When Joie Mucha was looking for an active,
age-appropriate class to take her 4-year-old son, Cesar, to last
winter, she decided on one at POW! Mixed Martial Arts in Chicago.
But this class wasn't your run-of-the-mill kids' kickboxing course.
It was called Superhero Training.
Cesar, whose favorite superhero changes depending on the
week, loved the class.
"He likes superheroes," Mucha says. "What kid
What kid, indeed.
Between the hit Batman movies (formerly filmed right here
in Chicago), the infamous Spiderman musical with music by Bono, and
the ongoing popularity of books and graphic novels, superheroes are
nearly impossible to escape, even for adults.
But increasingly, as a quick Google search reveals, the
super-popularity of superheroes is being harnessed by local
organizations like POW! to teach little kids some big lessons about
their bodies and minds, identity and helping others.
Katalin Rodriguez Ogren is the force behind Superhero
Training. The West Loop mom of three and accomplished mixed martial
artist grew up idolizing WonderWoman and her magical
Ogren came up with the idea of a superhero-themed program
years ago and was finally able to implement it when her studio
expanded its children's offerings.
Although the connection to martial arts might not be
obvious, Ogren says the superhero component allows children to
channel the physical things they are learning toward a positive
"Where martial arts is fun in the context of superheroes
is that it gives children an outlet where they have permission to
fight somebody," she says. "You can create this imaginative
environment where you fight the 'bad guys.' You're not just
punching and kicking people."
Ogren gets the children to role-play being superheroes and
then run through an obstacle course with imaginary elements to
it-think a wrecking ball or tower of doom-which teaches them
physical skills at the same time.
The obstacle courses primarily promote agility, while
other elements of the program focus on speed, jumping, balance and
lateral movement, not to mention basic body awareness.
"When you create obstacle courses where you're a superhero
chasing bad guys. … It's just a really good way to get them to
learn agility. It has a specific focus but a more playful context,"
Clearly the emphasis on play is working as the obstacle
courses are consistently the children's favorite element of the
class. Mucha says Cesar constantly asks to set them up at
But beyond physical skills, superheroes can also teach
kids how to use their brain power. After all, even the Man of Steel
had to hold down a day job at the Daily Planet.
For the past two years, the Chicago Children's Museum has
held a Superhero Month where kids can create their own
mini-superhero (and make him fly), design a cape and discuss their
According to Tsivia Cohen, associate vice president of
family learning at the museum, while the kids are having fun,
they're also exercising their imaginations in a significant
"Their imaginations are so strong," she says. "We're
always blown away with the things they come up with."
And since the kids can take their spangled-sheet capes
home with them, Cohen hopes their imaginary play and learning
continue beyond their visit to the museum.
CCM also uses the emphasis on superheroes to teach basic
literacy skills. During Super Alpha-Palooza, held twice during
Superhero Month, staff members dress up as superheroes that
correspond to each letter of the alphabet-and the kids must get all
26 to sign their books.
But basic literacy skills aren't the only things that go
up, up and away with the help of superheroes.
Barrel of Monkeys, an arts and theater education company,
frequently uses superheroes in its six-week creative writing
residencies in Chicago Public Schools.
"We use superheroes as a way to think about developing
characters in their stories," says program director Elizabeth Levy.
"There's a structure built in that kids are familiar with. A story
very naturally starts to develop."
Superhero stories, with their epic battles between good
and evil, have a natural conflict and resolution built in. And when
kids create their own superheroes with alter egos, superpowers and
nemeses to match, they automatically think in terms of who, what,
when, where and why.
Those elements, combined with children's innate capacity
for creativity, lead to some imaginative results.
"The powers are the most interesting," Levy says. "You see
creativity and the voice of the student come through (when they
determine) what that power is, that thing that makes this character
different from all other superheroes."
The big questions
While the process of creating a superhero can simply be a
wild or silly experience, kids also use superheroes to explore the
way they see themselves.
"Sometimes I think kids come up with superpowers that
counteract a fear they have or a situation where they don't have
very much power," Cohen says. "Children do feel very vulnerable and
don't have a lot of control in many ways. So their imagination
allows them to have that."
Even Bruce Wayne assumed the identity of Batman to make up
for his own inability as a child to intervene in his parents'
"Superheroes are extreme versions of people who can enact
change and make things happen," she says.
Cohen thinks the superhero identities the children adopt
in the museum tend to be entirely their own, such as the girl whose
superhero had the ability to spread love.
"We spend a good part of our childhood figuring out who we
are, and the superhero piece is really kids thinking about their
identity in different ways … who am I, what could I be, what's
important to me," she says.
And in a time when many kids are being bullied or harassed
for who they are, superheroes can also teach a little bit about
self-esteem and being true to yourself.
"Superheroes have things about them that make them unique
and special," Levy says. "(They're) sometimes outsiders when they
show their superhero nature. People of all ages deal with that, and
a superhero has to deal with that conflict on an extreme
For Joie Mucha, one of the main things she wanted her son
to get out of the Superhero Training class-beyond having fun-was
self-assurance for dealing with life's obstacles.
"I wanted him to build confidence, just knowing he can try
stuff and not succeed the first time," she says.
And if their physical swagger when suited up as a
superhero is any indication, kids are picking up on that
"Kids with a cape on are kicking," Cohen says.
No superhero is an island
As Peter Parker once learned, "with much power comes much
responsibility." And the social responsibility aspect is possibly
the most important piece of the superhero puzzle.
In Superhero Training, Ogren puts a big emphasis on what
it really means to be a superhero-beyond the capes and gadgets. Her
program has an extensive curriculum focusing on justice,
cooperation and respect.
"We talk about how we would apply our powers to our
community," she says. "That's a really important component about
being a superhero. … They all have a debt to society in some way,
shape or form."
She focuses on the "classic" superheroes-like Superman,
with his emphasis on "truth, justice and the American way"-who
uphold those values, rather than some contemporary superheroes who,
studies show, might not be good role models for
In class, Ogren uses "real-life" situations, such as
stealing from a friend, to discuss how superheroes would behave.
She even admits to using the superhero trope to "brainwash" kids
into eating their vegetables.
"No matter what, we still integrate (that) superheroes
have a greater responsibility beyond fighting bad guys," Ogren
says. "They get it. The conversation is very simple."
Levy has also noticed that the moral aspect of
superheroes-goodness, truth, compassion, strength-tends to be what
makes them role models to students.
"Not only are (superheroes) cool, but they do good things and
change the world in a way," she says. "Whether or not a student is
(consciously) thinking about morality, that is still very present
in the way they're thinking about the character."
Even though Mucha didn't know about the social
responsibility aspect of Superhero Training, she has seen its fruit
"He has made comments about helping people and what his
superpowers are going to help with," she says.
And if the box office receipts of the latest Batman flick
are any indication, it's not just your little one who loves-or
learns from-superheroes. The ability to be "super" is something
that appeals to all of us.
Elizabeth Diffin is the senior editor at Chicago Parent. She lives in Wheaton.
See more of Elizabeth's stories here.
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