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!
Photo Credit: Judy Molland