I didn’t know how much of this last week would be spent dealing with fear. Heights, the dark, spiders in the toilet, bigger kids. All normal parts of a week of play in a field on the edge of a wood. But what struck me again and again is the resilience and bravery of children who know they are afraid but refuse to let that get in the way of experience.
Jerry Hyde says there are some books which you only need to read, because it’s all in the title; Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway. That sort of thing…
Choosing the forty foot tree swing, walking out in the dark, becoming so fascinated by the fact the spider has babies that you get over your fear and look through a hand lens. The tales of bravery I could tell you, and that’s just one week.
It’s normal to feel fear. It’s part of what keeps us safe. It’s part of moving out of your comfort zone. A way, as I’ve explored before, here, to help children (or anyone) move out towards those fears that won’t case harm and to still feel safe is to help them see it as a challenge and to play with the idea. You can’t simply tell someone not to be afraid. Something has to replace the fear.
We stepped out of the field, over the fence and into the dark dark woods at night. Nate said; “I’m scared!”
What of? I asked.
“Everything,” replied the tiniest voice.
Are you afraid of the clouds? I asked.
Are you afraid of kittens?
“Yes” said a slightly bigger voice.
Are you afraid of fluffy blankets?
…of baby chicks?
“Yes!!” said Nate. “I want to hold Elliot’s hand.”
Are you afraid of holding Elliot’s hand? I asked
“oh yes” Nate laughed and took Elliot’s hand.
Sometimes it’s a challenge to remember why you were afraid before.
Fear is an OK thing to feel, I tried hard to let the children know that it was OK and a normal thing for them to feel. The bodies way of dealing with fear is cortisol. The chemical trickle that, if turned into a flood will lead to a fight, a freeze or a flee. This stress response in it’s trickle state gives us the adrenalised state of full attention, real curiosity and the learning sweet spot that comes with it. Too much adrenaline and the flood turns into a punch and kick, or a run from the scene. Or a shutting down, and a blacking out. Poppy’s stress response is so extreme that she starts to black out if things get too noisy or busy or crowded around her. The doctors are still trying to work it out, but age 11 she manages it well, preparing an adult to take responsibility and notice the signs. Coming over and tugging a sleeve when she feels it start. Yet, the need to feel the fear and do it anyway is so strong she pleaded to be included “will I be still able to go on the swing and the night walk even though I have my head thing? Pleeeeeeeease” she refused to let anyone suggest she was not up for it.
Clipped onto the swing and ready for her first attempt I could hear her rationalising under her breath; “my friend did it… all I have to do is is is is… if I step off here where will I go… and what if what if? So we talked about the special kind of fear that comes before you do something really cool and really safe and how that gives you an even more special kind of feeling afterwards. The feelings you have when you have overcome a challenge. “OK ready” she said and let herself go into a wild swing with a scream that could be heard across the valley. It ended in laughter. “I’m totally doing that again.”
Bob Hughes in his Taxonomy of Play Types uses the phrase; Deep Play. It’s one of the hard play types to describe, yet whenever I have helped people unpack the play types and we talk about deep play, “you know that sensation when you do something tricky and you feel it right here, under your ribcage. That’s deep play.” Everyone nods we all know that feeling, from balancing on a wall and wobbling just a little, from climbing a tree and losing a foothold, even standing on a stage and preparing to sing or take part in a play. It’s different for everyone. Your deep play could be my everyday experience. My deep play could be your relaxation. The Swedes have a saying about that feeling; occasionally you have to feel the ice in your stomach if you are to feel alive.