Thursday, September 19, 2013

From This Little Corner: Letting Go

Terza ditched the training wheels this week.

As I held on to the back of her seat, I realized something. I didn't want to let go. She was ready, she was balanced, but I was afraid. I let go anyway, of course, but I didn't expect my own reluctance.

Later that night, I sat in Prima's fifth grade class during Back to School Night. Her teacher talked about homework and classwork, about field trips and Simulated Congressional Hearings. I nodded. The teacher mentioned trips to middle school to try out lockers, and a special Family Life unit in the spring, for which there will be a parent meeting. Yep, that's what I remember from my time as a fifth grade teacher. Yep, sounds good.


MY child is old enough to try out lockers? MY child will learn about puberty and reproduction in class in a few months? MY baby-child ditched her training wheels? No, this can't be happening.

This morning, my fabulous husband shared an article with scientific data that confirms my world view about the deficit of play that children these days experience. (Love it when that happens...such a warm fuzzy feeling.) It's a long read, but a good and important one, and it shook up my thinking as much as it supported my own inclinations.
So, play teaches social skills without which life would be miserable. But it also teaches how to manage intense, negative emotions such as fear and anger. Researchers who study animal play argue that one of play’s major purposes is to help the young learn how to cope emotionally (as well as physically) with emergencies. Juvenile mammals of many species deliberately and repeatedly put themselves into moderately dangerous, moderately frightening situations in their play. Depending on the species, they might leap awkwardly into the air making it difficult to land, run along the edges of cliffs, swing from tree branch to tree branch high enough that a fall would hurt, or play-fight in such a way that they take turns getting into vulnerable positions from which they must then escape. 
Human children, when free, do the same thing, which makes their mothers nervous. They are dosing themselves with fear, aimed at reaching the highest level they can tolerate, and learning to cope with it.
Ah, it makes their mothers nervous. (Fathers, too. I've heard plenty of dads tell their kids to "be careful" on the playground.) Parents have to let go of their fears, because often holding tight to these fears prevents parents from doing their jobs - raising children who can thrive in the world.

Changing habits cold turkey rarely works. Parents who are afraid to let their kids play unsupervised will not suddenly change their ways because of an article, no matter how high its mountain of evidence. But this is not an all-or-nothing enterprise, so we can take steps to increase and broaden our children's play opportunities while also managing our fears and increasing our comfort level with letting go. It's time.

I've just scratched the surface of Peter Gray's piece in Aeon Magazine called "The Play Deficit". Please, do read it and let me know what you found important, surprising, disturbing, or inspiring. 

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