Micro-dosing on Risk and Danger
Hey everyone, welcome to Stuff They Never Told You, or perhaps this week we could call it the Stuff Your Parents Never Gave You. We’ll explore the idea of un-parenting and why some of the best lessons aren’t not specifically given, but allowed to reveal themselves.
ONE FROM THE AGES
Ray Bradbury on having adventurous confidence in our abilities:
“If we listened to our intellect, we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go in business because we’d be cynical: ‘It’s gonna go wrong.’ Or ‘She’s going to hurt me.’ Or ‘I had a couple of bad love affairs so, therefore …’ Well, that’s nonsense. You’re going to miss life. You’ve got to jump off the cliff all the time and build your wings on the way down.”
ONE FROM TODAY
Psychologist Peter Gray on the benefits of free play and children’s tendency to engage in risky activities:
“They seem to be dosing themselves with moderate degrees of fear, as if deliberately learning how to deal with both the physical and emotional challenges of the moderately dangerous conditions they generate. . . . All such activities are fun to the degree that they are moderately frightening. If too little fear is induced, the activity is boring; if too much is induced, it becomes no longer play but terror. Nobody but the child himself or herself knows the right dose.”
Source: Free to Learn by Peter Gray
ONE FROM US
I recently completed some repairs on our campervan that were seemingly far beyond my abilities. I’ve done a few minor automotive projects in the past, but I’ve never before considered attempting anything on this scale. With a mechanical engineering background, I understand an engine in theory, but confess that I was as intimidated as anyone each time I popped the hood.
I’ll spare the messy details, but after 4 days of work and countless “disasters,” my younger brother Adam and I had the van running the best I’ve seen it run. We had to dismantle aspects of nearly every mechanical and electrical system and replace dozens of parts that neither of us had ever worked with. We filled a ping-pong table of removed parts to simply access the broken components. After installing the replacement parts, we spent nearly 2 days reassembling the various systems that we took apart. Neither of us has any special training nor did we have personal experience in the aspects that we had to fix (although Adam is becoming quite the mechanic). We succeed for one reason: our willingness to dive into a massive challenge and our confidence that we could learn as we went.
If I am special in any way, it is that I have always seemed to instinctually live by Ray Bradbury’s advice: jump first and grow wings on the way down. We have to dive headfirst into challenges that we cannot be sure we are ready for in order to find the limits of our abilities. How else will we know where our ceiling is? How will we push our abilities higher if we never approach their limits?
Adam also takes a similar approach to life.
Do we have an extraordinary tendency to launch into huge challenges? Perhaps, our childhood was also perfectly crafted to support this confidence and adaptability. To an outside observer, our automative project (or my skateboarding and world-travel or Adam’s paragliding and treetop chainsaw antics) seem foolishly insurmountable, but they represent only a small increase from previous challenges. While the metaphor of leaping and growing wings on the way down is a poetic idea, it actually doesn’t tell the whole story. The ability to leap and soar is built from a series of increasing bold jumps and lots of flapping and fluttering to prevent yourself from a painful splat on the ground. My brothers and I were allowed and encouraged to make these small (and often painful) smaller jumps. We grew up with a garage full of tools, a pile of scrap materials, several massive trees, and whatever ramps, treehouses, and tightropes our burgeoning construction skills could create.
We don’t master technical or academic skills by instruction alone. We don’t develop physical strength or confidence in our bodies through PE classes or sport-specific movements. We don’t become adaptable people with the boldness to grow wings on the way down by undertaking carefully designed classroom projects or extracurricular activities. And we certainly do not develop to the best of our abilities through virtual simulacra of real-world challenges. We need to dive in, get messy, get hurt, and find a way through. We need free play.
Free play, exactly as it sounds, means no specific rules, purpose, or agenda. Free play is where we imagine and create different scenarios and play them out. This can be social or individual. It can be strenuous or more cerebral. Above, Peter Gray tells us that the forms of free play that bring the most growth tend to share two factors: nature and a bit of risk. In The Coddling of the American Mind, authors Jonathon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff tell us that “vigorous physical free play—outdoors, and with other kids—is a crucial kind of play, one that our evolved minds are ‘expecting.’ It also happens to be the kind of play that kids generally say they like the most.”
Our evolved minds “expect” vigorous, outdoor, social, and dangerous free play. These activities teach us to build and maintain social relationships, understand the natural world, expand our physical capacity, and keep a cool, confident head in the face of danger and challenge. In other words, free play is where we learn everything that matters.
The future of schooling is uncertain. Even before the current pandemic, schools were trending more virtual, screen-dependent, and structured (to the point that many kindergarten teachers protested the systems imposed on them). As states and school districts grapple with how (and if) to return to in-person school, we can bet that whatever direction they choose will only accelerate this screen-heavy, testing-based, and overly-structured trend.
Right now, teachers and administrators are struggling to meet old educational expectations under this new model. Many parents share these concerns and feel the additional stress that comes with their increased responsibility for their kids' education. Yet, we can also see the current school crisis for what it is, a breaking point. The final crack in a system that has been near collapse for years. Sure, our kids need many of the skills that are best taught in a classroom setting. But more than any of the testable material, our kids need the opportunity to develop the important life skills that only come through long bouts of unsupervised time.
Virtual school or decreased in-person school hours bring an opportunity—kids can have more free play. We will still need to find creative ways to meet the state-mandated curriculum. But rather than scramble to create new schooling structures, let’s embrace the opportunity to let kids play without the usual oversight. In this new stressful environment, it might be the case that the best way to serve our kids is not to “provide for their educational needs” but simply to leave them alone.
This is a topic near and dear to me. My parents were not perfect, but I believe they provided the perfect balance of guidance and freedom. You might also like this past article that explores the benefit of taking on goals that are seemingly out of reach. Peter Gray has many related articles on free play, but a great place to begin exploring his work is this: Risky Play: Why Children Love It and Need It. And finally, even though we’ve linked it before, we cannot recommend LetGrow.org (created by Lenore Skenazy, founder of the Free-Range Kids movement).
Life is too short to be normal