The Politics of Play

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 metaphorically.

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 ensure 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 political courage — and independent thought, which has profound political implications. I’ve never met a child who didn’t appreciate Robin Hood, an outlaw who nonetheless practices a powerful and independent sense of ethics.

But, people say, if children are not controlled, there will be chaos. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is cited as if it were documentary evidence, as if, without the authority of adults, children will become vicious little monsters. Children are made to read this malignant propaganda against their childhood selves, and its message is beloved by those who believe that the opposite of obedience is disobedience. But these are false opposites. The true opposite of obedience is not disobedience but independence. The true opposite of order is not disorder but freedom. Most profoundly, the true opposite of control is not chaos but self-control.

Indigenous philosophies of childhood overwhelmingly agree on one thing: that a child should not be forced into obedience but should have liberty of body, mind, and will. Inuit children have traditionally experienced extraordinary freedom and would become “self-reliant, caring, and self-controlled individuals,” an Inuit person I met in Nunavut told me. By the age of ten, their self-control is “almost infallible,” according to anthropologist Jean L. Briggs. Similarly, Amazonian myths place huge importance on self-restraint and self-discipline. Fairy tales seem to teach the same message, according to psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim: at the end of the tale, the child has “become an autocrat in the best sense of the word — a self-ruler . . . not a person who rules over others.” Far from creating selfish brats or Goldingesque monsters, this philosophy emphasizes that the corollary of liberty is self-control. When children are both allowed their will and encouraged to control themselves, community is well-served.

Self-regulation may be taught by fairy tales or by society, but, interestingly, children learn it naturally in one particular form of play: unscheduled, timeless, unstructured play in make-believe worlds. During this imaginative play, children talk to themselves in what psychologists call “private speech,” planning and thinking aloud, practicing self-regulation, controlling their emotions and behavior. This is not just a matter of “good behavior” but of autonomous thinking, the thought of artists, creators, and politically independent adults thinking for themselves, uncontrolled.

While children must learn to control themselves, what they can never control is luck. They must learn how to live with it, how to dance with chance and mischance. Children recognize life is a huge adventure, and they must accept the dare. “Setting out to seek one’s fortune” is the readying line of folk tales, leaving safe harbor to meet luck both good and bad. Children play with risk, draw straws with hazard. A lottery, a lucky dip, or a lucky number all appeal to children’s knowledge that life is riddled with luck and that freedom means being able to deal with chance. But the risk-averse society, denying hazard and what is hazardous alike, is not only annoying but conceptually malevolent. It works against the child’s instinct to find a working relationship with chance and risk — otherwise their adventures cannot even begin, and they will remain infantilized, stuck forever safe indoors in the house “hard by the great forest” (as many folk tales begin), with no chance of setting out on the quest through it.

Lord of the Flies opens with misadventure, as the children are stranded on the island. An odiously racist text, it describes the group of boys who become the cruel killers as a “tribe” of “savages,” hunting, dancing, chanting, and “garlanded,” with their long hair tied back: “a pack of painted Indians.” Evidence from anthropologists and missionaries and from indigenous cultures themselves contradicts this image, indicating that indigenous children traditionally learned the subtle and sure kind of civilization, through positive self-rule. The novel’s message is also directly contradicted by history.

For there actually has been a real-life Lord of the Flies incident, and the result was the opposite of what is portrayed in the novel. One day, in 1977, six boys set out from Tonga on a fishing trip. They left safe harbor, and fate befell them. Badly. Caught in a huge storm, the boys were shipwrecked on a deserted island. What do they do, this little tribe?

They made a pact never to quarrel, because they could see that arguing could lead to mutually assured destruction. They promised each other that wherever they went on the island, they would go in twos, in case they got lost or had an accident. They agreed to have a rotation of being on guard, night and day, to watch out for anything that might harm them or anything that might help. And they kept their promises — for a day that became a week, a month, a year. After fifteen months, two boys, on watch as they had agreed, saw a speck of a boat on the horizon. The boys were found and rescued, all of them, grace intact and promises held.

