Childhood, Risky Play, and Overprotective Parents

On a recent visit to New Hampshire, my brother’s family took me and my near-3-year-old son on a trip to Story Land. As the name implies, this amusement park was designed for young children and the rides, while thrilling to a 3-year-old, might not be as thrilling to a 30-year-old. Which was fine with me. The last time I went to an amusement park I went on one of those roller coasters where your legs dangle below you as you are lifted up something like 5 stories before plummeting down. After not dying (though my physiology was sure I had) I asked myself why it is I ever enjoyed roller coasters in the first place. In other words, I was officially old.

Fast forward 10 years and my son is asking to ride the kiddie coaster at Story Land; I certainly couldn’t begrudge him the experience. I thought he was a little young, but once my 7-year-old nephew signed on, that was just too much temptation. As we zig-zagged down the hill, my son slid from one end of the seat to the other, the distance matched only by the size of his grin. He hardly cracks a smile when riding the carousel, and here he rode the roller coaster with no fear.

My son is not unique among children in his newly acquired thrill seeking adventurousness. Sure, there are individual differences, but there is a pattern in development of first easily acquired fears in infancy (such as of heights, as shown in the Visual Cliff study) followed in childhood by a yearning for stimuli that were previously feared, that a child is now capable of mastering. And with mastery of risky elements comes exhilaration – and the ability to overcome anxiety. At least, that is what a recent article by Sandseter and Kennair (2011) posits. Risky play allows children to learn to cope with commonly experienced fearful stimuli, in a relatively safe way.

For example, the categories of risky play include play at great heights, which brings the risk of falling and injury; and play at high speed, particularly uncontrolled and possibly leading to collision. As many parents of toddlers can attest, some majorly fun games early on include climbing on everything; jumping from a height; folding the kid upside down, quickly; and running fast (or pushing the stroller fast towards an obstacle). Try these games with a 5-month-old, and payback might not be pretty. Like hourly nighttime wakings for the foreseeable future. But for toddlers, such play seems to allow them to overcome anxiety. Further, they seem rooted in our past; risky play at heights decreases fear of heights later in life and risky play at high speed might be a vestige from mastering the ability to swing quickly through trees (see also recent blog post by Dan O’Brien).

The traditional wisdom and research on anxiety has conceived of the origins of anxiety from a learning perspective. Children learn associations between a potentially dangerous stimulus and the accompanying fear response. We might presume such associations need to be broken in an active way. This newer approach puts the everyday play of children in a more functional light. Children overcome fear and future anxiety by mastering skills related to feared stimuli. Avoiding the situation, such as heights, furthers anxiety down the road.

So the catch is that if risky play does indeed serve an anxiety-reducing function, by inhibiting risky play, are we producing kids who will likely have problems with anxiety in the future? The amount of protectiveness displayed by a caregiver is also subject to individual differences, but Sandseter and Kennair imply that in the Western world we might be limiting exposure to risky stimuli a bit too much. Or in other words, perhaps by de-hazarding play, we are setting our children up for anxiety.

Children engage in risky play for one reason: it is fun. It is up to caregivers to make sure the play is safe enough, and then let children go. The trick is overcoming our own fears when we are required to go along for the ride.

Reference:

Sandseter, E. B. H., & Kennair, L. E. O. (2011). Children’s risky play from an evolutionary perspective: The anti-phobic effects of thrilling experiences. Evolutionary Psychology, 9(2), 257-284.

Rosemarie Sokol Chang

About Rosemarie Sokol Chang

Rosemarie Sokol Chang is an evolutionist trained as a psychological scientist. She is the editor of EvoS: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium; the creator of the EvoS Consortium website and the EvoS Blogs; and co-founder of the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology. She also has been involved in the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society since its inception. She recently edited and contributed to the book Relating to Environments: A New Look at Umwelt. Evolution Matters is a recurring blog focused on concepts and evidence of evolution by natural selection.
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