Back to the future: Plato, play and physical education by Dr. Malcolm Thorburn

In this blog, Dr. Malcolm Thorburn from the University of Edinburgh discusses the value of PE and sport, and the potential they hold for the development of character, health and wellbeing.

Back to the future: Plato, play and physical education

We seem to be living in unexpectedly precarious times, where good intentions towards protecting young people are having counterproductive effects. Lukianoff & Haidt (2018) in writing about ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ highlight that the post millennial generation (those children born between 1995 and 2012 – frequently called the iGen or Gen Z generation) are less autonomous and more anxious and depressed than previous generations. Social comparisons and social media are not helping health, and this along with the culture of safety and ever more paranoid parenting are leaving many young people more fragile and less resilient than previously. Lukianoff & Haidt (2018) outline that in some Universities students are being provided with safe spaces ‘equipped with cookies, colouring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets, and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as student and staff members purportedly trained to deal with trauma’ (p. 28). Alarming news and not a time to be making undue assertions about how these multiple concerns can easily be overtaken. That said the fact that Lukianoff & Haidt (2018) mention in detail that the decline of play is making young people less competent physically and socially, and less tolerant of risk and more prone to anxiety disorders should be of interest to the physical educator.


A contrasting way to consider these play-related matters is presented by Carr (2010) who has drawn on Plato’s writing in the Republic to reconsider the value of physical activities, as Plato offered a highly distinctive account of the value of physical education for developing the part of the soul which Plato characterises in terms of ‘spirit’, ‘energy’ and/or ‘initiative’. And while Carr (2010) goes onto have some philosophical reservations regarding the role of spirit in the explanation of agency this should not obscure the fact that there is much to be learned about character formation from reviewing Plato’s arguments about the value of physical education and sport. Thus as Carr (2010, p. 13) notes, ‘Plato introduces the idea of spirit as a desire to do what is right – a desire that is, in short, internally related to action – and secures a role for physical education in the training of right dispositions.’


On this view, the value of the physical educator would be to bring the physical aspects of being into an intelligible moral order. And in so doing, well-conceived physical education programmes can play a constructive part in emphasising the everyday gains of practical activities where cooperation and dispute resolution are fundamental to participation and to being resilient within our broader daily lives. Thus, the enduring capacity of well taught physical education to provide students with experiences which help them get winning and losing in perspective, improve self-awareness, be responsible, accept decisions and realistically evaluate ability should not be underestimated in terms of their contribution to wellbeing. Furthermore, from a health perspective, developing a healthy level of body/mind fitness which is resilient and deep-rooted enough to withstand other school and societal pressures will benefit regular exercising and attitudes towards physical activity.



Carr, D. (2010) On the Moral Value of Physical Activity: Body and Soul in Plato’s Account of

Virtue, Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, 4 1, 3-15.


Lukianoff, G & Haidt, J. (2018) The Coddling of the American Mind. Allen Lane: London.


Plato (1987) Republic. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

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