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?
 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.

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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 website, and 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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