Free Play Is Essential for Normal Emotional Development

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Why Mother Nature motivates our children to play in emotionally exciting ways.

In play, children practice many skills that are crucial for healthy development.  They practice physical and manual skills, intellectual skills, and social skills. I have written about all of this in previous posts.  They also practice emotional skills. In play, children learn how to regulate their fear and anger and thereby how to maintain emotional control in threatening real-life situations.

“Dangerous” Play

Children love to play in emotionally exciting ways.  Little ones delight in being tossed into the air or swung around by adults or teenagers (but only if the children themselves determine the height of the tosses and the vigor of the swinging). They also love to be chased by a “monster.” Somewhat older children enjoy somersaulting, pirouetting, cartwheeling, and other forms of spinning around; sliding, swinging high, and teeter-tottering on playground equipment; climbing trees or up the sides of buildings; leaping from heights onto water or snowbanks; and zipping around on scooters, bikes, skateboards, skis, and other devices that permit speed. Children of all ages seem to have a sense of their limits in such play. They typically start at low heights or slow speeds and move gradually up. They take risks in moderation. The joy of play combined with a modicum of fear is the exquisite sensation we all identify as thrill.  But being thrown too high, or falling too far, or moving too fast is not thrill but terror.

Mother Nature has designed our children to play in all these “dangerous” ways because she knows that such play teaches them not just the physical skills they need for dealing with emergencies, but also the emotional skills they need.  In such play, children dose themselves with just the level of fear that they can tolerate, a level just below the threshold of what might cause them to freeze up.  In this way, they learn how to manage fear, how to prevent it from incapacitating them.  They learn that fear is normal and healthy, something they can control and overcome through their own efforts.  It is practice such as this that allows them to grow up able to manage fear rather than succumb to it.

Children also, when free, engage in lots of mock aggression in their play.  They play at fighting, and they playfully taunt and tease one another.  This is not bullying—far from it.  The closest of friends play in this way.  Yet, playful fighting does induce some degree of fear, and playful fighting and teasing, both, induce moments of anger.  Children—especially boys—play this way because Mother Nature knows that they have to learn how to control not just their fear but also their anger.  In this play, they experience anger within the limits of what they can manage. Such “aggressive” play can only occur among close friends, who trust one another and know, ultimately, that the fighting and taunting is all in fun and not intended for real hurt.

 Playing children also sometimes get into real spats, coupled with anger, which stops the play and must be dealt with before play can resume.  They learn to control both the in-play anger and the between-play anger because they want to keep playing, and they know that if they “lose it,” and have a temper tantrum or lash out in a real fight, the play will end. In serious life, we often experience anger-inducing situations, and a crucial life skill is regulating our anger so that it serves useful purposes and does not lead us to lose control and behave in ways that harm others and ourselves.  In their “aggressive” play, children practice and learn that skill.  All this learning can only occur in free play, with no adult directors or close supervisors.  When adults are around to “protect” children from danger and resolve their disputes, they deprive children of the opportunity to learn how to protect themselves, resolve their own disputes, and regulate their own emotions.

Emotionally Intense Fantasy Play

More of the story by Peter Gray on the 'Freedom to Learn' blog, click image