Being Batman can teach kids perseverance

kid in a Batman costume
CC BY 2.0 Jinx!

Who knew donning a black cape and mask was the secret to getting chores done quickly?

Young children love dressing up for fun, but did you know it can help them stay on task? A study published last December in Child Development found that, when children aged four to six wear a Batman costume, they're better able to resist distraction and complete the work at hand than when they're dressed as themselves, or even another fictional character.

The study was led by Rachel White and colleagues (including Angela Duckworth, author of "Grit") from Hamilton College in New York state. The 180 participants (all aged 4 to 6) were asked to complete a boring, repetitive task that they were told was important -- pressing the space bar on a keyboard if they saw a piece of cheese and not pressing it if they saw a cat. They were allowed to get up at any point to play games on a nearby iPad.

The participants were divided into three groups. One was in a "self-immersed" condition, told to ask themselves throughout the task, "Am I working hard?" Another was told to reflect from a third-person perspective, inserting their own name and asking, for example, "Is Jenny working hard? Is Carter working hard?" The final group wore costumes, including Batman, Dora the Explorer, Rapunzel, and Bob the Builder. These asked throughout the task, "Is Dora working hard? Is Rapunzel working hard?"

What the researchers found is that those children dressed as Batman spent the most time on task -- 55 percent for six-year-olds and 32 percent for four-year-olds. Those in the third-person condition performed less well, whereas children in the self-immersed condition spent the least amount of time on task (35 percent of the time for six-year-olds and just over 20 percent for four-year-olds). As Education Week points out, "The video game was a strong distractor: Children on average spent more than 60 percent of their time on 'breaks'."

"Always be yourself. Unless you can be Batman. In which case, be Batman."

The British Psychological Society's Research Digest explains why the Batman costume is so effective:

"The results suggest that pretending to be a popular fictional character helps young children to resist distraction, at least compared to the other conditions used in this experiment. White and her team think this is probably... because it helps create a feeling of self-distance from the task, which is known to help people resist immediate distractions and prioritise longer-term goals."

Not to mention that it's fun to be Batman! If role play can be an effective and accessible tool for teaching perseverance to young children, then more parents and educators should consider using it. Indeed, some already do. I've seen my child's teacher tell the class to tiptoe like ninjas down the hallway or to pretend they're chipmunks holding marshmallows in their cheeks. I sometimes tell my child to pretend to be a famous performer on stage while practicing an instrument. As a child, I recall long family hikes being easier if I had a walking stick and imagined being an explorer, or skipped pretending to be a unicorn. (Sadly, I don't do this anymore. Maybe I should.)

Kids have vivid imaginations that spill over into real life. To harness the power of these thoughts as teaching tools makes the learning process more fun for both kids and teachers, because who doesn't want a classroom full of little tiny Batmen, all working furiously on their homework?

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