In a recent class, I hovered near a child playing on top of a set of wooden stairs (about 2 feet off the ground), making sure that if she fell, I’d be there to break her fall. I was on high alert, while she was seemingly oblivious to the edge that she was half hanging off, and her Dad laughingly/exasperatedly remarked that his daughter seems to have some sort of obsession with edges…apparently, this method of play wasn’t unique to class! In fact, it’s not unique to many children! But in more ways than one…
Once children can crawl, I start adding equipment to the playspace…first a wide, low box: large enough for children to climb onto and crawl around, but only a few inches high. Later, I’ll add a taller box as well as other equipment, but children go through the same process with each of these pieces of equipment: they figure out how to get up and then they must figure out how to get down. And yes, in between, they often spend a great deal of time playing on and around the edges.
And it can be nerve-wracking to watch a child as they figure out how to get down. Most typically, children will fall off the box, or slip sideways off, the first couple of times. I’m there to keep them from hurting themselves, but I want them to notice the fall. I want them to notice the edge. Gradually, children become more aware of the edges after that, and they go through a process to get themselves down: they look at the gap, then they look at their parent (or me), then they look at the gap again. They might reach for me or their parent, so we’ll come close, but we’ll continue to let them figure it out. Very often, I’ll see a child drop a toy over the edge, almost as if they are measuring. Later, they’ll reach their hand out, and then, finally, they’ll reach their hand out enough to shift their weight and come off.
What I’ve described above can take weeks of children getting up and not being able to get down by themselves and it can be very uncomfortable (for parent and child): the child is right at the edge of their capability, and we, well, we want to ease that discomfort and for them to have the skill. It’s uncomfortable for us as well.
Think back to when you were learning a new skill, or maybe trying to level up something you already know how to do. First, we are bad at it, then we practice and get slowly better…we go to the edge of our ability and then we push against it. Sometimes we get frustrated and take a break. Sometimes, we hover in the ‘safe’ space our known abilities. But sometimes, we tip over and reach a new level…maybe you run farther or faster, lift heavier…maybe you nail a song that you’ve been working on or maybe you solve Wordle in 2 minutes. Or maybe you hold yourself back from rescuing your struggling child and instead let them figure it out for themselves as you watch them with care and encouragement.
Being at the edge of your ability, the edge of your comfort zone, is uncomfortable. We risk getting it wrong, failing…but failing and then trying again is part of growing. And, as Magda says, that’s something that babies are actually primed for, and it’s our discomfort that can impede that drive, and influence children in their approach to challenges.
While I’ve been talking here (mostly) about children’s physical development, children play at the edges of their abilities in all realms…cognitively, emotionally, socially. Play is how children explore their worlds, both outer and inner; and since they are so often at the edges of their abilities, it stretches us, too, to be at the edges of our own self-awareness. It challenges us to learn to recognize the difference between a frustrated, but still working, child…and one who’s tipped past struggle and into suffering. And it also gifts us with the awareness that children are constantly developing and doing the very best they can at any given moment.
When children play, they often seek out what adults often seek to avoid: disequilibrium, novelty, loss of control, surprise ( Wheatley, 1992 ). But since raising children brings us right back to disequilibrium, novelty, loss of control, and surprise, maybe, if we slow down and watch, we can learn from babies. Maybe we can start to get comfortable with the uncomfortableness of living at the edge of our abilities.