Illicit Play

When I was in elementary school, my best friend and I often had sleepovers. The best part about  sleepovers at Krista’s house: raiding the fridge late at night (it was probably only 10:00). We’d peek out of her bedroom, checking to make sure everyone was asleep, tiptoe to the kitchen, pry open the fridge, and sneak out the salami.  We’d creep back to her room with our stolen stash, gleeful and giggling. Knowing that we’d broken the rules and done something “bad” bound us to each other and strengthened our friendship. Years later, we learned that her mom knew about our late night escapades and purposefully bought the salami for us.

This illicit play, play that breaks the rules, serves a purpose for children. They test the boundaries of what they are capable of, of what they can get away with. It’s powerful and enforces their feelings of autonomy. For me, a rule­following kind of kid, this midnight thievery allowed me a healthy taste of the thrill and power of breaking the rules while minimizing the risk. This type of illicit play can also serve to reinforce friendships—there’s nothing like keeping secrets to bind you together!

What’s the difference between illicit play and plain old breaking the rules?  I think it’s a matter of degree—is it hurting someone or something? Is it happening often or in a way that interferes with other activities? Is it reinforcing the relationship of the children participating or is one of them using the play as a means of having power over the other?  In these cases, it’s up to the adults who are aware of the behavior to set a limit and offer other ways for children to experience power and autonomy.

If we don’t feel that we need to set a limit on the illicit play, what’s our job as the adults who know that it’s going on? We can allow or encourage opportunities for illicit play by allowing children the time and space to explore the limits of their autonomy while keeping them safe, by not always saying something when you notice a boundary being pushed.

Krista’s mom chose to support us by secretly being the “victim” of our raids,  by turning a blind eye.  And I’m thankful that she did.

…Susan Roscigno, Co-Director