I am a mum of two boys. One is 4.5 years and one is 20 months. Sometimes I spend my days flipping between the parent hat and the early childhood teacher hat as I try to make the best decisions for my children. Just the other day, my 4.5 year old bounded up to me dressed in his Spiderman outfit complete with mask and homemade web crafted from a mixture of blue tac and string. He popped up right in front of me with a dandelion and blew it fiercely exclaiming "I WISH I WAS AN ADULT" then passed the remainder of the dandelion puffs to me and said "Ok your turn now mum".
I took the floppy remainders and blew softly then whispered "I wish I was a kid". This followed by a puzzled look and a giggle as he charged off to 'save the world!'. All the while I remain puzzled in reciprocity about why you would want to be an adult when being a child is so much easier. This alongside musings about the influence that superheroes have on his play and inevitably his life and life relationships.
Why would a child want to be an adult or a superhero?
Lets pop the teacher hat back on and think about the times we have these thoughts in the classroom. Early childhood services often invite me to observe children's play and behaviour as a way to build a deeper understanding of children's motivations and lets face it, to make our day easier. What I have noticed about the children who are engaging in play that uses superheroes as the motivation is they seem to be seeking a way to take control of their choices. When you can be someone else is there a possibility that you may be allowed to do things that you cannot or would not be allowed to do? Children do not get a say on over 25 things though the day, could it be that they can increase the amount of choice within this medium?
What does this mean for our curriculum?
We have a decision to make and most of the time (whether we are aware if it or not) this decision is loaded with our assumptions about what is best for children, how we see children and what is easiest for us. If we could pause time and take a look at ourselves (critically reflect) we could potentially be missing some great opportunities for building resilience, identity and fostering friendships. Children need a chance to exercise power and test out relationships through play to make sense of the world. Let us 'be careful what we teach does not interfere with what they are learning' (Magda Gerber). If we turn to our national framework for curriculum we will see it riddled (Jokerface) with prompts to support children in building agency. Now the word 'agency' can mean different things to different folks and I can hear the groans of exhaustion when I mention agency as often the stigma attached to this word is 'children can simply do what they like and that they have too much agency these days'.
What is agency?
When a child expresses the desire to adopt a character or be an adult lets pause and take out the fear of them hurting someone or turning out to be a criminal and visit the notion of agency.
Ask your self: What is the child trying to tell us through their play activity?
Not: what is the activity I can tell the child to do in reaction to their play?
Luckily for us in early childhood there is no binary on this. No black and white and no right or wrong. I say 'luckily' because this allows us to respond to the context we are in and the family the child is from. Could it possibly be that the child has a reduced sense of autonomy in their lives? Do they have the opportunity for long periods of uninteruppted play and can they revisit this play in a variety of ways over the day? Or are their ideas shut down and shuffled on to more 'educational activities' in a bid to reduce the behaviour? Sometimes with superhero play it feels like you are bandaiding a broken arm. It will never go away so lets start responding thoughtfully to the dynamic everchanging society we live in. Yes, if you can't beat Batman, join him.
Pop Culture in Early Childhood
Pop culture is part of modern society. (Parent hat) I try as hard as I can to filter much of it for my children but at what cost? Do families risk limiting their children's relationships with other children or with the family members who gift them the paraphernalia in a bid to 'protect' children from superhero play? Last time I checked (Teacher hat) we don't see children as in need of protection, we see them as capable, confident and resourceful. I wonder if we are giving this enough time to play out. When children have time and space to test things out I have seen some amazing literacy projects, scientific discoveries and even design and engineering come of pop culture fascinations.
Lets get real
So what can we do when children's superhero play becomes threatening or violent? Those times when children come hurtling in with choppy hands and roaring voices, flitting swords and unruly behaviour that has us feeling like we are in a washing machine!
Pause and attune (intentional teaching) to the child
Record their behaviour using descriptions that document only body and voice
Remove assumptions form your observations
Discuss what you observed with colleagues
Talk to parents about what they believe (what they want for their child), what they have seen (describing body movements) and what they plan to do (actioning rather than complaining)
Express what you believe and what you have seen
Gather all of this together and develop a plan of 'response' (not reaction) to this play based on all of the above
Include in this plan; the language will use, the body positioning you will adopt, the role modelling you will use, the resources you may take away or add, the time you will afford, the space you will adjust and the empathy you will show.
This does not have to be a 10 page essay. Simply scrawl it down in some notes somewhere. As time goes on you may not need to write this down anymore, but if we do not start getting good at documenting why we do what we do and how we came to the decision we make, we run the risk of not meeting the requirements for embedded practices and critical reflection in the standard requirements. MOST importantly, we run the risk of simply having surface relationships with children watering the plant from the top (reacting to behaviour) when we all know that a plant is best fed and watered from the roots/soil underneath what we see.
8 more things to do:
Model how to be non-threatening
Sabotage the storyline, create rescue situations rather than attacks
Add some material and pegs
Ask your colleague to watch the other children whilst you spend time on this
Ask your leader to watch you and then provide feedback on your efforts
Come to a middle ground with families
Ask the children 'what is this game about?'
Allow the children to revisit the game after lunch and position yourself just outside the play.
Some days are really tough. Those big movement days can be frightful but work smarter, not harder. Let's be thoughtful about how we approach agency for children. Let us show them that we 'get them' before we try to 'teach' them something better or different to what fascinates them. Remember how lucky we are to be able to use the children's meaning making as our curriculum? Note 'meaning making' not 'interests'. We are not here to follow the children's interests all day and plan activities in response to that, we are here to guide and walk beside children fading in and out as required with materials, time, space or us (Claire Warden, 2005).
Get down and change it to...