Leadership Development through Superhero Play, Up, Up and Away!

Leadership Development through Superhero Play, Up, Up and Away!

  • Rough and Tumble Play
  • Wrestling
  • Play fighting
  • Combat
  • Media-based play

'Can young children be taught leadership skills?' I have been fascinated with children's superhero play and its implications in their development. It struck me one day that the two can be married and it can be a happy marriage where we can expose children to desirable skills that lead to leadership development by using Superhero play.

Why Superhero Play?

As preschoolers grapple with the task of making sense of the world, they use role-play or fantasy play as one of the means to internalize their observations. We live in an era of children being exposed to more media than ever before. By definition, superheroes are larger than life, courageous, powerful, and seemingly able to overcome any obstacle with great physical prowess while doing great deeds at the same time. Young children, facing the challenges of learning many new skills, may often feel small, helpless, fearful, unable to accomplish what they desire, or troubled—in other words, just the opposite of superheroes. It’s no wonder that many preschoolers are drawn to superhero play. Through play they can feel brave, fearless, in control of their world, outside of ordinary, and just plain good.

Superhero Play: Hero or Villain

Superhero play has long been thought of as violent, aggressive, and disruptive. Some argue that aggressive play should not be allowed because it exposes children to inappropriate concepts and attitudes and sends the message that the use of aggression can achieve a desired goal. Early educators have grappled with banning superhero play for decades, only to discover that children are strongly drawn to it and find ways to engage in it regardless of the adult-imposed rules.

Pretend play is an avenue for healthy emotional development. Pretend play builds children’s understanding of emotion, which helps them regulate their feelings. Pretend play is believed to be critical for healthy emotional development in young children. This belief has been used to explain the importance of involvement in superhero play.

One body of research suggests that rough and tumble play, which is one of the primary means of superhero play, may serve important developmental functions for young children, especially boys. Specifically, three functions: affiliation, dominance and social skill facilitation have been identified as potential functions served by rough and tumble play.

Caring adults must acknowledge this is reality and accept responsibility for facilitating and guiding children’s development by addressing superhero play in the classroom. As teachers of young children, one must respect and allow their choices of themes and roles, but that children must be provided the boundaries in which these themes and roles occur.

Leadership Development in children

Despite the extensive research about leadership, there is not much research addressing leadership in young children (birth – 12 years). Even at a young age, children exhibit leadership skills. Just as children learn other important skills, children can learn and build on these leadership skills through their experiences. Many developmental psychologists support the importance of experiential learning. At a young age, children are much more prone to learning skills and retaining them throughout their life. During childhood and adolescence, an individual’s behavior, personality, and skills are more malleable than they are in adulthood.

Most of the characteristics that leadership researchers have described can be explained through the 5-factor model of personality or the “Big Five.” In 1961, Ernest Tupes and Raymond Cristal found that five factors reoccurred within their personality analyses of various subjects. Over the years, the factors first described by Tupes and Cristal have been refined and then eventually coined as the Big Five. The five factors are extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, (absence of) neuroticism, and openness.

As leadership becomes one of the most wanted strategic qualities across professions such as business and industry, technology, politics, medicine, and the arts’ around the world — the role of parents, teachers and mentors becomes critical in assisting with the development of leadership attributes, qualities and skills in their children right from an early start.

Superhero Play as a means of Leadership Development in children

Superhero play provides a release from tension and frustration as well as achievable success and accepted ways to exercise leadership.

The education community should support a more productive superhero play that incorporates children’s interests in ways that promote leadership development. While the three dominant themes in superhero play are capture and rescue, submit or vanquish, and attack or flee, there are numerous variations on these themes, - Teachers can observe children’s superhero play and offer them opportunities to expand on their current knowledge.

Constructing a ready reckoner for parents and educators to safely practice superhero play and further use it to develop leadership:

Table 1: Leadership factors and associated Superhero Play

The Big Five (Factors of Leadership) Qualities Associated Superhero Play Attributes
Extraversion Assertive
Superhero play allows common ground on which conversations can begin. The resulting role assigning gives children opportunities to show these qualities.
Agreeableness Kind
While the ‘good guy’ rescues the people or attacks the ‘bad guy’, it is a wonderful opportunity for the adult to inculcate the much needed qualities of agreeableness.
Conscientiousness Reliable
With great power comes great responsibility. As Superheroes, it is easy for the adult to help the child understand that a critical role of the superhero is to get the work done. This can prove to be a valuable lesson for life.
(Absence of) Neuroticism Absence of:
Superhero Play gives many opportunities for building self-confidence, which is the opposite of all the qualities of neuroticism. Donning a role makes it easier for a shy / introverted child to open up and approach others with confidence.
Openness Curious
Children often construct their own story lines (with the characteristics of the superhero still in mind). Their fantasy play has limitless opportunities for creativity and imagination.

'You're learning how important you are, how important each person you see can be. Discovering each one's specialty is the most important learning.' -Fred Rogers.

Here are a list of activities that can be done at schools and at home for translating the Big Five attributes into bite sized behavior attributes to children through superhero play.

  • This Is Me, I’m a Superhero! – Have the children draw / illustrate their own self, depicting themselves as a superhero. A great opportunity to help the child understand himself/ herself better. Ask probing questions (gently) about what super powers the child would possess and why do they think it is important to have that power.
  • Passing the Parcel of Superpower (group play)– Make two separate sets of paper strips. On one set, write some of the Super Powers. On the other set, write down some problems that one may face in everyday life. Put each set in a different box. Play music and pass the boxes around, one clockwise and the other anti clockwise. When the music stops, the child with the problem box reads out the problem (with the teachers’ / adults’ help if needed). The child with the super power box reads out one of the super power. The children use the super power and brainstorm ways to solve the problem. Remember to teach children never to judge and that, all ideas are acceptable.
  • Super Power Wall – Create a Wall of Superpowers. Write down all the superpowers providing enough gaps between each (clearly demarking each power). Encourage children to use these superpowers everyday. Provide children with stickers (preferably each child has an unique sticker). Whenever a child feels that they have used any of the superpower, they can put a sticker on the wall. When they have been able to put up more than three stickers in a day, treat them to dressing up as the super hero of their choice.
  • Real Life Superheroes – Ensure that the children are exposed to enough real life super heroes, who are culturally relevant too. Parents can be invited to share stories of using each of the leadership qualities in their personal lives. Often, grandparents are a treasure trove of such stories. Stories from folklore are another important source.
  • Class - Heroes
    • Teachers discuss with children about favorite Super heroes and document the same.
    • Teachers to then introduce the class super heroes, ‘The Big Five’. Children can be encouraged to contribute names and costumes for each super hero.
    • Each Superhero to have three super powers, as per the table above.
    • Over the next few months, one special child of the day will pick the super hero from the magic box. Children will try that entire day to emulate the super powers of that super hero.
    • Documentation at each stage.
    • Rough and Tumble Play
    • Wrestling
    • Play fighting
    • Combat
    • Media-based play

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