Scary Play


I had to get away from it all and so went to Yosemite to find peace. Once there I took my bike and road for hours to find just the right spot. It had to have easy to access and be high enough to do the job. My meditation walk calmed me on the way up to the top. At 90 feet in the air, it was too high for me to look down, so I backed up to the edge. Two deep breaths later, I bent my knees and jumped!

Fortunately, my rappel knot and rope held and it was great fun bouncing my way down the face of the cliff and dropping 10 feet at a time instead of 90 all at once. The feelings that I had that day are very close to what a toddler feels as they approach their first trip down a slide. Like me, their amygdala is on overdrive and flooding their brain with noradrenaline. Ah, but once fully into the adventure our brains are flushed and dopamine and oxytocin, the so-called “pleasure chemicals,” take their place.  So, here is Mother Nature’s problem when she is trying to get us to do something that will help develop our competence but is, at the same time, potentially really dangerous.

To answer this question, I’ve gone back to one of my most used references,

The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience by Sergio and Vivien Pellis. A little confession here, I have used the text at least once a month since it was published in 2013 to find specific support for assertions that I make in my writings. Here’s a case in point. The book goes into great detail about the role in calibration.

“… to a large extent, improvements in motor, cognitive, and social skills arise indirectly through play acting on the improvement of social skills, or more accurately, in refining the calibration of one’s emotional responses to unexpected events in the world.”

In a practical sense what this means is that to become a challenge seeking child, it is best to sneak up on the scary stuff a little it at a time. Small steps allow us to adjust our fears incrementally.

An interesting parallel observation from Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams  by Dr. Matthew Walker is that our REM sleep provides the brain with a great “fear eraser.” A good night’s sleep, which is for toddlers like 12 hours, sanitizes the day’s experience, so we don’t have to relive the scary stuff we go through. Without this wonderful capacity, we would, like those suffering PTSD, have to repeat our traumas nighty.

So, dear reader, this is the where, for lack of a better term, “mindfulness” comes in. Intuitively we sense the child’s stress when they are approaching a new challenge and want to ease their fear. We need to be sensitive to this moment for, while it may seem trivial to us as adults, we have to feel in our gut as if we too are standing at a precipice. I use the term “gut” here with special emphasis. Too often when playing with our children we are completely in our head, while the child is using their sympathetic nervous system, literally the brain in their digestive system. This means that we have a real emotional disconnect with our child that does neither of us much good.


Our colleague, Lenore Skenazy, at writes daily about the evils of helicopter parenting. Her blogs are very worth checking out as she deals with the everyday fears and challenges that come with raising children in a society that will lock you up for letting your kids play in the front yard without you standing over them with an umbrella in one hand and a first aid kit in the other.

Over the next month, I will return to more of the discoveries that come out of my reading of the Playful Brain. I figure that’s one of my jobs, to read the studies and bring you their insights, so stay tuned.

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