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Growing Up In a Cotton Wool World

Do we need a commonsense revolution in education and elsewhere in society? I think we do and it needs to start now. If you ask someone old or middle-aged where they most liked to play as a child they will invariably answer that it was somewhere out of sight from adults and their parents. But ask someone young and you don’t generally get this response.

Do we need a commonsense revolution in education and elsewhere in society? I think we do and it needs to start now.

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If you ask someone old or middle-aged where they most liked to play
as a child they will invariably answer that it was somewhere out of
sight from adults and their parents. But ask someone young and you
don’t generally get this response.

The reason is that our notion of childhood – and specifically the
risks associated with childhood – has shifted. These days we
micro-manage our young, filling their every waking hour with ‘useful’
activities. We also adopt a zero-risk attitude to play that
infantilises children if that’s not a complete oxymoron. In other words
there is now a deep protectionist and interventionist impulse in
society that runs totally against the old idea of benign neglect. And
if you think this is bad now, it’s going to get worse in the future.

We are already tearing up playgrounds and replacing them will
sanitised soft play areas. But what appears safe may actually be
harming our children in the longer term because they give us – and them
– a false sense of security. Moreover, the idea of safe play is a total
fantasy. This cotton-wool world is eroding independence and removing
resilience. In other words, we have been caught up in a myth of
protection that is actually harming us. But what is actually driving
this trend?

The answer, according to some, is the fact that families have become
more isolated. We no longer share as many communal spaces. We are also,
in my opinion, isolated by a global media that exports fear from around
the world. Anxieties are therefore magnified and a realistic
perspective is banished. This is odd because most of the figures
support the view that the world is actually a much safer place than it
was twenty, fifty or even one hundred years ago. What we have lost is
not only innocence but also our ability to cope with uncertainty and
discomfort. As a result, we tend to view worst-case scenarios as most
likely outcomes and we look at the world through the eyes of the
unluckiest.

Fortunately all is not lost. The success of books such as The
Dangerous Book for Boys shows that some people instinctively understand
what’s happening. Moreover, there is a new school of thought that says
that boys in particular have a biological need to get out and about.
They should be outdoors climbing trees, fashioning crude weapons and
even playing with toy guns. And if they don’t they will suffer in terms
of physical, emotional, social and cognitive development, Such a view
would have been heresy a few years ago but things might slowly be
changing.

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By the way, if you think I’m exaggerating about this risk aversion
consider this. Yesterday my five-year-old son brought part of his
packed lunch back from school because his cheese and savoury biscuits
snack is now a banned foodstuff along with granary bread, yoghurt and
Kiwi fruit. The reason is that on the pack it says that the snack was
“manufactured on equipment that also processes nuts” and the school
isn’t prepared to take a chance.

In other words, the school is saying that any kid with a nut allergy
(and there isn’t one by the way) doesn’t need to take responsibility
for their own actions in terms of what they eat. Instead responsibility
is forwarded to everyone else in the class. Yet the very same day the
headmaster of the school was talking to children and parents about the
importance of resilience and risk taking in assembly.

Nuts? I’ve got a few other choice words I could use.

Like I say, this isn’t really about innovation. However, we do urgently need some new ideas and some commonsense thinking.

About the author

Richard is co-founder of Essential (essential-design.com), a Boston-based design and innovation firm that specializes in products and services.

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