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What Happens When You Ban School Playground Rules? Amazing Things

What Happens When You Ban School Playground Rules? Amazing Things

No more playground rules during recess!

That’s what administrators at Swanson Primary School in Auckland, New Zealand, decided, and the results have been amazing: a decline in rates of bullying, injuries and vandalism, as well as an increase in students’ concentration during class.

That’s right. Instead of a “Lord of the Flies” scenario that a cynic might have expected, the students are flourishing happily in their new-found freedom.

Getting rid of traditional health and safety-based playground rules means that students at the school can now climb trees, ride skateboards and play all kinds of games during recess.

They are also allowed to play in a “loose parts pit” containing junk pieces such as wood, old tires and an old fire hose.

Encouraging Active Play Among Children

How did Principal Bruce McLachlan make this bold move?

It came about as a result of a university study conducted by Auckland University of Technology (AUT) and Otago University that looked at ways to encourage active play among children. The study, which ended last year, found children were so occupied with the activities that the school did not need its timeout area anymore or as many teachers patrolling the playground.

As McLachlan said:

“The kids were motivated, busy and engaged. In my experience, the time children get into trouble is when they are not busy, motivated and engaged. It’s during that time they bully other kids, graffiti or wreck things around the school.”

“When you look at our playground it looks chaotic. From an adult’s perspective, it looks like kids might get hurt, but they don’t.”

“We want kids to be safe and to look after them, but we end up wrapping them in cotton wool when in fact they should be able to fall over.”

This is an awesome story, but really, it is not all that surprising.

The Importance of Free, Unstructured Play

As parents and educators know, children need time to play, since play is essential to positive human development. More importantly, as renowned child development expert David Elkind points out, children need time for unstructured play, instead of always being directed. Elkind recognizes that there are different types of play: play that teaches children concepts and skills, play that initiates children into the world of peer relations, and play that helps kids develop strategies for dealing with stress.

But what these variations on play have in common is that they are self-initiated and self-directed. Children need free, unscheduled time to master their environment.

In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a study just over a year ago saying that recess unstructured, outdoor play during the school day is just as important to student achievement as reading or math class.

AUT professor of public health Grant Schofield, who worked on the team in New Zealand leading the study, said children develop their brain’s frontal lobe when they are taking risks, and that allows them to calculate consequences.

“You can’t teach them that,”Mr. Schofield said. “They have to learn risk on their own terms. It doesn’t develop by watching TV, they have to get out there.”

Previously, the students were not allowed to engage in playground activities like climbing trees or riding bikes, McLauchlan told Australian radio station 720 Perth. While he says the playground is now more chaotic looking, it is also safer.

“What happens is when you let kids do anything they like is that they actually don’t go and purposefully hurt themselves,” McLauchlan said to the radio station.

The Demise of Recess in the U.S.

Self-directed play is better for kids because ultimately they have to turn back on their own resources and their sense of self. If they don’t have that, they will always be looking for external direction and validation.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., not only do students have no time for unstructured play, they are increasingly losing any kind of recess under the misguided belief that academics are more important and that playtime is wasted time.

Hooray for Swanson Primary School, whose administrators clearly understand the importance of free, unstructured play for the development of healthy young people. Sounds like fun!

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Photo Credit: Judy Molland

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8:04AM PDT on Oct 21, 2014

The "not allowed to" culture is part of a blame and compensation culture created long long ago . . . resulting in risk assessment and and whole raft of mindless moronic rules, about what you couldn't and shouldn't do.

6:30AM PDT on Aug 22, 2014

The arena to learn

5:30PM PST on Feb 21, 2014

Cool idea! My school has like...nothing. Well, on second though, thats not a bad thing. We have imagination, and trees.

8:44AM PST on Feb 17, 2014


11:38AM PST on Feb 16, 2014

Letting kids play and burn energy. What a novel concept! Thank you for sharing.

11:47AM PST on Feb 14, 2014

Good article,thanks for sharing

11:36AM PST on Feb 14, 2014

I was always disappointed that we weren't allowed to climb trees

7:43PM PST on Feb 11, 2014

I don't know why this information should surprise anyone. Kids need a way to burn energy in a semi-constructive" way otherwise it is pent up energy that gets them in trouble. This is the same principle as a dog. Don't give a dog enough energy it will terrorize the house when you are gone; burning off pent up energy relaxes the dog. Same with kids. It was a huge dis-service to yank the conventional recess from kids. I would also bet some of the ADD or ADHD would be diminished with better diets and more effective exercise which nldes recess breaks. JMHO.

12:56AM PST on Feb 11, 2014

Thank you for the interesting article.

12:14PM PST on Feb 10, 2014


There it helps that you would be laughed out of court in Finland for trying to sue the school for enforcing its rules or blaming them for a normal accident. (i.e. serious accidents always leads to an assessment of the behaviour of the involved parties, but you have to show real negligence or malicious intent to make it a court case)

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