Superheroes Save Us (Again)

Knowing a superhero or two definitely comes in handy. Especially when you need a theme for play. Now, I know a bit about superheroes. I know bits and pieces about a lot of things. Fortunately, when I need to know more about one of those things, I work with a bunch of experts... The children.

Last year, superheroes saved us. We called on them when a group of children hit a rough spot while they were navigating friendship and gender definitions. I could see that superheroes was their common denominator, but they didn't know it. We took a dramatic play session to bring them together.

During our pre-meeting (this happens at every drama session), the children trooped in and sat down, making a big deal to sit just so, next to some and away from others. And this sitting wasn't quiet. It was a, "I don't want to sit next to you." and "I only want to sit next to..." Well, that's why we're here, get ready! I channeled our discussion with the prompt, "I know that some of you are experts about superheroes. E. is an expert on Superman and G. is an expert on Batman. What other experts do we have?"

Oh there were experts, make no mistake! So our next task was to Claim Roles. The "Who are you?" gets us to the "Pretend I am..." This was the 3s-4s class, so I also turned into one of the players. I assumed a role of assistant and modeled the language of "Pretend I am..." asking important questions about place and adding the conflict to the play, "Someone-has-snatched-the-babies". It is important that I claim no expertise on superheroes and their work, this is the children's domain and really, that part isn't that hard, because I don't know what they know. I did set up the multiple conference calls though because I needed them to work as a team and there was always the chance that one set of superheroes would never work with another set and that was not what we needed on this particular day.

So the play featured a bunch of flying, conference calling, capturing the bean bag, aka the bad guy, building a jail, more flying, and lots and lots of "Let's go, Super Power Force!'

During our debrief, a teacher and the group of children can assess the success of the structured drama. My goal was to direct a small group's attention for a "look twice" at other children and to build connections. At our initial meeting there were little crews sitting together, but at the debrief, they were all mixed up. Rather than just letting this wonder pass unnoticed. I pointed it out to the children, I said, "Look, you aren't sitting next to your friend or yours. You are all sitting next to new and different people." I shaped a conversation about how they each played, their roles, and reinforced that if I want to know something about such-and-such superhero, we know who to go to!

The superheroes take to their superhero phones. Who is calling? Someone who needs help, that's who!

At the end of the dramatic play session, the children found themselves next to new friends.

Fast-forward to a year later with the same class, but now another child needed help breaking into the play. Superheroes saved us again and just like before it was not the obvious solution for the children. In fact, it was a little rough-going at first. One of the things we work on is that during play, a child does not need to ask, "Can I play?" or "Can I be?" as a child works to break into an established play arc, she or he will more often ask to join the play in just that way.

In this case, the child said, "Can I be Wonder Woman?" The answer back was -- get ready -- "No, you can be Batgirl." (pause) "And Batgirl dies." Can you hear the wail rise up from wherever you are reading this? Well, through the tears we talked it through, "You own who you are. You can say, 'I AM Wonder Woman.'" Oh, we worked on it and worked on it and it looked like it was not going to work, until suddenly it did. Superheroes to the rescue.

It is not my job to change the storyline or even to create the storyline adding details that I know and that they may not. This is the children's domain. I can only help them find the keys to the play -- to change how they try to enter the play.

Wonder Woman found a note. The note gave her all she needed to change the play.

Wonder Woman found a piece of paper. She read from it with confidence and with a clear voice. The other superheroes listened. The note contained a desperate message of danger. Super villains were afoot. The Superheroes were needed. Now. "Is that what it really says?" asked Batman. "Yes," she said nodding, "It is."

The team meets up again. What trouble awaits them?