NZ School Abandons Playground Rules, Fewer Injuries And Bullying Incidents Result

By Darren Smith, Guest Contributor

Children PlayingA recent two-year University research project, finalized in a practical study at an elementary school in New Zealand, tested to see if regimented playground rules, which were designed to prevent injury, bullying and misbehavior, would change behavior if they were eliminated. Some expected chaos to result afterward. Instead, the school is seeing a reduction in injuries, vandalism, and bullying while classroom concentration is rising.

Now, students are permitted to ride skateboards, climb trees, ride scooters, and play “bullrush”; activities formerly prohibited.

School principal Bruce McLachlan reflected on past practices stating “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… The kids [now are] 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.”

Some might believe such a practice to be novel, but it actually is a return to former times before such restrictive rules were imposed.

AUT professor of public health Grant Schofield, a researcher on the project, said there are too many rules in modern playgrounds.

“The great paradox of cotton-woolling children is it’s more dangerous in the long-run.”

Society’s obsession with protecting children ignores the benefits of risk-taking, he said.

According to studies children develop the frontal lobe of their brain when taking risks, meaning they work out consequences. “You can’t teach them that. They have to learn risk on their own terms. It doesn’t develop by watching TV, they have to get out there.”

The research project enlarged when plans to upgrade playgrounds were stopped due to over-zealous safety regulations and costly play equipment.

“There was so many ridiculous health and safety regulations and the kids thought the static structures of playgrounds were boring.”

When researchers elected to give children the freedom to create their own play, many educators were doubtful.

It was expected the children would be more active, but researchers were amazed by all the behavioral pay-offs.

Schofield urged other schools to embrace risk-taking.

How well American schools will accept this concept remains to be seen in an environment dominated by a zero-tolerance mindset of many administrators and teachers along with the protect children from anything “bad” style of mollycoddling. But it seems the occasional bruised knee or scraped elbow might actually be of greater benefit.

Fairfax Media
Photo Credit: Artaxerxes
Darren Smith
The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.

32 thoughts on “NZ School Abandons Playground Rules, Fewer Injuries And Bullying Incidents Result

  1. Wondering how this might work in the ‘urban/inner city’ schools (Chicago Public Schools? St. Louis Public School? Detroit? NYC?) of America?

  2. Could be a Hawthorne effect (any environmental change results in an improvement). Wait to see if change persists. Anecdotes are not science. Requires replication.

  3. “Society’s obsession with protecting children ignores the benefits of risk-taking”

    I’d dare say the above statement is true of about all activities society takes to “protect” children and adults.

    I put the odds of relaxing playground rules in the U.S. and something between zero and 5%.

  4. Sensible & common sense! Its laisez faire! It would work anywhere! As long as the staff are not the bullying kind & if they are they need handling themselves with the Way to Happiness booklet for all (including the kids) & a little weeding out of the clearly suppressive that will not reform.

  5. The problem in this country is that if a child skinned his or her knee, a lawyer would be right there to sue the school board. Children did grow up on their own once upon a time, however, in this litigious and high speed world day dreaming, wandering off for half a day, and general exploring is unfortunately not included.

  6. Well, at least this tells you what needs to be changed in the USA. Life without lawyers? I think we would be better off!

  7. laisez faire would be letting little mary sue sell a little sumpin sumpin to the little boys.
    long as they’re all consenting toddlers.

    what they’re suggesting in this study is to let kids be kids.

  8. The occasional child killed by falling out of a tree was more than compensated by the spirit of adventure developed in the survivors.

  9. A false dichotomy raises its head in some of the comments.

    The proposal is not to completely remove any rules. The proposal is to remove ‘regimented playground rules’ so that:
    Now, students are permitted to ride skateboards, climb trees, ride scooters, and play “bullrush”; activities formerly prohibited.
    I do not think there is a proposal to have a playbround in which thee is absolutely nothing to stop Mary Sue selling ‘services’ or to stop Bobby from beating up others.

    The problem is that if some kid falls and gets a scratch, there would be a multi-zillion lawsuit.
    The problem is the lawyers who would take up such a case.

