Risky play

Fear, you would think, is a negative experience to be avoided whenever possible.

Yet, as everyone who has a child or once was one knows, children love to play in risky ways—ways that combine the joy of freedom with just the right measure of fear to produce the exhilarating blend known as thrill.

Ellen Sandseter, a professor at Queen Maud University in Trondheim, Norway, has identified six categories of risks that seem to attract children everywhere in their play.

These are:

Great heights. Children climb trees and other structures to scary heights, from which they gain a birds-eye view of the world and the thrilling feeling of I did it!.

Rapid speeds. Children swing on vines, ropes, or playground swings; slide on sleds, skis, skates, or playground slides; shoot down rapids on logs or boats; and ride bikes, skateboards, and other devices fast enough to produce the thrill of almost but not quite losing control.

Dangerous tools. Depending on the culture, children play with knives, bows and arrows, farm machinery (where work and play combine), or other tools known to be potentially dangerous. There is, of course, great satisfaction in being trusted to handle such tools, but there is also thrill in controlling them, knowing that a mistake could hurt.

Dangerous elements. Children love to play with fire, or in and around deep bodies of water, either of which poses some danger.

Rough and tumble. Children everywhere chase one another around and fight playfully, and they typically prefer being in the most vulnerable position—the one being chased or the one underneath in wrestling--the position that involves the most risk of being hurt and requires the most skill to overcome.

Disappearing/getting lost. Little children play hide and seek and experience the thrill of temporary, scary separation from their companions. Older ones venture off, on their own, away from adults, into territories that to them are new and filled with imagined dangers, including the danger of getting lost.

Play, to be safe, must be free play, not coerced, managed, or pushed by adults.

 Children are highly motivated to play in risky ways, but they are also very good at knowing their own capacities and avoiding risks they are not ready to take, either physically or emotionally.

Our children know far better than we do what they are ready for.

When adults pressure or even encourage children to take risks they aren’t ready for, the result may be trauma, not thrill.

There are big differences among kids, even among those who are similar in age, size, and strength. What is thrilling for one is traumatic for another.

When physical education instructors require all of the children in a gym class to climb a rope or pole to the ceiling, some children, for whom the challenge is too great, experience trauma and shame.

Instead of helping them learn to climb and experience heights, the experience turns them forever away from such adventures.

Children know how to dose themselves with just the right amount of fear, for them, and for that knowledge to operate they must be in charge of their own play.

Parenthetically, I note that a relatively small percentage of children are prone to overestimate their abilities and do repeatedly hurt themselves in risky play.

These children may need help in learning restraint. An ironic fact is that children are far more likely to injure themselves in adult-directed sports than in their own freely chosen, self-directed play.