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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Embracing Rough and Tumble Play

Embracing rough and tumble play? Isn’t that the type of play I try to stop from happening in my classroom?

I spent years gently reminding children that we don’t play that way inside. Wait until we get outside. Even when we were outside, I would constantly interrupt, “Be careful. You might get hurt.”

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I often talked about teaching to the whole child, meeting their needs in all learning domains: social-emotional, literacy, cognitive and physical development. But looking back, I ignored many of the children’s needs for physical development. I was failing to see a vital part of who these children were.

 

Rough and tumble play is the purest form of what it means to be a child. It is the two year old jumping up and down, waving their arms a up and down yelling, “Mommy! Mommy!” at the end of a school day. It is the four year old spinning and falling, and then spinning again. It is the time when children are so engrossed in the joys of movement that they lose all track of time.

 

As we grow into adulthood, we see this same total immersion of the mind and body when a dancer executes a phrase with extreme focus and precision, or when a surgeon completes a complex procedure and saves a life. Sometimes this immersion in movement is as simple as tending to a garden, or rocking a child to sleep. With adults we call this flow, but with children it’s called childhood.

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I embrace rough and tumble play because it is literally a type of embrace. It is a way for children to show affection for another while also testing the limits of their own physical abilities. Children need tender affection such as cuddling and hugs, but children also need to be physical in a more vigorous way.

 

So yes, I embrace rough and tumble play. I love the joy it brings when my class engages in it: roughhousing on the mat together, spinning endlessly, stomping, making themselves bigger and more powerful . I also embrace that peaceful calm they have when they (eventually) get tired and focus on a quieter activity such as building with Legos or Mobilos.

 

I can’t tell you how many times I have had an adult come into my classroom and ask how I get preschoolers to sit so quiet and focused. If they had come into my classroom ten minutes earlier, they would have seen children roughhousing and laughing riotously. People also comment on how well the children get along in my classroom. Again, this happens because we play loudly and physically, not despite it.

The more I teach, the more I have come to believe that children move from parallel play to collaborative play first through physical play, literally having their bodies interact with others. It doesn’t necessarily need to be rough and tumble play. It could be dancing although I find it hard to tell the difference with preschoolers.

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I embrace rough and tumble play because I think it brings out the best in children.

All Feelings Are OK

I wrote this post last week while I was at the High Scope International Conference. I did a workshop on gunplay (and warplay and super hero play). I also was able to be a part of several great workshops. One workshop that really touched me was called Make Room for Boys by Gerin Martin and Sandy Slack based on their book of the same name. The book and workshop has tips for teachers on how to work with boys based on what we know about the development of boys.

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One of the things they addressed was the need for boys to express their feelings and for teachers to help them do so.   They talked about the need for boys to learn a variety of feelings not just “happy,” “sad” and “mad.”

 

 

picking apart a rotted log

 

During my workshop on gunplay, a participant talked about how boys express some scary things. I asked the question, “Is itOK for them to express anger?” I could have asked, “Is it OK for them to express fear?” Many participants at my workshop seemed uncomfortable with boys pretending to use guns or weapons. The person mentioned above, and I am sure others, worried about boys expressing violent fantasies.

 

 

What I find interesting is this reluctance of teachers to allow boys (and some girls) to express their fantasies because it is too “scary.” The fear isn’t about children engaging in actual violence, but pretending to engage in violence. Children often engage in this type of play to gain a sense of power, especially over fears that they have. In other words, this type of play is a way to express a sense of fear and power (and at times anger) without actually being physically aggressive.

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In fact when children engage in gunplay or superhero play, they show a great deal of impulse control by staying in the role they take on. The child in their role may shoot or otherwise attack “a bad guy,” but they stay in character and follow the rules of that character. For example Superman flies, but doesn’t use a gun. A police officer uses a gun, but doesn’t fly. We should be encouraging children to express their fears (and other emotions) in such a controlled and measured way, not trying to stop it.

hillside-93-600x267If we want boys to learn that it is okay to feel scared, frustrated, giddy, embarrassed, worried, overwhelmed and understand that everyone feels that way at times, we need to encourage them to express themselves through play (and in conversation). If they are not hurting anyone, they should be able to choose what they pretend even if an adult finds it scary.

 

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As Fred Rogers said, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”

Night Games

One of the ironies of writing a book about the need for kids to move around and play rough is that I am spending hours sitting and writing. Last week I spent an hour in a coffee shop writing about the dangers of sitting.

I do move around during my day job, trying to keep up with ten four-year olds. But at night, I am often sitting down to write, or sitting down to watch something.  Last Sunday, I was sitting down with my family watching a movie when my phone buzzed. There was a cryptic message from a friend. “Night games. 9:00 at the park.” It was from Julian. Julian is one of those rare souls who truly did not forget how to play.

Art Sled Rally
Art Sled Rally

He is the founder of some of my favorite events here in the Twin Cities. One of those events is the Powderhorn Art Sled Rally where people are asked to decorate a sled and go down a hill at the end of January (often the coldest week of the year here in Minnesota so it can be -10F). He also created the summer camp Adventures in Cardboard where children use cardboard to fashion armor, swords, shields and magical items. The kids spend a week creating shops to sell magical items, battle other houses (there are six houses, each with its own mythology), storm castles and wind their way through labyrinths.

 

hillside-93-600x267Needless to say, we were going. I grabbed our flashlights, my wife called a few friends, and my daughter grabbed her sword. We arrived at the park a little before 9. There was one other car in the parking lot. It was dark, but our friends had a flashlight. It’s an urban park, not necessarily dangerous, but people are mugged here on occasion when walking alone at night. It was definitely not my usual destination on a Sunday night. We heard others on the hill under a street light. We walked up to find Julian, his son and daughter and three other teenagers. We had three tweens and four adults with us. It was time to play.

 

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Julian pointed out the boundaries and explained the rules for “Manhunt.” The four teens were the hunters. The rest of us had to hide. They would try to find us and tag us out, but we could sneak up on them and tag the hunters out. Off we went into the darkness. As I ran off to hide, my heart started to race. It was dark and it was possible to hide in the trees, but as I saw four shadows approaching, a sense of fear gripped me. It wasn’t a paralyzing fear, but that sense of fear you get on a roller coaster. You know you are safe, and yet your instincts are telling you that your body should not be dropping at 40 miles per hour. It was the feeling I had as a child when I played “Ghost in the Graveyard,” “Bloody Murder” and other variations on Hide-and-Seek.

This was much different than when I play chase with the preschoolers in my class. I have fun, but admittedly I am self-handicapping to keep the play going. Tonight I was trying my hardest and eventually running my fastest. It turns out I cannot outrun a teenager (I’m in my late 40s). All of us were trying our hardest and wavering between fear and elation. When we ran out of breath, we kept running anyways until we were tagged out. The 11 year olds, the teenagers, the adults, all were having a similar experience. The darkness helped equalize the experience a bit, and made it more exciting (and yes scary).

 

 

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Ready for adventure
Ready for adventure

 

It made me realize that this is what the preschoolers experience when I chase them. It’s not just that we are moving our bodies, there is also a sense of danger in a context of safety. Of course the kids could fall and scrape a knee, but they are not trying to outrun a wild animal. It’s a game and yet the emotions can react as if it were real. That is part of the play experience. And frankly, urban parks are often a place that can harbor fear, and yet a group of people can turn it into a place to play, and turn those fears into joy.

 

Side note: The images for this post are from Adventures in Cardboard and the Art Sled Rally. Check out the websites for more images, video and information:

http://artsledrally.com/

http://julianmcfaul.com/summer-workshops-2014/