Most adults who are currently in their thirties and older likely remember childhood days when they would play outside, explore their neighborhood, and make up games with their friends until the sky got dark or their mothers would call them – not with a cell phone, but by perhaps calling their names out the front door letting them know that dinner was ready. They might remember how they would climb trees to see how high they could go, scale down a nearby canyon to look for lizards, or find ever more creative ways to slide down a slide. However, these examples of child’s play and creativity may be becoming more rare among children today because of a societal trend towards over-protectiveness and risk-aversion. In fact, play deprivation can impede children’s development in areas of problem solving, creativity, self-control, and other cognitive and emotional behaviors that they need in adulthood. Understanding why kids love taking risks in play and physical fitness can help parents and teachers alleviate their fears and allow kids to learn to self-manage their risk assessment.
Play and taking risks are important aspects of growing up and physical and mental fitness development, even among other mammals. According to Psychology Today, even though risky play can cause injuries, the benefits it brings far outweighs the risks. For example, young rats that are deprived of play while growing up remain “emotionally crippled” as adults. When they are placed in a new environment, they “overact with fear and fail to adapt and explore as a normal rat would.” If they are with an unfamiliar rat, they tend to freeze in fear or retaliate and show signs of aggression. In another experiment, researchers found similar behavior patterns among young monkeys that grew up play-deprived. Psychologist Peter Gray from Boston College, who is the author of Free to Learn, stated in The Independent that children who are deprived of play cannot learn how to negotiate, control their lives, see things from another’s viewpoint, and compromise. “Play is the place where children learn they are not the centre of the universe,” Gray said. “When there’s an adult there directing things, that is not play.”
Psychologist David Whitebread from the University of Cambridge emphasized that how well children can self-regulate – being able to control their own emotions and behavior – is a “better predictor for how well children do later in life than reading and writing.” He also emphasized that parents must spend time to play with their kids if they want them to perform well socially and academically.
Psychology professor Ellen Sandseter from Queen Maud University Trondheim, Norway, identified six types of risks that can help explain why kids love to play that can develop their overall fitness in Psychology Today: Great heights, rapid speeds, dangerous elements, dangerous tools, disappearing or getting lost, and rough and tumble. While each has its own potential risk of getting hurt or even death, the ability for children to overcome these risks and their fears gives them high satisfaction and a greater sense of control and confidence. Skateboarding, breakdancing, swinging on a rope over a lake, navigating through a rapid on a boat – all of these activities provide some degree of thrill and fear for kids, stimulating their brain in ways that few organized sports, activities, and fitness programs can provide. “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,” said Gray. “When adults pressure or even encourage children to take risks they aren’t ready for, the result may be trauma, not thrill.”
“From my experience, ‘risky play’ is going to vary based upon life experience and temperament,” said Melissa Lambert, M.S., who is a licensed professional counselor and sport psychology consultant in Connecticut. Lambert further states,
We have already established that play is an important part of development, however, basic play may look risky to children who don’t feel safe or have basic needs met. Play is certainly a biological drive and when given the right circumstances we desire it. I have used adventure and team building activities and trips that have presented risk to the children I work with, such as canoeing in the water when there may be fear there. When children have faced a difficult challenge, they are also learning limits, how to navigate the world and handle struggles, and developing trust.
Exposure to fear benefits both children and adults, who may experience fear and anxiety. Doing so, they realize through exposure that they are still “okay while decreasing their level of fear,” Lambert explained to Guardian Liberty Voice in an online interview. “I feel we are doing a disservice to youths when we overprotect and not allow children to explore. If their life is not on the line, a few bumps and bruises aren’t going to hurt them. At the same time, they get back up without realizing they attempted something that resulted in a lack of success. Not everything in life will bring positive results. Risky play can also build self-esteem.”
“I worked with one child who lacked self-confidence due to being heavily criticized by his father and coach,” she continued. He was also a child that loved competition and active movement but wouldn’t engage if it meant possibly failing. I worked with him with a basic activity of high jump over a jump rope with mats. He wanted to clear a specific height so badly but was afraid of failing and getting criticized. It was ‘risky’ for him. He eventually faced the risk and got to a place where he was even flipping over the rope. Great learning happens when youth play together even if it’s more risky. They also learn limits, boundaries and how to socialize with others, including assertiveness skills, determining of trust can be built with one another.”
Physical fitness must have some degree of playfulness and risks that kids love to play with, which is why “play fitness” is gradually gaining some popularity and awareness in North American and western Europe. One of the best thing that play proponents, such as Gray and Bernard “Bernie” DeKoven – play theorist and the author of A Playful Path – like about play fitness is that it allows people to be themselves in the moment. DeKoven wrote in his book that playfulness is about being “vulnerable, responsive, yielding to the moment.” Taking away risks from play is depriving a vital part of children’s development. If they cannot learn to solve problems and control their emotions during childhood, how can they do so later in life?
Opinion By Nick Ng