Picture a school playground without rules. One where kids freely climb trees and where risk and adventure are encouraged. Where no area is out of bounds and children are left largely unsupervised. Surely conflict and bedlam would prevail. Or maybe not, as one Auckland Primary School has discovered.
Bruce McLachlan, the Principal of Swanson Primary School abolished the playground rulebook as part of a successful university study, with incredible results. “We’ve noticed a drop in bullying, a drop in conflict amongst the kids and a drop in serious accidents in the playground,” McLachlan explains.
Swanson Primary signed up to the study by Auckland University of Technology (AUT) and Otago University two years ago, with the aim of encouraging active play and reducing obesity. Eight New Zealand schools were involved in the study. Some schools relaxed the rules in the playground; but Swanson Primary took the experiment a few steps further by abandoning the rules entirely.
The ban on traditional health and safety playground rules allows the students the freedom to climb trees, ride bikes and skateboards, and play in a “loose parts pit” which contains pieces of wood, tyres, pipes, a hose and other bits of junk.
AUT professor of public health Grant Schofield, who worked on the research project, says too many rules in modern playgrounds overlook the benefits of risk taking.
“Some exposure to risk is good for children,” Schofield says, explaining that children develop their brain’s frontal lobe when they are taking risks and given the freedom to calculate consequences. "The great paradox of cotton-woolling children is it's more dangerous in the long-run," he says. “Anticipating risk helps children watch out for themselves better.”
The original aim of the study was to encourage kids to be more active, which the researchers hoped to achieve by building new structures in the playground. However safety regulations and cost quashed these plans. Furthermore, student focus groups revealed a lack of intereste in these playgrounds. “The kids thought the static structures in playgrounds were boring,” explains Schofield. “We moved away from the original intention of the study and developed it more in line with risk play, based around their own terms.”
The 500 students at Swanson Primary quickly embraced the new arrangement, although the staff took a little longer to adjust. “They predicted anarchy in the playground but the direct opposite is the case,” McLachlan admits. Worrying that kids might get hurt is a logical concern, he adds, but in fact playground injuries decreased. “Teachers realised that the kids weren’t getting hurt because they weren’t setting out to get hurt. They were taking incremental, calculated risks.”
McLachlan concedes it was a leap of faith. “We essentially turned a blind eye and left them to their own devices,” he says. In addition, by allowing them to dictate their preferred style of play, the children’s imaginations exploded. “Adults are best to stay right out of children’s play because as soon as adults become involved in children’s play they inevitably modify it.”
McLachlan says one of the most exciting developments was seeing the kids engage in activities they had not expected. “We created a wilderness area in a place that was previously out of bounds, simply by not mowing and letting the grass grow long and shaggy,” he says. The children then built makeshift huts using bits and pieces from the loose parts pit and let their imaginations run wild. “It was purely child-led. It was fantastic to see.”
The reality is kids are better off in play doing what they want to do, on their terms, says McLachlan. “They are learning in an environment that is not structured by adults and the learning is much more intensive.” The students are so engaged in rich, free-range play, the school no longer needs a time-out room, or as many teachers doing playground patrol because it’s simply not necessary.
And the benefits extend beyond the playground. Teachers have reported higher concentration levels and engagement in the classroom. “The children have had a break in a different sense and they’re more motivated to learn,” McLachlan explains. “They’ve been busy doing things they wanted to do as opposed to what we wanted them to do.”
It was expected the children would be more active, but the behavioural results have surprised researchers, teachers and parents. “It’s been a major result,” says Schofield, adding that the final results of the study will be collated this year.
The experiment may be over but McLachlan says Swanson Primary has no intention of reinstating playground rules. “There is no way we could go back from this,” he says. “The kids are having so much fun and are so motivated to learn that teachers, parents and students don’t want anything to change.”
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