To protect our children we must allow them to play in ways deemed “risky.” 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. So, we prevent children from their own, self-chosen, thrilling play, believing it dangerous when in fact it is not so dangerous and has benefits that outweigh the dangers, and then we encourage children to specialize in a competitive sport, where the dangers of injury are really quite large. It’s time to reexamine our priorities. 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. 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.
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