Recess Without Rules

A school in New Zealand lets its students do whatever they want during playtime. Are American parents ready to endorse a similar policy here?
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 Community Spaces Fund/flickr

There are no rules on the playground at Swanson Primary School in Auckland, New Zealand. Students are allowed to climb trees, ride skateboards, and play contact games. This relaxed approach to playtime started as a research experiment conducted by two local universities, but it went so well that the school opted to make the changes permanent. According to a recent article, the school “is actually seeing a drop in bullying, serious injuries and vandalism, while concentration levels in class are increasing.”

Swanson’s principal, Bruce McLachlan, said, “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.”

Auckland University of Technology professor Grant Schofield, who worked on the experiment, claims there are too many rules on modern school playgrounds. He says that limiting children’s play is harmful to children in the long run because it “ignores the benefits of risk-taking.” He goes on to explain that children learn how to deal with risk only by facing risk. Schofield encourages other schools to embrace this same freedom of play and risk-taking. “It’s a no-brainer. As far as implementation, it’s a zero-cost game in most cases. All you are doing is abandoning rules.”

People love this story. I awoke this morning to a full email inbox and an unusual number of tweets and Facebook shares, most of them in reference to the same article: “School Ditches Rules and Loses Bullies.” The article has been shared more than 30,000 times since it was posted on Sunday. People love this story because it reinforces our growing suspicion that we are coddling and over-protecting our children.  It provides evidence to show that kids should be allowed to be kids, that we need to back off and allow our children to play, unsupervised and untethered to lists of rules and regulations.

Despite the evidence and the growing public tolerance for the idea—if not the reality—of exposing children to risk, many American school administrators do not feel they have the freedom to eliminate playtime rules the way Swanson did. And they certainly don’t see it as a zero-cost game. Parents drive our nation’s tendency toward more restrictive playground rules because parents are the ones who sue schools when their children get hurt.

I’ve worked at five different schools, both public and private. While I loved watching my students frolic on the playground, I did not love having to intervene every time an elbow was thrown or a first-grader jumped off a moving swing. But I felt I had no choice. Our playground rules were clear. Children were to be watched constantly and closely in order to prevent injuries, and history had shown that when an injury did occur despite these precautions, teachers and administrators were often to blame for failing to intervene earlier.

I asked Schofield if he thought his study would translate to the U.S. and he said, “probably not.” He, does, however, point to our last good chance for change: adults who remember a childhood spent in free play. He told me,  

Surely there are still a few “last children in the woods” in the U.S.? You also have adults that were children themselves and I haven’t met an ex-child yet who does not fondly remember adventure on their own terms. I’d say at last in New Zealand we are reaching a point where this is actually getting traction. You will in the U.S., too. 

I’ve spent the past year writing a book about why parents need to let their children fail, to give them the freedom to take physical and emotional risks. I have piles of quotes and questions from parents who would enthusiastically support the efforts of Swanson Primary School to de-regulate recess—as long as those efforts remain in New Zealand. These parents feed viral frenzies by sharing articles like this and “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail,” accompanied by enthusiastic “Likes” and “YES! FINALLY!” comments such as the 331 already posted to the New Zealand article. But when it comes to allowing their children to fail, or to wrestle with another kid on the playground with the risk of bruised limbs and egos hovering over recess like a black cloud, they are resistant.

I’ve seen some of these otherwise enthusiastic parents get overwrought and litigious when their own child suffers an injury during the school day. I’ve seen principals shrug their shoulders and explain that overly restrictive playground rules are simply the rules parents demand and, consequently, what schools must implement.

So while I am heartened by this article’s popularity and the comments about the need to let children assume risk, I remain cautiously optimistic. For all our talk about daring greatly and the blessings of skinned knees while free-ranging our children, real change toward a more sane vision of childhood is going to require parents willing to see their own children take risks and get a little dinged up in the process.

When the day comes that someone emails me an article showing that parents are truly dedicated to exposing their own children to risk and free play, I will share that article on every social media platform there is with an enthusiastic “like” and a “YES! FINALLY!”

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her site, Coming of Age in the Middleand is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

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