Batkid and the Importance of Superhero Play

I watched the movie Batkid: The Wish Heard Around the World last night.  It’s the story of Miles Scott, a young child with leukemia.  When Miles was five, he made a wish with the Make-A-Wish Foundation that he wanted to be the real Batman.  The wish granters found a stuntman to play Batman and Miles would be Batkid.  They decided to have a flash mob at one point during the wish so they tried to get 200 volunteers.  Instead over 10,000 people showed up.  Meanwhile people from all over the world starting sending messages of encouragement, as many as 1,400 messages per second.  Entire sections of San Francisco were shut down and turned into Gotham City.  The story is incredible and I can’t recommend the movie enough (or volunteering for Make-A-Wish).

 

Make-A-Wish grants hundreds of wishes around the country, but most wishes do not get outside attention.  There was something different about this one.  I think it says a lot about the importance of superheroes.  While there is no such thing as a superhero in the comic book sense, the concept of superheroes seems to connect with something deep inside many of us.

Both the Chief of police and the mayor of San Francisco (both starring players in the wish) talk about Batman as a hero that inspired them when they were growing up.  The costume designer from the San Francisco Opera who made the batman costume also was a fan of Batman.  Many of the people who sent emails, Facebook messages or showed up in person were dressed in Superhero outfits.  It clearly strikes a nerve in many of us.  Reading or watching movies about superheroes can give us a sense of bravery we may not always feel.  On top of that, most superheroes are also outsiders in some way, not fitting in with the rest of society.  I think most people can feel like an outsider in one way or another.

The pivotal point in the documentary for me was 40 minutes into the movie when the day of the Wish started.  Up to this point you see Miles playing and smiling like most preschoolers.  But then there is a change.   Batman comes to the hotel room.  He hands Miles a Batkid costume and says, “I need your help.  I need you to put this on.”  Miles walks out of the bedroom in costume and he is standing up straighter with his chest out and his arms splayed out just a bit.  He is essentially taking a power stance.  There is no smile.  Instead he has a very serious look on his face.  He uses a deeper voice.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMiles is clearly feeling powerful.  He goes through the day helping save someone from the cable car tracks, capturing the Riddler and the Joker.  Meanwhile there are over 10,000 people cheering for him.  Miles and Batman stop for lunch and Miles looks out over the crowd who starts dancing.  He uses his kid-voice now.  He says, “I think I’m done.”  He seems tired.  Suddenly they see The Penguin (the comic-book villain) kidnapping the San Francisco baseball mascot, Lou Seal.  Miles kicks into his Batkid persona and he and Batman head back out.

 

Eric Johnston, the man who played Batman, commented about this moment in this way, “He battled leukemia,

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and when you’re tired you can’t stop.”  Miles puts his mask back on and takes on his power stance, and he’s back in action.  Clearly the superhero persona is helping Miles work through this challenge.

The father also talks about how Miles identified strongly with Batman because he fights bad guys the same way Miles fights cancer.  He has no super powers, he simply doesn’t turn away in the face of fear.

I think it’s just as clear that many other people also identify with that same feeling.  Many of us want to be as fearless as Batman.  They need that same reminder to be strong and powerful.

 

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Parents and teachers often complain about kids playing superheroes.  They say the play is violent and out of control.  I often hear teachers say the play serves no purpose.  I think Miles shows that superheroes serve a very real purpose.  Not all of us have to face a battle with cancer, but we all have struggles in life.  When that happens, it is important to find your inner-superhero, take a power stance and move forward.

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The Joy of Risk

I have been reading Rae Pica’s new book, What If Everybody Understood Child Development.  I was asked to respond to her chapter on risk called, Bubble Wrap Not Required for a book study group http://blogs.dctc.edu/dawnbraa/2015/09/14/book-study-expert-commentary-for-chapter-4-week-3/

Here was my (unedited) response:

Rae Pica focuses on parents’ fears of anything negative happening to their children. I’d like to think about parents’ hopes for their children. We want children to be resilient. Resilience requires taking risks. We want children to be joyful. Nothing beats the joy of successfully taking a risk. Risk is a part of being alive and children need to know how to deal with risk.