This true story is a testament to self-reliance and self-control, a story of how to cope with hazard, how to go on the adventure of life itself. As an allegory, it tells us this: if children are allowed the practice of freedom, they may act in their own wisdom, captains of their own souls, shipwrecked perhaps, but not spirit-wrecked.

Jay Griffiths’s books include A Sideways Look at Time, A Country Called Childhood, and Savage Grace, originally published as Wild: An Elemental Journey, winner of the Orion Book Award.


  1. I would love to read more about the shipwrecked boys from Tonga. Can anyone direct me?

  2. Anna,

    Jay Griffiths directs you to “Street Children: A Growing Urban Tragedy, Report for the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues” by Susanna Agnelli, Weidenfeld, 1986, page 94.


  3. Well written Jay! This is exactly what my little outdoor preschool is about and what all preschools and parenting should be about. I will send this article to all my families. Check out a new documentary by Lisa Molomot and Rona Richter called, School’s Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten.

  4. Another great book for youth to begin to see the power of self-sufficiency: from Good Reads —

    “In the Pacific, there is an island that looks like a big fish sunning itself in the sea. Around it blue dolphins swim, otters play, and sea birds abound. Karana is the Indian girl who lived alone for years on the Island of the Blue Dolphins. Hers is not only an unusual adventure of survival, but also a tale of natural beauty and personal discovery.”

  5. Personally, I find it a little hard to swallow that “Lord of the Flies” is an odiously racist text.

    As a high school teacher, I revel in the opportunity to explore moral and ethical ambiguity in the context of govenment and war with students. Core themes layed out by Locke and Hobbes give my students the opportunity for themselves to decide whether Goldings depiction of WWII Europe was indeed accurate. Thus allowing them to “play” with tough and complex realities that surround us as adults. Furthermore, I think that Goldings allusions to characters representing different parts of Freud’s Id, Ego, and Super Ego, allow students to have both the language and context to really, again, ‘play’ with the deep questions of what it means to be human. Can’t Lord of the Flies just be seen as yet another modern myth or story to be placed next to other deeply relevant, but slightly antiquated ‘racist’ texts, on the expansive shelves that make up our western literature canon?

  6. Risk is the goto default rationale for parents who do not get their kids outside. As videophilia has such a strong grasp on the time choices of children we have to communicate to these parents that tech free unstructured play time out of doors can teach kids to self assess their risk taking tendencies until of course they get to the invincible ages ( 14-40) and then nothing may stop them

  7. We have an ever-widening divide here between theoretical ideas of how to stop environmental destruction and how to put the Rights of Nature high on the list of to-do lists, and the realities of mass media, mass consumption, education that now pushed each new tech gadget and delivery service as the next revolution. So, really, we have lost that opportunity, now haven’t we.

    We have yet another crisis in education? Another one every nanosecond. Today, National Petroleum-Pesticide-Propaganda News tells us that scientists and educators are shocked that only one out of five high school grads can give a basic explanation of what climate change is or global warming.

    Forget the 6th Mass Extinction. It’s about the next app, the next cool hip thing. And, unfortunately, running my computer and posting on this internet and electricity-gobbling thing, with the echo chamber effect of almost not payoff, well, we are in a brave new world of work, brave new world of communications, brave new world of education.

    Check this one out — faculty fired for doing the right thing. These are a dime a dozen stories even on the mainstream Chronicle of Higher Education and the Inside Higher Education web sites —

