The Benefits of Danger Play

December 29, 2014

Far from engendering feelings of empowerment and self-esteem, the ban on danger play has driven many kids to act out healthy competitive impulses in unhealthy ways.

A dozen hunters, some armed with rifles, others with bows, stalked the deer through the forest. At first they whispered to one another, eyes steely and steps quiet, but then they spotted the deer, hiding behind a tree. One hunter shouted, “There she is, get her!” And the deer bolted, dust and gravel shooting out from behind her flying feet. She crawled over the playground pommel horse, but was downed by a hail of bullets and arrows from the hunters charging just yards behind her, and she fell into the dirt, writhing in the throes of death.

This little scenario was popular during recess when I was in 2nd grade. I got to be the deer just once, but was often times included with the hunters, because everyone, every time wanted to be the deer. We all knew the best excitement, the most thrilling danger went with playing the prey. Yes, I was a tomboy, but that’s not really the point. Danger play involving imaginary predators and prey, hunters and Bambi, soldiers and enemies, cowboys and Indians, dinosaurs and cavemen, or any number of other adversarial pairings, was exhilarating. Yes it was competitive and stressful and a little scary, but it was fun!

The War on Danger Play began a few of decades ago, roughly in the mid-1980s, at about the time “self-esteem” became the foremost goal of education, indeed, of all interactions between adults and little kids. The kind of danger play I engaged in has been banned outright by most school districts, and it’s not unusual for kids–little boys in particular–to be punished for wielding imaginary guns made of paper, fingers, or a breakfast pastry. Far from engendering feelings of empowerment and self-esteem, the ban on danger play has driven many kids to act out healthy competitive impulses in unhealthy ways.

Danger play is valuable because it exposes developing youngsters to heightened stresses without posing the same degree of physical risk as real danger situations. Wild animal biologist, Liz Bonnin, surmises that even animals, when paired in unlikely circumstances–such as polar bears and sled dogs–use danger play as a form of practice to build the skills required for real-life hunting and survival. This is certainly applicable to human children. Danger play is not just beneficial, it’s necessary for human emotional and physical development. Experiencing “fight or flight” impulses in a relatively safe situation habituates minds and bodies to those intense feelings, which fosters self-control and resilience. Physical control follows emotional regulation, and both require some exposure to the heightened sensations and emotions that come with danger play.

It’s shown that where children–especially little boys, who are naturally more physically aggressive–are prohibited from or punished for danger play, aggressive impulses are more likely to be expressed in anger and frustration both in and outside of the classroom. One reason this occurs is because the urge to play dangerously is intrinsic to normal male development, and when boys are shamed for these impulses, they feel that they, themselves, are being rejected.

Protecting and providing for children is good, but there is a movement afoot which promotes “protecting” children from all images and situations which might present stress, fear, or danger–whether real or pretend. Beyond the social phenomenon of “hothouse kids,” who spend most of their play time indoors, missing out on the exploratory experiences once common in childhood, the war on danger play impedes the acquisition of important social and emotional skills that come from navigating natural hazards found in the world. More than fleet-footedness, my deer needed experience to know how to avoid the hunters.

Kids don’t need bans on  rough or scary play; they don’t need big government punishing parents for giving them a little autonomy as they grow up; they don’t need to be protected from pretend guns or mock violence. What kids, and Americans in general, need is a reminder that living is a skill, and navigating life and its myriad dangers takes practice–preferably beginning at a very young age.

by Marjorie Haun  12/28/2014

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