No-rules play policy sees decreased student confrontations

No-rules play policy sees decreased student confrontations

(New Zealand) As policy-makers and school administrators grapple with how best to enforce school site discipline, a principal at small primary school outside Auckland has ordered a ‘no rules’ policy on the playground, apparently resulting in an immediate decrease in incidents of bullying, vandalism and injuries.

“The kids were motivated, busy and engaged,” Bruce McLachlan, principal at Swanson School, said in interviews last month with a number of local reporters. “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.”

The idea was sparked by the school’s participation in a university study aimed at encouraging active play. Taking the step of eliminating playground rules was not taken lightly and caused some anxiety among the staff.

At first it was just a matter of giving kids more freedom to engage in free play or to climb trees – something almost universally outlawed during school time. As the project progressed, the school leaders decided to get rid of all rules.

To support the free-wheeling attitude, a mud slide was built as well as a “loose parts pit” which was filled with small pieces of car tires and hoses.

That was two years ago.

“When you look at our playground, it looks chaotic,” McLachlan told Austrian Advertiser. “From an adult’s perspective, it looks like kids might get hurt, but they don’t.”

An added benefit was that teachers reported the students returned to the classroom more focused and ready to learn.

Professor of public health Grant Schofield at the Auckland University of Technology, and Otago University, which worked the study, said that when children are taking risks they are also developing the brain’s frontal lobe, where consequences are evaluated.

“You can't teach them that,” Schofield told the New Zealand Independent. “They have to learn risk on their own terms. It doesn't develop by watching TV; they have to get out there.”

The study included four schools in the Auckland area and all reported similar findings.

McLachlan said the experiment convinced him to make the free play policy permanent.

“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,” he said.

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