    The nation as a whole is just like a playground. National and local goverments don’t want to be blamed for terror or criminal acts. “Reasonable” is not an option. “Reasonable” would be picked on by political opponents as weakness, incompetence and endangerment.

    Get rid of the lawyers and kids can play productively.
    Get rid of the politicians and adults can play productively.
    Just have a single-corporation government – as long as its main business is not insurance or law.

  10. I’m not sure this subject can be debated logically on this very American and lawyer based blog. Carolyne is being cynical with her occasional child death from falling from a tree, but if the figures were in the millions for the successful children versus one or two tree falling deaths, the statement would be correct & the figures for the highly regimented children might have ten times the deaths & injuries. A laisez faire society should take on suppressive & criminal behavior. It is not India in its curent state or the Russian mafia running everything. With laisez faire one discounts & decriminalizes restrictive laws that forbid actions that do not harm others. Obviously, with children one also shows them how they can protect themselves from harm or accident, but success will be greater if done in a non-forceful way.

  11. Teachers in the US are overwhelmingly female. When you get a lot of estrogen together they have a problem w/ the testosterone of boys. So, over the past several decades we have a feminization of US education. These regressive playground rules are one example of the war against boys. The fact that boys are falling behind educationally is an even more insidious example of this imbalance. When there is an imbalance, be it male or female, there is never a good outcome. Nature and nurture requires balance.

  12. nick, teachers don’t make the rules; administrators do. And most administrators are men. Boys are falling behind? This is a negative way of looking at it and I don’t think so. Girls are just doing better and doing more with their education.

    When I was in middle school (it was called junior high in those days) I had two or three female classmates tell me that I shouldn’t do so well b/c “boys don’t like smart girls”. I can’t imagine any girl being told that today.

  13. bettykath,
    “Boys are falling behind? This is a negative way of looking at it and I don’t think so. Girls are just doing better and doing more with their education.”

    Unfortunately, it appears it is not a negative view but an accurate one that boys are struggling. The system is not working for boys (though factors beyond the classroom doors may be affecting boys as well).

    “[Michael] Gurian’s book presents statistics that boys get the majority of D’s and F’s in most schools, create 90 percent of the discipline problems, are four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ADHD and be medicated, account for three out of four children diagnosed learning disabilities, become 80 percent of the high school dropouts, and now make up less than 45 percent of the college population.”

    “Children exposed to none/minimal break (30%) were much more likely to be black, to be from families with lower incomes and lower levels of education, to live in large cities, to be from the Northeast or South, and to attend public school, compared with those with recess.”

    None or minimal break was defined as <1 break of 15 minutes/day. Citation: "School Recess and Group Classroom Behavior" Pediatrics. by Dr. Romina Barros, et al. This report analyzes data from 1998-1999, but I cannot imagine the numbers have gotten any better following NCLB.

    "According to the report, 44 percent of the nation’s school administrators have cut significant amounts of time from physical education, arts and recess so that more time could be devoted to reading and mathematics since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001."

  14. “When I was in middle school (it was called junior high in those days) I had two or three female classmates tell me that I shouldn’t do so well b/c “boys don’t like smart girls”. I can’t imagine any girl being told that today.”

    One of my favorite lines from Emma by Jane Austen is by Mr. Knightly:
    “Men of sense, whatever you may choose to say, do not want silly wives!”

    And, in The Arabian Nights, it is only Scheherazade’s intelligence and wit and fantastic storytelling that saves her from a quick demise at the hands of the sultan.

    Those girls hadn’t read good literature, I guess. :)

  15. bettykath, You’re simply wrong on your facts. Most principals in grammar and middle school now are women. But, let me say now, what I have said many times, when men dominate it is bad and often worse. A good example of how balance has GREATLY improved a profession is medicine. I have gone in my lifetime from there being virtually no female docs to where now medical schools are about 50/50. My primary doc is female as are ALL the specialists I see. They have provided the MUCH needed balance the medical profession needed.