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But it’s not risk alone. Resilience comes both from risk and persistence. You have to try and you have to fail. The risk might be physical. It might be emotional. We know that children will get hurt. We know they will cry. Our job isn’t to keep them from falling. It’s to help them up and hug them when they do fall.

Let’s be clear that risk is different than hazard. Risk is something that a child can see and assess such as climbing high. EachJ Club October 5 time a child reaches higher, she can look down and decide if she has reached her limit. Once she has reached her limit, she can climb down. Next time, she will probably go a little higher, but she will be the one to decide.

A hazard is something a child cannot see or assess. For example, if there is a slide on a playground, the child will assume she can go down it. She will not notice if the slide has a gap that could catch the drawstring from her sweatshirt and asphyxiate her. Adults need to minimize hazards as much as possible and minimize risk as much as necessary.

While our first impulse as adults may be to protect children, we need to look at the big picture. Children are ultimately safer when they learn to assess risk themselves. For example, open bodies of water pose a risk for drowning. We could make sure children don’t have access to water, and as long as they are in our watch, they would not risk drowning. But the day they find themselves by a lake or river without us, are they safer? It is much better to first expose them to shallow bodies of water where they can have fun and then teach them how to swim as they get older. The same is true for other risks. It is better to climb a tree and get a few scrapes than it is to not climb at all.

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Children need to challenge themselves when they take risks. It is important to let children climb on their own so they can assess the risk they are ready for. If an adult puts a child up in a tree, the child has no control over the situation. Children also need to use their body to back out of a situation they decide is too much for them. If a child climbs and gets stuck, the adult should verbally help them down. Reassure the child that you are nearby and talk through the steps the child can take to get down. Only help them physically if falling is imminent.

As a teacher, you can help children learn to assess risk as they play. If a child does something that seems risky, don’t stop them right away. Instead move closer and see if the risk is reasonable. If you are not sure you can ask the child for their assessment (“What’s your plan?” “Are there any sharp corners you need to worry about?”).

You can also do a risk-benefit analysis. Decide what the risks are as well as the benefits. If the risk is reasonable and there are benefits, just stay nearby and watch for changes in the situation. If the risk seems too great decide if there are any changes that would make it safer while still allowing the child to get their needs met. If a tree branch seems weak, is there another branch (or another tree) that is safer?

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It is important to keep in mind that playing, even risky play is relatively safe. There was a study in the UK that found that the sport of badminton results in twice as many injuries than playing on playgrounds. Most other sports resulted in even more injuries. There are benefits to engaging in sports, of course, so the benefits outweigh the risk, so why not playgrounds? And tree climbing didn’t even make it on the chart.

One of the most dangerous things for a child to do is ride in a car, but we have agreed as a society that it is worth the risk. Children do end up in the emergency room for falls 20 times the number for non-fatal car accidents. However, it is extremely rare for a child to die from a fall. Children under the age of 5 are more than 10 times more likely to die in a car accident than from a fall. Children 5-9 are more than 80 times as likely. In other words, children may get hurt, but almost all will be minor injuries. Meanwhile, children learn how to deal with risk and ultimately stay safer.

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Getting out of bed exposes you to countless risks. But if you stay in bed, you risk letting life pass you by. Just watch how children run to greet the day, ready for anything. It may be risky, but it is joyful. Maybe instead of trying to make the children more like us, we need to be more like them.

Won’t they get hurt?

“Do you think she’ll get hurt?”

As her daughter runs to join a snowball fight, a worried mom asks her companion in the movie The Bishop’s Wife. Dudley, played by Cary Grant smiles and says,

“Probably, but she’ll love it.”

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 We sometimes forget that the risk of getting hurt isn’t an excuse to not try something.

 

I recently visited Dodge Nature Preschool in West St. Paul ( http://www.dodgenaturecenter.org/ ).  It’s a beautiful setting, embedded in a nature center with more than 400 acres of woods, hills, marshland and a small farm. But that’s not what brought me here. I was here to photograph kids and adults embracing risk. And I was not disappointed.

