Monday, November 14, 2022

Joy Is The Emotion Of Growth

We never had a teeter totter (i.e., seesaw) on our playground, but the children were always making their own, usually by pivoting a plank of wood over a log. Sometimes they would put the plank of wood over one of our swings and call it a "teeter swing." The contraptions could also easily evolve into a "catapult" (by placing objects on one end, then jumping onto the other to launch it into the air) or a "diving board" (by having an adult stand on one end while the kids inched out to the other end to bounce off). 

As has happened with other classic playground equipment like swings, metal slides, and merry-go-rounds,  manufactured teeter totters have more or less disappeared due to fear of litigation. Some will say it's due to injuries, but they simply won't be able to provide any reliable data showing that children's playground injury rates are any higher when teeter totters are present. Indeed, there is very little actual data at all about playground injuries, and what I have seen tends to place the risk of injury about equal to a child playing indoors at home.

I've never noticed the teeter totter to be a particularly dangerous plaything, if played with as intended. After all, the script is an oscillation of up-and-down, up-and-down, up-and-down, a fine metaphor that can be applied to the ebbs and flows of life, but I never found it particularly exciting unless, of course, you went off its one-dimensional script.

For me, the most fun one could have on a teeter totter was at the extremes: the bump as you hit the ground, then the bump as you reached the top. From this, my playmates and I would typically make it into a game of extremes rather than balance. We would send one another into hysterics by trying with all our might to launch one another into the air by allowing our end to crash to the ground with as much force as possible. You held on tight at the top because if the person on the other side was a "big kid" it could feel like you were about to flip into the air. It was probably this sort of play that caused adults with catastrophic imaginations to ban teeter totters, although as wild as our play got, I don't recall anyone ever getting hurt.

A second way we added spice to our teeter totter play was to walk or run across the plank. We would start on the end that was resting on the ground, then balance up the ramp until we got to the pivot point. Stepping across that point caused the raised end to descend to the ground so that you could complete your crossing. Again, in the spirit of challenging ourselves on this otherwise tedious playground contraption, we would increase our speed until we were essentially doing it pell mell.

A third off-script game was to try to balance in the center. It was fun for about 30 seconds, easily mastered. Every now and then we would count to see who could balance the longest, but we quickly realized that we could maintain the position indefinitely, but doing so was the most dull thing of all: standing in one place while micro-flexing your leg and torso muscles in order to stay in place.

Truth be told, teeter totters on the playgrounds of my youth were widely left alone. There was already enough tedium in school and if the teachers were going to scold us for attempting to add a bit of challenge and risk to our play then we would just do something else.

Many of us have become familiar with the concept of neuroplasticity over the past couple decades. Even as recently as twenty years ago, experts were telling us that humans didn't grow any new brain cells after about the age of 25, and that most of the cells we were ever going to have were grown during the first few years of life. We now know that this isn't true. What led scientists to suspect that we didn't continue to produce new neurons were studies done on apes in cages: when they began to look at apes who had been freed from their cages, they discovered that neuroplasticity was a lifelong phenomenon. 

And as psychotherapist and author Christine Caldwell writes in her book Bodyfulness, "While the definition of this term (neuroplasticity) restricts itself to nerve cells (neurons), the principle of plastic change likely occurs throughout the body as well. Change and even growth occur constantly and normally throughout our lives."

This lifetime of growth, however, is not a given. When we find ourselves in metaphorical cages, like those apes did, cellular growth slows down or stops. That's because our brains and our bodies need self-selected challenges and self-identified novelty in order to grow new cells. As Caldwell puts it, "While we operate within genetic limitations, we are less limited than we previously thought. To a certain extent we can directly influence how many new cells we produce. We now know that we can learn new things during our entire life spans and retain capacities longer, even into our advanced years. Our daily experiences determine how fully we can operate within these expanded genetic limits. How can we influence our capacity to continue to change and grow? The key word here is challenge. In order to change something, we must challenge the status quo."

This is knowledge that children tend to have that we, as adults in our society, tend to unlearn as we age. When a child goes off-script with a toy, when a child adds challenge or risk to an otherwise dull or previously mastered activity, when a child spins in a swing or goes up the slide or uses the teeter totter in "unauthorized" ways, they are doing exactly what they need to do to stimulate cell growth in both the brain and the body. They are challenging the status quo.

Of course, the children are not thinking about neuroscience, but rather following their education instinct, which is to seek out novelty and challenge.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately as I'm now a man in his 60's and more and more of the people in my life are retiring or thinking about retiring. They generally talk of a life of low stress, contentment, even happiness. But when I try to put myself in their shoes, I wonder about the lessons I've learned from young children. As essayist Rebecca Solnit writes in her new book Owell's Roses, the state we call "(h)appiness seems to require having a well-ordered life avoiding difficulty or discord." It sounds a bit like the nowhere game of balancing on the middle of the teeter totter. She distinguishes it from joy which "can and does show up anywhere, often unexpectedly. In their book Joyful Militancy Carla Bergman and Nick Montgomery draw the distinction thus: 'Joy remakes people through combat with forces of subjection (i.e., subjugation). Joy is a desubjectifying process, an unfixing, an intensification of life itself. It is a process of coming alive and coming apart. Whereas happiness is used as a numbing anesthetic that induces dependence, joy is the growth of people's capacity to do and feel new things in ways that can break this dependence.'"

In other words, joy is the emotion of growth and it comes from "combat" or challenging ourselves in new ways. As children play, especially as they concentrate on the challenges they are engaging, it would be impossible to describe them as happy. Indeed, happiness, especially as defined above, is not the natural state of the playground, but regular burst of joy are indeed a big part of it.

I worry that as adults too many of us seek that dull state of "balance" and avoid the bumps at the bottom and top. We so often attempt to sacrifice joy for the sake of happiness and growth for the sake of the status quo. Even worse, I fear that we sometimes try to impose this on the children as well.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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