Risky Play, Curiosity, & Emotional Health

The USS Midway slowly came into view around the bend in the creek behind my best friend’s orchard.  After weeks of construction amidst the methyl-acetone dizziness, we had carefully assembled the “Revell” plastic model of one of the last WWII class aircraft carriers, and we were now watching it undertake its maiden voyage.  Secreted within the 21.5 inch-long plastic model were a series of Black Cat fire crackers, and about five or six unlit wooden matches were affixed at strategic points along the deck.  Just before we set her sail, my buddy drizzled generous lines of fresh model glue up and down the deck as well.

We hurriedly ran along the creek bank to get ahead of the majestic vessel and positioned ourselves on a fallen log that reached out over the water in a deep, slow-moving eddy where the creek bent sharply to the North.  From this vantage point we readied ourselves, each armed with a fresh box of wooden matches.  As the USS Midway approached the ambush, each of us began furiously lighting matches and flicking them through the air at the advancing warship.  The first volley either blew out as the matches flew through the air or landed with a quiet hiss, in the water around the ship.  As the Midway grew near enough our flaming missiles began to hit their mark, igniting the model glue along the deck.

By the time she sailed under our log and made the turn down-creek, the Midway was fully engulfed in the blazing glory of a hard-fought sea battle.  We trotted along the bank expectantly watching as one by one the matches on the deck sprang to life with bright phosphorous intensity.  Another ten yards or so down the creek flames finally found the fuse to the Black Cat fire cracker we had attached to the underneath side of the deck at the stern, and a thunderous explosion blew the upper-back section of the ship into tiny bits.   Crippled, but still sailing, the Midway continued another 30 seconds or so before the other fire crackers began to explode in quick succession, effectively splitting the mighty vessel in three pieces and sending her to a watery grave.  My buddy and I high fived, and began wading and clambering along the shore in search of mangled bits and pieces of our sunken foe.   It was a glorious afternoon.

Such adventures were a normal part of my childhood in the late 1970’s, and while there were occasional mishaps that resulted in burnt fingers, a few cuts and bruises, or an occasional call to emergency services, most of us came through ok.  Childhood wasn’t quite as choreographed and monitored as it is today.  One of the benefits of this was the ability for children to explore the world, stimulate their natural curiosity, and learn from the natural consequences of their mistakes.  I was reminded of this as I read through an article from The Atlantic. In it, the author refers to research conducted by Ellen Sandseter:

LINK: http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/03/hey-parents-leave-those-kids-alone/358631/

Ellen Sandseter began observing and interviewing children on playgrounds in Norway, and in 2011, she published her results in a paper called “Children’s Risky Play From an Evolutionary Perspective: The Anti-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences.” she concluded that “children, have a sensory need to taste danger and excitement; this doesn’t mean that what they do has to actually be dangerous, only that they feel they are taking a great risk. That scares them, but then they overcome the fear.”   In the paper, Sandseter identifies six kinds of risky play:

1) Exploring heights, or getting the “bird’s perspective,” as she calls it—“high enough to evoke the sensation of fear.”

2) Handling dangerous tools—using sharp scissors or knives, or heavy hammers that at first seem unmanageable but that kids learn to master.

3) Being near dangerous elements—playing near vast bodies of water, or near a fire, so kids are aware that there is danger nearby.

4) Rough-and-tumble play—wrestling, play-fighting—so kids learn to negotiate aggression and cooperation.

5) Speed—cycling or skiing at a pace that feels too fast.

6) Exploring on one’s own.

When I look back on my childhood, I remember a landscape filled with all six elements.  We built tree forts using dangerous tools, often near creeks or high up on hillsides.  We played outside employing our young imaginations to adventures that included a fair degree of wrestling or hurling objects at each other, and we went through a long Evel Knievel phase where we jumped Tonka Trucks on our bicycles.  We built sled runs in the winter, and rolled down hills inside tractor tires, and we packed sack lunches and explored the woods behind my house for hours on end.

These loosely-supervised opportunities of my childhood stimulated my imagination to soar, and provided chances for me to learn from natural consequences.  I also learned that many childhood fears could be overcome if I faced them and gave it a go.  There’s a growing body of research that supports this as well.  In a University of British Columbia in Vancouver review of 2,100 relevant studies, researchers identified 21 good-quality studies. Overall, none found negative effects of risky play, and most found evidence that kids who engaged in these “risky” adventures were more active, more confident or more psychologically healthy, according to the new analysis, which was published in the June issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Beyond the developmental and educational benefits of growing up with the space to engage in such “Risky play,” I now hold a million warm-wind memories of a childhood well-spent.

Perhaps You’ve Been There Too

                                       By Scott Paulin

The dirt is red in my childhood.

Tall, wild oats brush little faded blue jeans,

Running to the oaks on one more adventure.

The air is clean, each day is new, and

The seasons last forever.

Perhaps you’ve been there too.


Perhaps you’ve hitched up baggy pants

And tumbled, feet and arms flailing down grassy hillsides,

Or waded, wide-eyed and knee-deep

Into cool, clear creeks searching for treasures.

Perhaps you’ve been there too.

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