Outside In JAY GRIFFITHS
The PoliTics of Play
Seeking adventure in a risk-averse society
AGED FOURTEEN and without his parents’ approval, the future King Henry II hired a band of
mercenaries, sailed from France to England, and failed to take two minor castles.
In the realm of fiction, the audacious and
adventurous Huckleberry Finn, only “
thirteen or fourteen,” rebels against the mores
of the time and decides not to betray Jim,
the runaway slave. Had either Henry or
Huck been born into a risk-averse society,
they would have been enfeebled.
Attempting to take two minor castles
may not feature on every child’s to-do
list, but lighting fires, making shelters,
using knives, and coping with darkness
should: this is how children learn to paddle their own canoe—both actually and
Nevertheless, I’ve seen barriers erected
around a fire on Bonfire Night with notices saying, stand back—danger, as if
children must always take their orders
from the signage of authority rather than
use their own judgment. Some schools
forbid children to play in the snow for fear
of legal action in the event of an accident.
We live in a litigious age, but this is about
far more than that: it is about the kind of
children we are creating.
By insidiously demanding that children always seek permission for the most
trivial of actions, that they must obey the
commands of others at every turn, we en-
sure that children today are not so much
beaten into obedience as eroded into it.
A risk-averse society creates a docility
and loss of autonomy that has a horrible
political shadow: a populace malleable,
commandable, and blindly obedient. (In
Stanley Milgram’s famous attempts to
explore the roots of the Holocaust, a key
factor was people’s abject obedience to
authority.) Physical freedom, however,
models all kinds of freedom, for children
learn with both body and mind. When
they see themselves demonstrate physical
courage, they also learn moral or politi-
cal courage—and independent thought,
which has profound political implications.
I’ve never met a child who didn’t appreci-
ate Robin Hood, an outlaw who nonethe-
less practices a powerful and independent
sense of ethics.