We’re right on the cusp of Halloween, a time when it’s fun to think about all the things that scare us.
To me, part of the magic of Halloween is the idea that frightening and fun can go hand in hand. Kids who might otherwise be scared of witches and ghosts and monsters under the bed, dress up as… witches and ghosts and monsters—or as brave heroes who vanquish these scary bad guys.
Just as Halloween blurs the lines between fear and fun, one of the roles of healthy childhood play—at any time of year, of course—is to do the same. More than just being frivolous, unstructured child-directed play (even scary play) is key to healthy emotional development. Through playing out their fears, children learn to regulate their emotions and develop resilience, especially when a bit of risk-taking is involved.
What’s so scary?
It may come out in play as monsters and superheroes, but kids tend to be anxious and scared about the same topics and situations we adults find scary: images from the media, anxiety around school, real life experiences with illness, divorce, death, trauma, abuse. As events lead up to the Presidential election in November, children may even pick up on the high emotions of political disagreement and anxiety among adults and find that scary.
Being In Control of Being Out of Control
Freely chosen imaginative play is one of the ways that children learn about themselves and the world. Through free play children can express complex emotions that they might not have the language to verbalize. They can master situations where they feel powerless in real life. Play is the perfect opportunity for kids to experiment with what playwork academics Stuart Lester and Wendy Russell call “being in control of being out of control.”
My daughter Sierra (5) is afraid to sleep by herself. I lie down with her at bedtime as she falls asleep, but much to her dismay, I then get up and “leave her” to “go sleep with daddy.” To deal with this disturbing situation, Sierra has created a friend: Ellie, the soft sweet pink stuffed elephant—who also has a black belt in karate.
Everyone in the family is well versed in Ellie’s superhero mythology: “Once upon a time Ellie was in my bed when I first got her,” Sierra tells us. “And then I was asleep and a monster came. And Ellie hit them and hypnotized them and fighted them and then, last but not least, knocked them out forever. And then she went back to sleep to wait for other monsters. And that’s how Ellie protects me.”
I know of another child, one of Sierra’s friends, who was scared of the unpredictability of fire and loud fire trucks. So his go-to play character was a fire fighter, his way of gaining understanding and control of ideas that scared him.
Scary with a Purpose
Play researchers suggest that physical risk taking and rough play—the kinds of play that can be scary for us parents to witness—build emotional resilience in children. In an article in the American Journal of Play, psychotherapist Terry Marks-Tarlow describes reports of juvenile patas monkeys playing in the jungle. Over and over, the young monkeys climbed up a tree and hurled themselves down onto the ground, often with a “sickening thump.” Researchers speculate that these monkeys—like human children playing physically risky or rough and tumble games—were learning emotional regulation along with their thrill seeking. By experiencing fear in a relatively controlled, low stakes context, they mastered it—and were rewarded with the exhilaration and confidence of making it through a scary situation.
My daughters tend to be less physical, but they still love playing games that scare them. These games usually take the form of elaborate stories that Suzie (8) makes up (sort of the Hitchcockian psychological thriller compliment to patas monkey throwing themselves out of trees). Suzie begins her story with words then the girls begin acting it out. Soon sights and sounds in their environment become part of the spooky story, until the lines between reality and play start to blur. More than once this game has ended in screams.
I’ve gotten frustrated with them for scaring themselves on purpose. But after reading the research, I’m now beginning to understand the point behind their games.
The girls piled on top of my lap as I was researching this article, curious to see what I was writing about. I told them and Suzie said, “Oh! Sierra, remember that time we scared each other playing that Scooby-doo game?”
Sierra thought for a moment. “No. What was the game?”
“I don’t remember now,” Suzie said. “But I’m not scared of it anymore.”
© Jaime Greenberg and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012