  8. Many years ago in Thailand, there was a temple that was called ‘The Temple of the Golden Buddha’ and there was a huge statue of a Golden Buddha there.
    Word came to the village and the monastery that an army from neighbouring country was about to invade.
    And so they came up with the brilliant idea to cover the Golden Buddha, which is quite large, with mud and concrete so that basically it looked like a stone Buddha and the army would perceive no value in it.
    And sure enough the army rolled in with its caissons and weapons and as they passed by the monastery, they saw nothing but a big stone Buddha and they had no reason to plunder it.
    Well, years passed by because the army continued to occupy, until there was a time when no one in the monastery and no one in the village remembered that the Buddha was golden.
    Then one day, a young monk was sitting underneath the Buddha meditating and as he got up off his knees a little piece of the concrete happened to crack and fall off the Buddha and the young monk saw something shiny underneath.
    He realised that there was gold under the concrete and so he ran to his fellow monks and said “The Buddha is golden, the Buddha is golden!”.
    They all came out and realised he was telling the truth and so they took their picks and hammers and began chipping away and eventually they unearthed the Golden Buddha

    Now, what is the metaphor here?

    The metaphor is that each of us is golden by nature, we are born golden, we were born high, we were born knowing, we were born connected to our bliss, we were born knowing the truth, we born knowing everything every great spiritual master has ever said, we are at one with the Christ, with the Buddha, everyone.
    But then, we went to school and in life too they said you have to dress like this and this is what boys do, this is what girls do, this is what black people do, this is what white people do and on and on and on.
    And so we develop a casing of stone and concrete over the Buddha to a point at a young age, maybe 4, 5, 6 or 7 where we BELIEVE that we are the stone Buddha not the Golden One.
    And then something comes along that cracks open our casing, maybe its a serious injury or illness, a divorce, a financial crisis, a governmental change, something that really scares us and bugs us and knocks off a piece of our armour and only in that moment of the armour being knocked off do you get to look inside and see the gold.
    And let me tell you friend, that the moment you see that gold, the armour and the concrete will never satisfy you and at that point you truly answer the hero’s adventure, and all you want to do for the rest of your life is pick away the stone because the gold is so much more fun.”

  9. Ahh, gold, the mineral of Conquistadors and strategic metal resource empire builders.

    Indeed, many of those young people might one day fight even those lusting for the gold.

    And then all images of Buddha can be carved and shaped from sustainable bamboo and good old basalt.

  10. I will be the first to admit that I’ve not read THE LORD OF THE FLIES in a long, long time. It was one of the first books that made me physically sick when I read it, it upset me so badly.

    I don’t remember getting that take-home message from it (that kids behave badly without adult supervision). I think my understanding of the book was more along the lines of: in the absence of adults and under such stressful conditions, these children behaved AS BADLY AS warring adults would, ie, that base human nature was coming out even in these young boys who had never been “tested”, so to speak.

    Reminds me of ISHMAEL by Daniel Quinn, I belive, and his teachings about civilizations: Those that “lived and let live” (the “leavers” socities) were in the end crushed/eliminated by the “takers”, the civilizations that were based on conquering others to take what they needed/wanted. Seems there is no evolutionary incentive to NOT force others to your way.

  11. I cannot find a source for this story from 1977 about the six boys stranded on the island for 15 months. Would the author kindly provide information regarding this matter? Thank you.

  12. Anne, good question, see comment #2 on this thread for the answer.


  13. What is the author’s stance on bullying? If I read this last year I would have completely agreed with nearly every sentence. However earlier this year, we withdrew our son from a Waldorf school in CA, where many of the children are out of control. Stone throwing, pushing, picking on other and teasing is common place. Free play is one of the tenets of Waldorf education. We chose it for our children from day one because they believed it would create gentle, empathetic adults. I have met many Waldorf educated teens and adults that are amazing, but we do not know what was going on in our son’s class.

  14. I see these themes playing out in three dimensions at a very special adventure playground in North Wales. Children are supported in lighting fires, playing with hammer and nails and constructing and destroying their own realities.

    I’ve documented the space named, by the children of course, “The Land,” in a new audio documentary whose title is inspired by Ms. Griffiths new book. The piece is called, “Of Kith and Kids.”

    Ms. Griffiths is able to articulate these thrilling ideas with such clarity, it’s been a pleasure to share this piece with others.

  15. Jay,
    Thank you for giving words to my hatred of Lord of the Flies, which I was made to read in high school: :malignant propaganda of their child-selves.” Exactly!

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