Doing the scary game right can help kids learn

All over the world, parents and carers are constantly providing intimidating experiences for young children. Just think of Halloween, games like “hide and seek,” chasing kids around the house, playing in the dark, and all the violent games that adults play with kids. Adults are attracted to this role and children are interested in scary things. They always ask for more.

Yet fear is often thought of as an emotion to be avoided and a feeling that exists to keep people and other animals away from experiences that can be dangerous. Often, people think that children should experience this emotion as rarely as possible. How do we explain the paradox of terror? How do we explain why we are attracted to fear and why we enjoy certain types of such experiences, even when we are young?

At our Recreational Fear Lab in Denmark, we conducted research aimed at answering these questions. In our work, we also investigated whether carefully regulated bullying in children can occur in preschool and child care settings, sometimes even before children learn to walk.

‘There seems to be a sweet spot when it comes to amusing fear … where happiness is associated with a manageable amount of frightening surprise that one can cope with and ultimately learn from.’

In our study, we found that Danish nurseries often engage in frightening activities. A singing game about a sleeping bear ended with all the kids moaning “Rrrrrrr” at each other and bursting into laughter. In another game, a child sits on the lap of an adult as if riding a horse and then, at the end of the game, the adult pulls his legs and the child falls in the middle. Once again, there were cries of surprise and laughter.

Getting scariness right for kids

In these scary games, adults are careful. They don’t scare kids without thinking. They try to get the level right – not too much, not too little. And they carefully choose the time for such a game – early in the day, when the kids are fed and rested and are able to manage it. Even if this process is not part of their formal training, teachers are committed to it and when asked, they want to discuss it.

The game and the surprise are not always the same. Occasionally, children will hear the story of “Three Billy Goats Gruff” where an ogre controls a bridge where three goats have to cross; the story is animated by dolls. Every time a goat tries to cross, the ogre will utter a deep, frightening voice, “I will eat you,” and the goat will reply, “No, no, you will have to wait to eat my brother. he is big! ” The story ends with the third and oldest brother crossing the bridge and beating the troll.

If teachers find that children enjoy this story, they will sometimes take the story to the next level. They could add a little theater, change and act out the bridge scene to make it more intimidating, more real. But they only do this when they feel the kids are ready for an extra dose of fear.

Learning to manage fears is key to brain development

Most of these games have a common feature – a predictable pattern of suspension. They try to teach children that, in a moment, they will be given a fear. Children learn to anticipate – and manage – a slow leap in their fear, similar to what they encounter at points in their lives.

Many nursery and preschool teachers in Denmark view it as almost an obligation to expose children to these types of experiences because children need to learn to deal with the unexpected and frightening. It’s a way of curbing “hellicopter parenting” or what the Danes call “curling culture,” in which parents sometimes anticipate and erase the hardships of their children’s lives, leaving them likely to be less able to cope in the future. problems that they alone.

We believe that children have fun and feel good during these frightening experiences because, in the process, they make something unpredictable more predictable. This exercise fits some of the basic principles of thinking about the brain, which acts like an advanced prediction machine, constantly trying to predict or predict what will happen in the future.

How to determine the right level of fear

In general, play seems to be a deliberate search for the measured dose of the unpredictable. When we play, we explore the boundaries of our field of knowledge. The completely unpredictable game is not very fun. It can feel chaotic. And the predictive game isn’t fun either – it can be boring. The trick is to find the sweet spot, the perfect passage to our personal boundaries.

‘A moderate fear can be good because it gives us the opportunity to learn how our bodies respond in specific ways to certain experiences.’

This theory of play also applies to frightening experiences, when it happens at the right level for children and is playable. Children often give signals when they are in their sweet spot – a cry of laughter and surprise, signs that they are having fun, no trauma. Parents need to be alert to signs that their child is well managing the experience, learning, and thinking about how to predict what will happen next.

Such sweet-spot moments are also known in reports of frightening experiences in older children and adults. They have even been observed physiologically. We conducted a study of adults and children as young as 12 who visited a haunted attraction. They completed questions about how they experienced the different moments and we mapped the responses against differences in their heart rates, which were monitored during the frightening experience.

The physiology of the scary game

We found that the pleasure of the haunted attraction was associated with the correct change in the heart rate of the participants. In other words, “fun” coincides with moderate singing and deviating from the change of heart. In contrast, participants who reported that they did not enjoy the frightening experiences had greater differences in their heart rates, suggesting an extreme experience, or showing no change in heart rate. , suggesting that they may be dissociated from or concerned about the experience.

Photo: Shutterstock.

We should not be surprised that happiness comes from overt negative emotions such as fear. Nearly 300 years ago, David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, observed in his essay “Of Tragedy” that there is an innumerable joy, that the audience of a well-written tragedy receives from grief, fear. . . and other feelings, which in themselves are unpleasant and uncomfortable. The more touched and affected they are, the more they enjoy the scene. ”

Paul Bloom, the respected Yale psychologist who is now a professor at Toronto University, highlighted Hume’s observations and was one of the first to suggest that many fun experiences are also often described by hitting a sweet place. For example, the hug should not be too hard or soft, and the coffee should not be too hot or too cold. Similarly, there seems to be a sweet spot when it comes to fear of pleasure – those occasions where individuals experience joy because of fear – where joy is associated with a manageable amount of frightening surprise. can someone deal with and eventually learn from it.

Overall, this makes sense. It makes sense that a successful organism, like a human being, should have a reward mechanism related to learning so that it can adapt to many conditions and improve its capacities to survive and thrive.

Physical experience of the fear game

The experiment of haunted attraction can highlight how we sometimes become aware not only of part of events outside of ourselves, but also of part of our own physiological responses. Moderate fear can be good because it gives us the opportunity to learn how our bodies respond in specific ways to certain experiences. We may be better prepared to handle responses in a better way if they happen again. We suspect this is one reason that children-and adults-repeat frightening experiences, so that they can go through the physiological impact again and learn how to heal more effectively.

‘Children learn to anticipate – and manage – a slow leap in their fear, similar to what they encounter at certain points in their lives.’

Some researchers argue that anxiety is an epidemic among young people today not just because we are better at diagnosing it. They suggest that the development may also be linked to reducing the incidence of dangerous play, in part due to urbanization, less outdoor space for play, a focus on preventing children from getting hurt, and more play technology. at home. Together, these factors reduce the forms of risky play that are often situations where children seek appropriate frightening experiences for themselves. That is why people today may be less experienced with fear in a safe way, which can, in turn, contribute to the overall rise in overall anxiety.

In summary, it is important not to misunderstand the understanding of pleasure derived from the fear of pleasure. This is not a suggestion that parents hide in the closet and jump in to scare their children. Instead, it’s a reminder to look for those times when kids scream and laugh and shout for joy. Chances are these are signs that they are learning.

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