 6/14/09)

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Juliet Robertson said...

There's a superhero inside us all.

I always try and include a superhero in my courses. Today there were teachers building webs to catch "bad people"...!

It can also be fun for children to make up "mission cards" with ideas and tasks for superheroes to do. Sometimes we have a teddy that needs rescuing from a tree or a tricky river to cross with obstacles.

We all need heroes in our lives. Why should children be any different?

Annicles said...

It's really very interesting to hear the opposite side of the argument. I come form a Montesorian backtound and we typically do not encourage play that is not rooted in real life experiences. Having said that - it is impossible to stop children from watching TV in their own homes and we don't think that banning a thought is acceptable because it does not tie in with what was written 100 years ago.

I like the idea of finding the deeper characteristics of Disney characters and playing them up and also the links idea. Thanks for an insightful post, Teacher Tom.

Carol said...

Hurrah! I have long been an advocate of surreptitiously supervised superhero play (try saying that five times fast!) I think that allowing children to actively play with the ideas presented helps their critical literacy skills, and their social play.

One interesting thing - I noticed that when "So You Think You Can Dance" was on tv here in Australia, superhero play was temporarily suspended in favour of intricate dance moves. Is it perhaps the choreographic aspect of superhero play that appeals to some? What do others think?

SquiggleMum said...

A very though provoking post Tom. Thanks for sharing your viewpoint.

LaQuetha said...

In the spring I started teaching in the 4 & 5 yr old room and I did a theme on superheroes. It was a hit and we talked about real-life heroes and about how heroes really help others. My class loved it. I was recently introduced to the book How Full is Your Bucket? for Kids and it has transformed my classroom. I think I am going to try the compliment circle.

jaimeep said...

Ella, in all sincerity wants to be a superhero when she grows up.

Play for Life said...

Tom you're right when you say you can slow it down, but you can't stop it ... I have to admit however that Ariel, Belle and Cinderella are very thin on the ground around here!
Donna :) :)

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

Tom I enjoyed your thoughts on this. I've now and then had children who want to play super hero, but our center disallows this on the basis someone might get hurt.But I agree with you that it is prevalent in our culture, and also if we are truly focused on the interests of the child, then it may be important to find a way to creatively embrace super heroes. Thanks for this.

Melissa {AllSewnUp} said...

we've been having power battles in my home preschool, some of the younger ones forget all too quickly that the play is PRETEND, we've been having to institute a we are all on the same team, rule when things get chaotic. And they fight the inanimate objects and pretend villains instead.

I love the circle time game, power comes in many forms, thanks!

Louise said...

my almost 3 yr old sees rainbow brite as a 'superhero', just like i did when i was growing up! i think she's the perfect superhero for a little girl, she brings happiness to the world, fights 'the bad guy' by outsmarting him rather than violence and is in charge, yet kind to her sprites and horse... the other one I always wanted to be 'when i grew up' was penny from inspector gadget, the smart chick with the cool computer book and clever dog. I don't have boys, but for my girls I am happy for them to relive the 80's with these two characters rather than see any of the loud, aggressive types (don't even get me started on the prissy princesses) that seem to be the norm today.. (oh, the other one that she saw last week was Super Grover, he was pretty cool too)
thanks for your posts!

Danielle said...

Thanks so much for this interesting topic. It can't be denied that this lives in our culture. Wonder Woman and Charlie's Angels for me*. We don't experience much superhero play as I am a Waldorf teacher and media/marketing is highly discouraged, however one can't deny as posted above, that this exists in our culture. One thought too, is that if these are media driven images the children spend time in front of, they are using their body and emotions to process what they've seen. It does become somewhat one dimensional play however that then appears to need guidance and support for transformation, as the storylines and ways in which they are delivered don't seem to 'sit well' with the children. Tom's article on television, I feel, speaks to the way in which this blocks many childrens abilities to form their 'own' pictures. Their parasympathetic nervous systems ('fight or flight') are stimulated and both the content and physical sensation they experience needs a release. One could consider that children then are acting out the media play in the presence of adults looking for help as well on 'what to do'with it.

One aspect of the Waldorf curriculum with regards to super heroes is the use of fairytales written and delivered in their original language. Here we can consider that every character plays a role in the human drama that lives within each of us. When the stories (appropriately chosen) are conveyed in their entirety, there is a sense that there is resolution in the end. Because the stories are oral vs. film or illustrated, it leaves the child free to imagine their own pictures: however benign or scary (and depending on what they've been exposed to). Often times many aspects of the story/characters simply go over their heads, and throughout the free play curriculum of the day and year, children revisit certain archetypes over and again, and are given props to act them out: King, Queen, Prince, Knight, baby, etc. In this way everyone has a chance to express this person that is all of us.

Just yesterday I was presenting a Maidu story of the Sun and Moon. The Sun and Moon are made to rise as the result of 'gopher' and 'angle-worm's' ingenuity through releasing a bag of fleas. We are getting ready to present this as a play and the children questioned amongst themselves "What's a flea?" - Bless them for not knowing!

But with regards to fairytales, these are also deep archetypal images that can represent and nourish a child's sense of ego/spirit, as well as soul/feeling life.

Resources for anyone interested in exploring:

The Panthenon edition The Complete Grimm's Fairytales:

David Darcey writes a great intro on his favorite stories and how he works with them and presents them.

Christine Natale also writes about fairytales and specifically here: Who Are You Calling A Princess

The Frog King,or The Frog Prince

And lastly a fascinating short book by Roy Wilkinson on The Interpretation of Fairytales
for the esotericist: