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Monday 11 February 2013

Superheroes and pop culture: Should we be worried?

Storylines for children’s play
I work a lot with early childhood educators and they often express concern about young children’s preoccupation with the superheroes of popular culture.

Their concerns relate to:
·         the domination of children’s play time by watching, playing video games and/or acting out scenarios deriving from their electronic media experiences
·         the gendered nature of many characters and actions – where boys can be powerful, but girls have to be rescued
·         the attraction of associated commercial costumes and products, which raise equity issues and create young ‘consumers’
·         the promotion of aggressive behaviour and the potential of game scenarios to exclude other children on the basis of age, gender or skill level
·         repetitive storylines that may limit children’s imagination and creativity.

These concerns are legitimate, but given that play is an important way of learning in early childhood and, given that play themes are changing, what can adults do about it?

Work out why these themes appeal
Most of us are attracted to the idea that a smaller, weaker person can triumph over adversity and defeat the evil forces that threaten them and others; we have a long affinity with Bilbo Baggins, Rowan of Rin and Harry Potter, for example; Dora, Diego, Superman, Spider Man et al fulfil a similar human need to feel powerful in a scary world.

We all enjoy shared experiences where we don’t need to negotiate the rules, roles, characters or plot because it’s shared knowledge; even strangers at the park can play superheroes if they’re wearing similar costumes; running and following the action pattern of the group makes you part of the game.

For young children, the nature of contemporary superheroes offers a glorious physicality – an excuse to run, chase, leap, shout, capture and rescue.

And there is the lure of the forbidden; magic capes and dangerous missions are not quite acceptable in everyday reality when you’re a child, but in a fantasy world you can feel courageous and in charge.

Identify minuses and pluses and act accordingly
The way in which animated stories are transmitted provides an inherent limitation; everything is visualised and nothing is left to the imagination. Children’s play based on electronic storylines largely calls for imitation and re-creation rather than interpretation or extrapolation; there is no room for wondering.
Such stories generally lack narrative flexibility; they are written to an unvaried formula and even the costumes and artefacts come with instructions for their use. This constrains children’s creative use of other objects for symbolic purposes.

Animated characters tend to be two dimensional and not psychologically complex; superficial information is provided about different cultures and settings, with problems being solved all too easily by magic or technological devices.

On the positive side, Dora the Explorer, for example, is an empowered female protagonist. She is a Spanish- speaking Latina girl who demonstrates that being multilingual is a social and cultural asset. She uses networks of friends to solve the problems she faces and models wholesome values of collaboration and cross-cultural unity. The programs are designed to engage young viewers in physical actions and verbal responses, discouraging passive, sponge-like absorbed watching.

 Advice to parents and educators
  • Set clear boundaries: if running with sharp objects and jumping off heights are recognised normally as unacceptable risks, they are also prohibited in superhero games.
  • Monitor and manage children’s screen time, including TV, video games and electronic board games.
  • Negotiate entry to children’s fantasy scenarios, challenging stereotypes and behaviours that are unkind and developing rich narrative possibilities beyond the prescribed formula.
  • Invite children to draw, paint, write about and construct in relation to their heroes – Do Power Rangers need a box plane? Is a space craft necessary for Star Wars? Could we paint this cloth with a Superman emblem?
  • Talk, talk, talk with children; ask questions to check their sense of reality – Can people really jump off tall buildings safely? Is this fair or kind? Could the problem have been solved in another way?
  • Discuss, model and guide children’s conflict resolution, talking about how others feel and building empathy; suggest strategies to ensure that everyone has a turn at being ‘the Good Guy’.
  • To quote Spiderman: remind children that ‘With great power, comes great responsibility!’

Balance the diet
There are three main sources for young children’s imaginative and socio-dramatic play:
  • Real life experiences;
  • Cultural resources such as stories told and read; &
  • Electronic media.
To create ‘a balanced diet’, it is important that adults working with young children encourage them to talk about, sequence and elaborate on everyday experiences such as family holidays, camping, going to the doctor’s, vet’s or hospital etc. Helping children to articulate their own life story enables them to deal with any unpleasantness and work through what the experience means for them through play.

Equally, it is important that adults tell and read stories to children, including traditional tales, family histories and contemporary picture and story books. Sharing these in interactive ways where children can ‘act out’ aspects of the narratives, promotes the use of such rich storylines in play. (In WA, I saw a wonderful example in a 4-5 year old class where roles were taken and costumes created to enact My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes, by Eve Sutton & Lynley Dodd, Puffin 2010)

Focus on positive themes and bring in appealing, constructive games such as some of the Lego-franchised games and Moshi Monsters which involves creating a monster and then caring for it, buying food with points earned in the game.

If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em!

Barnes, H. (2008) The value of superhero play. NCAC. Retrieved 10/02/13
Chappell, D. (2008) Better Multiculturalism Through Technology: Dora the Explorer and the Training of the Preschool Viewer/s. Red Feather. Retrieved 10/02/13
Cupit, C. G. (1989). Socialising the superheroes. Watson: Australian Early Childhood Association.
Kearney, J. Superhero play- Good or evil? http://www.parenting express.com Retrieved 10/02/13
Levin, D. (2006) Beyond Banning War and Superhero Play: Meeting Children’s Needs in Violent Times. NAEYC
www.education.com Retrieved 10/02/13 

Jenni Connor

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