Orlaith sits on the carpet with a book open in front of her, clad in her much loved Batgirl costume. She narrows her eyes as she scans the page, and searches for the square shape in her puzzle book. With a triumphant cry, she jabs her finger at the picture. She found it.
“Well done, Batgirl!” the early years teacher says, and high fives her, and sends her off to play with the water table, the purple cape swishing behind her.
The roleplay corner has been a mainstay of early years classrooms for some time now, but could dressing up as their favourite superhero actually help children gain some superpower concentration skills?
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The research seems to suggest that this might be the case.
The Batman effect
Back in 2016, Rachel E. White and Emily O. Prager published their paper Improving Perseverance in Young Children, which received a lot of attention in the media.
In this paper, they investigated the benefits of ‘self distancing’, where a child undertakes a task while adopting another persona. The study included 180 children aged 4 to 6.
The children were asked to complete a repetitive task for ten minutes, during which they had the option of stopping to play a game. The children completed the task under three conditions: as themselves; while adopting the persona of their parents; and while adopting the persona of Batman or Batgirl.
The researchers found that when the children had adopted the Batman persona, their concentration levels were at the highest, and they spent the longest time completing the task before switching their attention to the alternative game.
When children adopted the persona of their parents, they spent longer on the task compared to when they completed the task as themselves.
Stepping into the role
This has been described as the ‘Batman Effect’. But it's actually less about the cape, and more about how roleplay and 'self-distancing' impacts learning.
“Pretending to be someone else, like Batman, is something young children do quite naturally and enthusiastically, so we thought it might be put to good use to help children manage their impulses,” says Stephanie Carlson, Professor and Director of Research at the Institute of Child Development, who was part of the research team. “Pretending is a form of embodied cognition - if you can act it (I'm wearing Batman's cape), you can believe it (I have great powers of self-control).”
This isn’t the only evidence that ‘self-distancing’ or roleplay works. In What would Batman do? Self‐distancing improves executive function in young children, White and Carlson looked at the difference in performance with regard to the age of the children. And in Individual differences in the effectiveness of self‐distancing for young children's emotion regulation, findings indicated that children who had shorter attention spans were better able to manage their emotions in a frustrating task if they were roleplaying while they completed it.
In the classroom
So should we all be donning batman capes on entering the classroom?
Perhaps not, but Carlson does believe teachers should be incorporating role play and self-distancing into their day-to-day classroom practice.
“Teachers can use this idea to help students be their ‘best selves’ and fulfil their potential," she says. "By imagining what it would be like to be really smart, self-disciplined, and empathic toward others, they can increase the likelihood they will become so.
"Now, we don't actually know if our "Batman" experiment has any long-term effects, but it is proof-of-concept that it could work to at least set the stage for success. From there, we know that success builds on success. It is a simple and fun technique to try with your students.”
So what might this look like in a classroom activity?
Mantle of the expert
One way to utilise role play is to use the teaching method Mantle of the Expert. Primary teacher Chris Frame recently wrote for Tes about doing just that.
“In my experience, children in a Mantle of the Expert class ask more questions, and those questions tend to be big, open questions that engender thinking well beyond what you would expect from young children,” Frame explained.
Primary school teacher Niall Robinson suggests it might not be so hard to tweak what you’re already doing to make the most of this technique, though.
“The idea sounds left-field at first, but actually, I’m sure teachers deploy this technique without even realising it," he says. "In my class, I use roleplay for newspaper reports; I let my children interview each other with press hats on and use a voice recording device. This immerses children into a persona of a real press officer, and allows them to really take on the character of a journalist.
“Even something as simple as setting students the task of becoming spies and 'stealing a diamond idea' during a peer assessment task can enthuse and empower a class. All it takes is a bit of spy music playing in the background, and they suddenly start to treat the activity with a real level of maturity, and their concentration levels improve.
“Play is an essential part of a child's life, and also a powerful learning tool. So why wouldn't teachers take advantage of this?”
Why not indeed... tough lesson last thing on a Friday, where you always struggle to stay focused? Where's that superhero costume...
Grainne Hallahan is senior content writer at Tes