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3 Reasons Superheroes have Special Powers over Pupils

Looking for inspiring characters to encourage children to read and engage with the subject matter? Here’s why you should choose Lycra, says Kersti Worsley...

  • 3 Reasons Superheroes have Special Powers over Pupils

So, who hasn’t, at some point in their lives, imagined themselves donning some stretchy tights and a mask (fancy dress parties excluded), and stopping a meteor from crashing into Earth with their super-strong biceps?

Surely it’s not just me? Although, these days, I think I’d prefer my super suit to be fleece lined, particularly if wanting to show my flying skills (I mean, it’s bound to be a bit nippy up among the clouds).

Thinking about it, I’d probably need some prescription flying goggles, too, and just where am I going to keep my keys and phone? But this is the problem, isn’t it? As we get older, our thoughts take a turn towards the practical.

Children’s imaginations, on the other hand, aren’t cluttered with all that nonsense. They just want to battle baddies and save the world. Hurrah!

Classic superheroes, like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, don’t ever seem to fall out of favour; they’ve endured for decades.

Others are reinvented, such as in the recent film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which introduces multiple, diverse spider-characters who have to team up to stop a threat to reality, and Aquaman – a superhero film based on the DC Comics character.

New heroes are also being created all the time, such as Marvel’s Riri Williams, aka Ironheart. The hero genre has clearly got the sticking power of superglue (pardon the pun).

But just saying ‘heroes are popular’ doesn’t quite get to the heart of why. What is it about the genre that makes it so endlessly appealing to children (and adults), and so much fun for teachers to use as a theme in the classroom?

1 | First of all, the superhero genre is inclusive: whatever your age, race or physical ability – check out Farida Bedwei’s recent superhero creation Karmzah, a character who, like her creator, has cerebral palsy and gets her power from her crutches – it’s a genre everyone can get behind.

The world of superheroes is open to everyone, regardless of gender: recent research carried out by the company Kids Insights suggested that “girls look up to strong characters, with just under half of girls aged four to 12 choosing an aspirational/strong female character as their favourite”.

Moreover, a recently released study on the impact of female representation in the sci-fi/superhero genre by BBC America and Women’s Media Center confirmed that character representation can positively affect children’s confidence, career trajectory and overall self-image.

2 | Children’s worlds can often be quite small. In most cases, they are limited to what’s going on around them and what they can immediately see, taste and touch.

For young children, this is particularly true, and so the superhero genre helps them to stretch the Lycra of their imaginations.

The concept of having superpowers enables children to explore worlds outside of their own sphere of influence and to push the boundaries of what they can and can’t do.

More than anything it’s about wish fulfilment: children can imagine themselves with powers when they’re likely to have limited control in their own lives.

3 | Unquestionably, superheroes are good. They do good things. They are kind to others. They solve problems. They often work in a team. And they are excellent leaders.

Young children are faced with new experiences all the time, so heroes act as great role models.

Plenty of research has been carried out about the positive effects of superhero play and how it allows children to experiment with different identities, to explore the concepts of good and evil and how to behave.

In short, it allows children to experiment with the kind of person they would like to become. This has a positive knock-on for teachers, helping aid social and emotional development.

Children don’t just love playing superheroes and watching them on screen, but they love reading about them too.

And if they can connect with the characters, then they are more likely to go on to read more often and build up that all important love of reading for pleasure. Yay, for superheroes!

Kersti Worsley is a publisher for primary education at Oxford University Press.

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