 

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I saw children balancing on a slackline (with a second rope to hold onto). I saw children climb a steep hill, some using a rope and some merely stepping carefully. Some even ran down the hill at the end. There was a giant log that a few children straddled and slowly made their way across, others crawled and a few walked across, arms out to keep their balance. There were smiles and laughter. These kids had so much confidence.

 

 

 

 

But couldn’t these children hurt themselves?

Well, the short answer is yes. That’s what makes it so thrilling. But the teachers don’t have a disregard for safety, far from it. The teachers, Kristenza Nelson and David Longsdorf, are constantly assessing the risks the children encounter. What makes these teachers different is they also assess the benefits.

 

August 12 114For example the slackline was about one foot off the ground. At the beginning of the year, Kristenza and David have one child go on at a time and a teacher stays close and verbally encourages the child. As the children get comfortable, the teachers allow the children to go on together. Some children may choose to wait until they are the only ones on, but most find it both physically challenging and a great way to bond with friends. The teachers know that a child may fall and scrape a knee or elbow. They have band-aids if that happens. But the benefits far outweigh this risk. The children develop a sense of balance, build closer friendships, persist in a task that seems difficult at first, and gain self-confidence.

Oh, and they have fun.

When the children were crossing the log, Kristenza was next to the log, helping children when they needed it. She first helped verbally, but was ready to physically assist if a child needed an extra hand to balance. Then Kristenza noticed there were wasps on one part of the log. This was a risk that had very little benefit, and she quickly suggested they move on to Challenge Hill.

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On Challenge Hill, each child assessed the slope of the hill and the particular consistency of the dirt. There had been a lot of rain so there were grooves where some dirt washed away, but it was fairly solid. A few kids start right up without holding on to the rope. Others grab the rope and rely mostly on their arm strength. One child hangs back and David talks to her to help her assess how she might try to climb. Eventually everyone makes it up. A few go up and down several times. One child tries letting go of the rope to walk down. She falls and scrapes her knee. David asks if she needs help. She walks over and shows him her knee. They talk quietly and he puts a band-aid on her knee. She has a drink of water and she goes right back to climbing.

Kristenza and David were constantly assessing risks and benefits throughout the afternoon. They were supporting the children, rough awareness 2encouraging them verbally, and helping them physically. They showed as much care and concern for these children as any teachers I have seen. But they also showed trust in the children. And the children rose to the challenge.

And they loved it.

[I took a lot of photos, but I only had permission to use them in  my book and not my blog.  I used photos of my daughter and nephew for this blog (some at Dodge Nature Center.  You can see the actual photos next November when  my book comes out]

 

Real Confidence

climbing a rock
climbing a rock
up a tree
up a tree

Kids like to take risks, some more than others. The adults can make sure the risk is acceptable, but we can’t eliminate all risk nor should we try. Children gain a lot from risk including confidence.

Too often we try to boost children’s confidence by heaping praise on them. But saying “Good job!” a hundred times is fairly meaningless compared to letting a child climb a tree or run up a slide. The challenge followed by the accomplishment (maybe after several tries) is much more fulfilling.

It is true that children may get a few more bumps and bruises, but they will make up for that in pride. But that’s not all–

A few years ago I had taken my preschool class to a picnic at an assisted living facility that we visit every other week. I was on one end of the outdoor area playing parachute games with several children. On the other side, some of the children were going up and down a rocky slope (maybe 4′ high) that led to a dry overflow ditch. One of the workers from the facility asked if that was OK. My teacher-brain immediately thought I shouldn’t let them, but I thought about what I have been learning about the need for risk, so I said, “Maybe I should go over and see.”

I walked over and watched the kids go up and down on the rocks. As their confidence built, some of the kids quickened their pace. I did mention that some rocks might be loose, but I doubt anyone heard me. They continued going up and down for about five minutes before sitting down for food.

I know that if this happened five years earlier, I would have stopped it, and maybe had them go down on the grassy part of the slope. But they chose the rocks because it was a challenge and more risky and therefore more fun. They ran for about five minutes, smiling the whole time. Not only did it boost their confidence in themselves, it boosted my confidence in them as well.