    When I taught @ a Catholic K-8 school I was the only male teacher and the only other men ever in the school was the janitor and the priest when he wandered in. The principal was an ex-nun. I REALLY KNOW boys. I coached them for decades. I taught 7th and 8th grade and so I dealt w/ the raging hormone boys. These were good kids, but they were BOYS. They like to rough house, run fast, etc. THEY NEED to blow off those hormones. Most of the women teachers were frightened by this. Thankfully, there were 2 teachers who had sons, and were aware of their needs. When they went over the limit I would check them quickly. But, it was a constant topic of teachers meetings w/ the faint of heart teachers “sharing their concerns.”

  16. Einstein, Edison, and many geniuses, if young boys today, would have had their senses dulled by Ritalin. We are drugging genius boys, and boys who are simply nonconformists, into submission.

  17. “many educators were doubtful”. That’s because many educators are actually quite stupid people, having no original thoughts or intelligence of their own. They’ve been brainwashed into believing the education agenda includes behavior modification, which isn’t true. This is what they’re being taught in their own education.

  18. I liked the part of the article that talked about climbing trees. When I was a kid, one of the schools I attended was a country school. A huge old oak had fallen at the back of the property and all the branches were removed, though the remnants of roots stuck out all over the place. We clamored all over that tree. It was a preferred play spot–better than the swings, merry-go-round, and monkey bars.

    I hope influential teachers and administrators (and parents!) here read the article you cited, Darren, and get schools to return playgrounds and recess to this free play, nearly free range environment. Thanks for the great post!

  19. fyi in nyc WE DON’T have the protected playgrounds given to those in the suburbs @ RWL. our kids are allowed to fall down, to take risks, to ride bikes without helmets, etc, its the over protected kids of the suburbs who suffer the most!!! the first thought in your head was how would this work in the inner city. lmaooo IT ISNT the families in the inner city that are sue happy.. though you would think we would be….. smh

  20. RobinH45: “fyi in nyc WE DON’T have the protected playgrounds given to those in the suburbs @ RWL. our kids are allowed to fall down, to take risks, to ride bikes without helmets, etc”

    When was the last time that you taught and/or even substituted at an inner city, elementary school? The protected playground concept is applied to all elementary schools, nationwide. Remember: this study was conducted at an elementary schools, not the neighborhood surrounding the elementary schools. Hence, some of your ‘ideology’ of inner city/urban elementary schools as never been protected is inaccurate.

    Provide me with research studies or examples, delineating that inner city, elementary schools in America do not have protected playground rules. Riding bikes? What elementary school allows children to ride their bikes (or even taking a risk allowing the school to provide the bikes so that children can ride on)?

    In the 1990s, I used to substitute at several Saint Louis Public Schools (in North and South City), particularly the elementary schools (these schools were ‘easier’ to handle than 6th grade and up). At least 3-4 TAs, Susbstitute teachers-like myself-PE teachers, and/or sometimes the Assistant Principal or Instrcutional Specialist were on the playground with the students. Rules were strict to prevent bullying & fighting, allowing students to take turns on the swings, and trying to get everyone (students) involved in some form of activity during recess (The custodians had to take the basketball rims down monday-friday, after school, to prevent vandalism by the older children in the neighborhood. Some idiots still found it ‘kool’ to spray-paint the childrens’ slides.).

  21. An interesting article/commentary on our educational system:




    “Before Barnard saw schools as a path to fame and eventual fortune, he was a mercantile-oriented state legislator in Rhode Island with no interest in education. And yet before the 1840s would end he had seized the Public School Movement from Mann and had twisted that father of public education’s words into something quite different. In the end Horace Mann became the Geoffrey Canada of the 19th Century. A man who set out to make a real difference, but whose image ended up licensed to people with an entirely different agenda.

    Barnard, like Mann, looked at schools, education, and childhood from ‘way above.’ But his was not the view from heaven of Horace Mann. Rather, his view was from the banker’s office and the factory foreman’s post, and the mine supervisor.

    At first, he sounds a bit like Mann – without the learning. “The primary object in securing the early school attendance of children, is not so much their intellectual culture, as the regulation of the feelings and dispositions, the extirpation of vicious propensities, the pre-occupation of the wildeiness of the young heart with the seeds and germs of moral beauty, and the formation of a lovely and virtuous character by the habitual practice of cleanliness, delicacy, refinement, good temper, gentleness, kindness, justice and truth.” But quickly the purposes behind this desired docility are apparent. “By means of such schools, the defective education of many of the youth of our manufacturing population would be remedied, and their various trades and employments be converted into the most efficient instruments of self-culture.”

