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Playground equipment-Risky Play: Why Children Love and Need It

Playground equipment-Risky Play: Why Children Love and Need It


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.

Six categories of risky play

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.[1] 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.

The evolutionary value of risky play

Other young mammals also enjoy risky play.[2] Goat kids frolic along steep slopes and leap awkwardly into the air in ways that make landing difficult. Young monkeys playfully swing from branch to branch in trees, far enough apart to challenge their skill and high enough up that a fall could hurt. Young chimpanzees enjoy dropping from high branches and catching themselves on lower ones just before hitting the ground. Young mammals of most species, not just ours, spend great amounts of time chasing one another around and play fighting, and they, too, generally prefer the most vulnerable positions.

From an evolutionary perspective, the obvious question about risky play is this: Why does it exist? It can cause injury (though serious injury is rare) and even (very rarely) death, so why hasn`t natural selection weeded it out? The fact that it hasn`t been weeded out is evidence that the benefits must outweigh the risks. What are the benefits? Laboratory studies with animals give us some clues.

Researchers have devised ways to deprive young rats of play, during a critical phase of their development, without depriving them of other social experiences. Rats raised in this way grow up emotionally crippled.[3, 4] When placed in a novel environment, they overact with fear and fail to adapt and explore as a normal rat would. When placed with an unfamiliar peer, they may alternate between freezing in fear and lashing out with inappropriate, ineffective, aggression. In earlier experiments, similar findings occurred when young monkeys were deprived of play (though the controls in those experiments were not as good as in the subsequent rat experiments).

Such findings have contributed to the emotion regulation theory of play-the theory that one of play`s major functions is to teach young mammals how to regulate fear and anger.[4] In risky play, youngsters dose themselves with manageable quantities of fear and practice keeping their heads and behaving adaptively while experiencing that fear. They learn that they can manage their fear, overcome it, and come out alive. In rough and tumble play they may also experience anger, as one player may accidentally hurt another. But to continue playing, to continue the fun, they must overcome that anger. If they lash out, the play is over. Thus, according to the emotion regulation theory, play is, among other things, the way that young mammals learn to control their fear and anger so they can encounter real-life dangers, and interact in close quarters with others, without succumbing to negative emotions.

The harmful consequences of play deprivation in our culture today

On the basis of such research, Sandseter[1] wrote, in a 2011 article in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, [We may observe an increased neuroticism or psychopathology in society if children are hindered from partaking in age adequate risky play." She wrote this as if it were a prediction for the future, but I've reviewed data-in Free to Learn and elsewhere[5]--indicating that this future is here already and has been for awhile.

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