Emotional Risk in Play

This was posted earlier but accidentally deleted during a tidy-up of my drafts.

Back-up, everyone!  It’s entirely worth it.

“I can’t do it.  I can’t, I can’t, I can’t!”

“We can do something else if you’d rather?  There’s lots here to play with.”

“No, I want to do this.  But I don’t know how.  Can you show me?”

“If you like.”

“But I can’t do it.  Will you just do it for me?”

“No, but I’ll help you.”

Deep play is usually defined with a quote from Bob Hughes as being play “which allows the child to encounter risky or even potentially life threatening experiences, to develop survival skills and conquer fear.”  Many have known it as that moment climbing out to the highest branch, looking down and feeling your heart race, your palms sweat, and knowing instinctively that this moment matters, or of games of chase where you find yourself sitting crouched with your breathing desperately loud and your fear viscerally real.  Risk and fear in play cut to the core of the player because deep play is intensely personal.  It is a battle between me and myself, between fear and the resolve to overcome that fear.  Do I jump, or take the long and humiliating walk back down the ladder, knowing that fear has won?

I have seen children playing games that were dangerous for them, games that sent them through a personal fire and from which they emerged tempered like new steel.  But I have rarely seen a boy as certain as the one speaking above of his own incapacities, or as determined to face them.

He was knitting.

We sat to one side of an outdoor play session, and he had seized wooden cocktail skewers and a ball of knotted wool from the bag.  Neither of the playworkers had thought of putting these two together, but he did, and began wrapping them together.  He almost immediately began asking for help, and I sat with him, unsure in how best to support him in this process as he tried to knit a hat.

When he asked for help I gave it.  He held the needles and I coiled the string around them, because when he tried the wool snagged on the wood and his face twisted in distress.  When he told me he couldn’t do it I told him that no one could do a thing until they’d learned it, until they’d tried and tried again.  I reminded him of the option to try something else, but he didn’t want to.  Other children came to see if he wanted to play football or chalk the tarmac, but he didn’t.  Nor did he want me to leave.  The only thing I didn’t do was knit it for him.

I tried to keep it playful, because the darkness of his concentration was so profound.  It was easier for him to throw the thing down and say he couldn’t manage it, he couldn’t do anything and never would, but he didn’t want to do that.  The fine motor skills of knitting are tricky for anyone to develop, and his face contorted with the efforts of putting a splintered stick through fluffy wool, of deciphering the twists and loops of yarn.  We tried to make a game of shouting the steps out together, “Through!  Loop!  Back!  Next!”

His friend came by a second time, and a third to invite him to other games, eventually saying “I’ve never seen him do anything for this long.”

“Please go,” the boy replied.  “I’m trying to concentrate.”

He didn’t quite get it that session, but I think he reached the point of believing it was possible.  We agreed that I shouldn’t take it home and finish it for him, but that he could take it, practice, and that I’d be there again next week to help him have another go.

Risky play is usually talked about in physical terms, but it can be social or creative because an emotional gamble is no smaller than a physical one.  Performing for an audience can be seen as risky play, as the danger of embarrassment or ridicule lends a fevered edge to one’s sensory experience and pushes participants farther than they knew they could go.  The emotional hazards of trying something new, of arriving at an event alone and unsure, of making friends or enemies, of keeping or sharing secrets – these are all immense for children as well as adults, and they are intrinsic to play experiences.

I was speaking at the recent Spirit of Adventure Play conference and so could only go to one workshop, but with this boy’s desperate knitting in my mind I went to Lisa Williams’ and Nikki Hagerty’s event on emotional risk in play.  Asking questions rather than providing answers, they facilitated a workshop that asked us to consider what social and emotional risks were for us and how they might be experienced or addressed.  The emphasis was on how we might, as playworkers, help to facilitate, encourage and support emotional risk-taking in children.  How might we help them develop their own sense of bravery?  Of emotional resilience and daring?

Emotional risk can be combined with physical risk, as anyone balancing the desire to show off and the thrill of challenge can attest.  In honor of that, and in keeping with our belief that play should be determined by the child according to his or her own needs, interests, abilities and desires, I think it fitting that we position ourselves in this tricky process as crash mats.

Curious to learn more about the philosophies and practices of playwork?  We have a great online course, and robust financial aid program.

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