    In Barnard’s world education was training, not learning. And in pursuit of this he imports the Prussian Model of education to simulate the assembly-line (recently appearing in the gun factories of his native New England) with age-based grades. He introduces rigid time schedules to schools in order to prepare the students for the emerging shift-work of textile mills. He also pushed to lower teacher pay (through replacing male teachers with women) and status, and to standardize both school buildings and instruction. (Mann had brought a dualism to the “women teacher issue” – “That females are better fitted by nature than males to train and educate young children is a position, which the public mind is fast maturing into an axiom. With economical habits in regard to all school expenditures, it is a material fact, that the services of females can be commanded for half the price usually paid to males. But what is of far higher moment is, that they are endowed by nature with a stronger affection for children; they have quicker sympathies, livelier sensibilities, and more vivid and enduring parental instincts.” – Common School Journal (Boston), vol. 1, no. 6 (March 15, 1839), p. 85 – Barnard would use Mann’s words while emphasizing the savings and ensuring that women never held decision-making positions within the system.)

    Why this matters

    From this beginning with see two fundamentally different ways of viewing the purpose of education, or, perhaps, two and a half. And these visions persist today and explain our current battles over schools.

    Teachers, and most teacher educators, are, as Dr. Becker says, “blindly focused on their classroom and kids.” From Linda Darling-Hammond to Lisa Parisi, Dan McGuire, Patrick Shuler, Punya Mishra, Pam Moran, Dave Britten, Dave Doty, and tens of thousands more, are working with students every day, trying to make the changes we can in the lives and learning of our students. “We” are the William Alcotts of today, the Maria Montessoris of today.

    At the other end are today’s Henry Barnards (or Andrew Carnegies). Those building careers or reputations by making education work for American capitalism. Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Eli Broad – they look down from corporate suites and see that education is not producing the kinds of compliant worker/citizens their businesses need. These are education’s industrialists, with absolutely no sense that a student is different than any other industrially processed part, and no sense that a teacher is any different than any industrial worker. For this group, education is measured as industrial processing is measured, parts (students) which are not successfully processed in any industrial step (grade) are re-processed (retained), and unions for the line workers (teachers) interfere with cost structure.

    These two groups cannot conceivably understand each other because they simply do not see the same thing when they look at “school.”

    That half step – Horace Mann or Geoffrey Canada or Cory Booker or African-American leaders who sign-on with the industrialists – are the missionaries. Their heavenly view, however well meaning, plays into the industrialists hands, giving moral cover to brutal capitalism.

    And brutal it is. We cannot really understand why American schools use age-based grades and standardized tests, and why two-thirds of students do badly – consistently – unless we understand why Barnard and his successors built the system they did. Because the system they built endures, operating, as Cubberley noted, “factories in which raw products, children, are to be shaped and formed into finished products,” and discarding “defective” raw materials along the way.”

  22. I forgot to add the last part of this interesting article:

    “Schools should be factories in which raw products, children, are to be shaped and formed into finished products. . . manufactured like nails, and the specifications for manufacturing will come from government and industry.” – Elwood Cubberley’s dissertation 1905, Teachers College, Columbia University

    “We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” – Woodrow Wilson

    IMHO, our educational system is designed to ‘steer’ 50% of our students away from attending college, and into manual labor and/or low-paying occupations (i.e. cashier at Walmart, cook at McDonalds, clerk at the service station, etc.).

    After all, according to the Elites-who run this world-(sarcasm), we can’t have everyone becoming a lawyer, doctor, engineer, scientist, CEO of Apple, etc……..

  23. […] Old school playgrounds from our childhood are also awesome—kids can climb forever high on jungle gyms, ride merry-go-rounds at whip-fast speeds, clamber up “spider” webs, and slide down steep metal slides that burn bright on hot sunny days. . .all above hard asphalt surfaces. Sure, they risk the occasional broken bone, but it turns out risk is good for kids, and fewer rules and limits can counterintuitively mean fewer injuries. […]

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