A few weeks ago, Quynh Tran, her husband, and their two daughters, 11 and 14, skated under a Castro Valley, California, highway overpass after dark. They watched their shadows grow up the sides of the concrete walls and pretended the shapes were monsters eating each other. “It's really neat having that experience when no one's around,” Tran says. “And it's a different feeling when you do it in the dark.”
Since the pandemic started, Tran’s family has been avoiding the busy hiking trails near their house. Instead, they venture out at night, when fewer people are around. “Even though the pandemic limited our normal activities, we were still committed to keeping our kids active and being outdoors … even if in the dark,” she says.
Playing in the dark can be a great way to take advantage of long winter nights while also mixing up routines—something many of us desperately need after months of quarantining. Plus, having fun with the lights out can feel a little bit risky, and that’s a good thing for kids. Do it outside, and you might bolster your mental health, too.
The benefits of playing in the dark
Over the last several decades, kids have become less independent, says Abigail Marsh, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Georgetown University and author of The Fear Factor. For example, a study found that in 1971, 55 percent of British kids under 10 were allowed to walk alone to places other than school, while that number shrunk to nearly zero by 2010—a percentage that Marsh confirms is likely similar today.
And that's actually a problem. "Kids are built to seek out novel, challenging experiences because that's how they learn," she says. And without taking appropriate risks—like walking by themselves through a neighborhood or skating under a darkened overpass—many psychologists worry that kids won't be able to take on the bigger risks that come with adulthood. “You cannot learn how to do this from a book,” Marsh says.
Parents can help kids build these skills. "Playing in the dark is such a good example of something that kids are afraid of," she says. "And parents' job is to scaffold those experiences for their children. Help them contextualize it, help them think about the risk, and make it fun. Teach children that they are able to do more than they think they can."
For some kids, doing things that are mildly risky or scary can be especially helpful in uncertain times, like during a global pandemic, says Ashley Zucker, a child, adolescent, and general psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Fontana, California. "Overcoming challenges can lead to an increased sense of independence, bravery, and problem-solving ability–which in a world of chaos can create a lot of safety and sense of accomplishment for children," she says.
What happens to your brain in the dark
“For most kids, the dark is a scary place,” Zucker says. “It blocks out other distractions and stimuli in our environment.” So when the lights go out, imaginations can run wild.
And when anxiety ratchets up, the brain adjusts how it manages stimulus. “The regions of our brain that control our visual and auditory senses become more active,” Zucker says. That means every gust of wind or creaky floorboard is louder; every shadow is more pronounced.
And because the amygdala, which regulates the feeling of being scared, is highly developed at birth, it’s pretty easy to trigger young kids’ fear response. But as they move through early childhood into the tween years, the brain changes. “The connections between the amygdala and frontal cortex, which is involved in regulating emotion, are getting wired up during that time period,” Marsh says. That means they’re better able to manage their responses to scary things.
So as the brain develops, playing in the dark can feel a lot less scary—and even ride that line between frightening and fun. “It’s very good at varying our responses to threat based on the proximity and seriousness of the threat,” Marsh says. “So when you're dealing with a threat that's unlikely to be really dangerous or sort of ambiguous, you'll get a smaller response from the amygdala.”
But that response can still feel good, especially when we’re seeking out the feeling of fear, like during a game of hide-and-seek in the dark. “We’re scared before anything has even happened,” Zucker says. “The greater the buildup of suspense or anticipation, the greater the release when that fear has resolved.” After a welcome fright, cortisol and adrenaline spike, and endorphins and dopamine swirl through circuits in our bodies. All that creates pleasant feelings, Marsh says.
Playing in the dark
Parents can test out different types of play in the dark to see which are a match for the age and fear-tolerance of their kids. "If kids have structure, they feel a little more safe," says Rebecca Young, a middle school teacher in Lafayette, California, and experienced flashlight tag facilitator.
Setting physical boundaries is crucial, she says, like rules about how far kids can run or where they can hide. For older kids, Young says games tied to scary stories or urban legends can create age-appropriate fun. Some ideas:
Flashlight tag: One person is "it" and uses the light of a flashlight to tag the other players “out.” Or you can modify so that all players have flashlights and the person who’s "it" must touch a player to get them out.
Shadow puppets: Use a flashlight to make shapes with hands or cut-outs and project the shadows against the wall. Tell stories about the shapes—funny or creepy—depending on kids’ ages.
Ghost in the graveyard: The “ghost” runs off to hide. When someone finds the ghost, she yells, "Ghost in the graveyard!" The ghost tries to tag the remaining players running back to base. Whomever is tagged becomes the ghost.
Glow-in-the-dark games: Use glow-in-the-dark paint, pens, stickers, or glow-sticks to play simple games like hopscotch, hula hoops, limbo, scavenger hunt, or bowling in the dark.
Tapping hide-and-seek: Hiding players tap two objects together every 60 seconds and the seeker uses the sounds to locate them. Hiders can change locations throughout the game.
Disco in the dark: Turn out all the lights, play fun music, and dance! Add in a disco ball or glowsticks for more fun.
Secret messages: Find a guide to Morse code then race to see who can decode a pre-created message first.
Flashlight limbo: Ditch the stick and use a flashlight instead. Players must shimmy under the beam without breaking it.