The Power of Play, Adversity and Scaling Barriers

Posted By Victoria Schmitt Babb
December 21, 2016

As parents, educators, and community members we tend to eliminate hardship and struggle from our children’s lives. Not because we wish them any disservice but because we genuinely want the best for them; our nature wants to protect them and make their world the best place for them to live, grow and thrive. But what if we ARE harming them by making things too easy?  What if the lack of difficulties and not given the opportunity to cope with adverse situations makes them less prepared for the real world? What if every time I cut my daughter’s tags from her clothing because they agitate her skin I am setting her up to be an intolerant, easily-agitated employee who complains about the screeching of the copy machine? Will she be able to work through things she cannot control? Do I make her get used to tags rubbing the back of her neck and waistband for the sake of her future and all those who are forced to work alongside her?  

I remind myself of my visit to the Butterfly house and the lesson that was given about NOT helping a newly evolved butterfly out of the chrysalis.    

The story goes that if you see a butterfly struggle which can often last longer than a few hours, do not touch it. Even as it wriggles to get free from the sack the “struggle” phase is very critical to the physiological movement of fluid throughout its wings from the center to the tips. The fluid being spread enables the butterfly to eventually break free and fly.

That made me think about what ways I am allowing my daughter to “struggle” to shift fluid throughout her metaphoric wings so one day she can fly. “Fly” representing the day when she is independent and has reasonable coping skills to the never-ending stimuli and events that the world will offer her, sometimes mercilessly. 

I pondered this notion as I brought her to the playground. I watched as she looked at the two sets of monkey bars and easily navigated the shorter ones. Then she climbed the deck and tried for the taller ones. She slipped and dropped to the ground which was thankfully covered by the pour-in-place surfacing. She didn’t try it again. She moved on to climbing the net and then the swings. I asked her on the ride home, “Why did you not try again on the monkey bars?” She replied matter of factly, “I can’t do it.” My heart sank. Just like that, the white flag went up in retreat. The battle was over. The gumption reserve was dried up or perhaps had not been filled up. Filled up by me, a mother who had tried so hard to be attuned to my child that it has quite possibly, how else can I say it without seeming melodramatic, has broken her wings. My mind quickly jumped to real-life situations that may pose a barrier, a hardship, some discomfort. I needed to instill that hunger to persevere; a survivor instinct. Why is it that children appear to be “weaker” these days and not push themselves?

I answered my own question quickly. Because many of them don’t have to push themselves. Many have not been forced to ignite the survival instinct that was so evident years ago during the pioneer westward movement or during the Ireland famine that pushed so many families to send children to America across the Atlantic on ships alone. In most of our communities (not all), children’s survival includes adhering to a structured schedule, attending school, maybe doing some chores if asked, and often sitting in front of screens which is today’s new version of “playing.”  

The truth is struggle in all its glory provides more than an endearing plot for a Hollywood movie. It is as essential as reading, writing, social skills, and discipline. It is the cornerstone to what builds character, perseverance, and endurance. My plan as a parent was to now infuse struggle into my daughter’s life, not to the extreme of making her go hunt and gather her own food or abandon her in the woods to see if she could survive. My answer was to take her to more playgrounds and to conquer the obstacles. We came up with a fun adventure that we would “summit” all the elements on the playgrounds across our area. In the spirit of healthy competition, we challenged each other to conquer equipment ranging from zip lines to monkey bars to dismounting a swing in midair. I became very mindful to model the behavior of taking risks and communicating that even though things are hard and pose discomfort that they are often worth it. I now give my daughter an option, “Do you want to deal with the tags or shall we remove them?” Together we seek out experiences that will make us “stronger” and celebrate it when we reach the other side. I encourage her to play in the woods, to get dirty and to climb trees. No doubt, I also balance my push to take risks with a healthy dose of risk assessment. Push yourself, endure but know your limits. Keep working at things that may be out of your reach now. Philosophizing with an 8-year-old has its limits, even I know that.  

Understandably some children may not have a safe place to play, scale barriers and foster self-determination which means that communities need to work on creating such spaces. Often children age out of playgrounds around 12 years old so it is important for Parks and Recreation specialists and school districts to seek out other playspaces that will challenge young people. Skate parks, challenge courses (inspired by the hit show Ninja Warrior) and bike parks are all answers to the solution of giving youth the opportunities to play, have fun and scale barriers.   

As a community, we can provide those defining moments where a child or youth can feel that burning sense of accomplishment and pride saying to himself “I did it.” We can instill the gumption to not give up when things get difficult but to steadfastly persevere in one way or another. This lesson will serve them well in the future, it will serve all of us. Infuse struggle so all can develop wings to fly.

About the Author: 

Victoria Schmitt Babb is the director at Play 4 ALL Campaign and Community Resource Manager at Cunningham Recreation.

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