Superheroes Defined?

Sara brought a group to the studio to do some work with super heroes. Hoping to encourage collaboration, we suggested they use a long piece of paper to draw a 'movie', a long story with lots of parts. They started off by listing the super heroes they would use in their 'movie'- The boys listed themselves first, and then few children who were not in the room,(McGuire and Emerson), Batman (who flies in the air), Supercat, Wonder Woman, Spiderman, and then Beverly said "I like Dora". Lucas was alarmed: "Wait, No, she's not super. She's not a superhero. She doesn't have a cape like super heroes."
"I like Dora", Beverly replied.
"Dora is not a superhero. You need Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is a Super Hero, Dora is not."
"I like Dora", shrugged Beverly.

Sara asked if Spiderman has a cape, and we talked about McGuire and Emerson, and Super cat (he has paws that push him through the air), and if they had capes or not. Lukas told us about Wonder Woman, who has an invisible plane, and Spiderman, who forms webs and stops mean guys. He said "I'm gonna draw Superman now, because he's a boy".
Owen drew a web. He said "Spiderman is saving every stuff. He's saving all of this, and he's calling all of these things, and he's calling them to him".
Beverly said "I did draw Dora. See, these are some webs that keep her in." (Later, Diego was in the web, and Dora saved him.)
Lucas said "Superman doesn't want Batman to come. He wants to be be by himself. Then he says 'Hey Batman, you can come now. I'm done with my work.'"
Lukas began to ad non-caped heroes to the story, including Astronaut and a droid. I'm not sure he and Beverly have reached intersubjectivity, (as in a common definition for what a super hero is), but they seem to at least be able to work together with their separate opinions.

I have long been interested in popular culture and it's role in the classroom. I have a feeling that banning things at school, things that children love, is undemocratic and marginalizing. However, I understand Joseph Campbell's ideas about transforming society by changing the mythologies that define us. Among the three and four year olds, power, good, bad and even nurturing and empathy are defined through stories. They seem to need super heroes, in the same way that people long ago needed stories about Witches, Dragons and Heroes. You can almost see their conception of these things growing and changing as they tell or draw stories about super guys or animals, princesses or monsters, bouncing these ideas off of each other and the teachers. I have learned that letting the play/drawing/talk unfold, and just intervening occasionally with questions that might point out gray areas to children, is the right way to go. I have heard so much talk about shooters and dead guys from young children over the last 14 years, that it doesn't alarm me anymore. What do you think?



  1. Hi!
    My daughter has just started at a Reggio inspired primary school in Australia.
    My kid's early years were very "Waldorfy" but I must say that I'm loving the way Reggio incorperates the reality of pop-culture in the classroom.
    I was shocked on the first day by the drawing of superheros but know I realise that if we talk openly about everything the kids want to explore, instead of trying to shield them, they are better prepared for life in general.
    I like the challenge of helping them find the answers to their questions in a way that gives them just enough info to satisfy them.
    The battle of not too much & not too little has me converted.
    Here's to Reggio!
    Oh yeah, I want your job...:) XXxx.

  2. In consumerist cultures, it is impossible to keep the characters out. It would be unfair to ask children to not play spiderman or lightning mcqueen or the incredibles. I have never seen any of those movies, but I can tell from children's play that the themes are classic: good and bad, right and wrong, happy and scary. I was just reading a piece by Bruno Bettleheim about fairy tales and how children are always drawn, dramatically, to those types of stories. Children use stories and dramatic play to work through the scary and the possible and the maybes and the questions in their heads. It is wonderful to see you documenting this work in the atelier.

  3. I am struck in my work with children (both my own and others') at how powerful the themes are from their popular culture. I see the parallels to mythology, fairy tales, and history in general. The themes aren't new obviously, just the expression. I am amazed by how empowering it is for children, and how revealing it is to us as parents and teachers to support the children as they pursue these ideas. I am constantly amazed by how well you support children's work Anna, thank you!

  4. I think there's a beautiful balance to maintain. While allowing the use of the pop culture imagery into the classroom as icons of power and developing ideas of good and evil (and all in between), I believe it is important to facilitate a kid culture apart from our consumer culture. I went to a great lecture by Susan Linn, Center for a Commercial Free Childhood. It is vital to understand the other side of commercialism which includes unhealthy imagery, corporations and consumerism, and marketed ideas that rob kids of possibilities. Mindfulness and self-education goes a long way as we enter in to these conversations. Great link:

  5. I grew up with comic book superheroes. I was one of the original readers of Spiderman, The X-men, Ironman, etc. I broke a ceiling light in my childhood home, twice, by jumping off furniture pretending to be Batman. The guys like Stan Lee and Jack "King" Kirby were amazing artists working for pennies for the love of their artform.

    Of course, I was a little older than the kids we teach and I wasn't learning about them from movies or TV shows surrounded by advertising and merchandising. At worst there were ads in the back of the comic books for Charles Atlas body building programs or Whoopie Cushions. I share Marla's wariness about the commercial aspects that surround these characters today, but man do I love the mythology/power aspects of them. We used to steal our dad's dress shirts, button only the top button and wear them behind us as capes, racing around the neighborhood, saving the day.

    I'm the opposite of Allie in that I usually know way more about the characters than the kids and I find it valuable to share that knowledge with them. I've had some of the most amazing conversations with my students about the minutia of how Bruce Banner became The Hulk (gamma rays) or Wonder Woman's powers (she also has bracelets that can block bullets and is an Amazonian princess). I've been known to bring my old comics in to share with the kids. They treat them like ancient treasures.

    That said, I'm incredibly pleased that this year virtually all of our superhero play has been from the girls who are wearing capes their moms made for them and they have absolutely no connection to the commercial heros. And they are still doing a lot of the same racing around business we used to do, feeling powerful, being bold, making rescues, and righting wrongs (but without the desire to nag mom to buy the special Superman brand decoder rings or whatever). In many ways this is how we all want to show up in the world. It's good practice.

    As for "shooters and dead guys," it only concerns me when it concerns their classmates, which it sometimes does. Not all parents allow their kids to be exposed to the big, bad media world and the fierceness of it all makes them uneasy. We have lots of conversations about how "real" superheroes don't frighten people, they help them.

  6. I think this quote from Arthur Schlesinger applies to superheroes as well:

    (Fairy tales) tell children what they unconsciously know – that human nature is not innately good, that conflict is real, that life is harsh before it is happy – and thereby reassure them about their own fears and their own sense of self.

  7. I love that quote, Teacher Tom. Marla, I have been to a bunch of the commercial free childhood group's presentations, they are good. I think it is so important to have kind, interested people (like all of you) right there, having discussions with 3, 4 and 5 year old children, as they are forming their ideas about these things.
    And thanks to you all -this is the kind of discussion I hope will happen on this site.

  8. I've recently read a lovely book called "writing superheroes" and it challenged me on my thoughts about superhero play and violence. My fears now are less about the violence and more about the ideas that you need to fit within a heavily stereotyped role to play. I am excited to see some of our children incorporating Megatron and others into play that is "non role specific" - using superheroes as a language jumping point for play, rather than a script to follow.


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