School returns to good-old-days

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A primary school has chosen to throw away the rulebook. Students in the playground can climb trees, ride skateboards and play in the unregulated junk pile. And it has had an amazing effect.

Swanson Primary School in Auckland was one of only eight schools to sign up for a study by the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) and Otago University just over two years ago. The aim of the research was to encourage active play, however, the researchers had a difficult time finding schools which were prepared to take on the risky study.

The study didn’t aim to revolutionise playtime. It simply wanted school playgrounds to return to a time before health and safety policies began to rule day-to-day life. Swanson Primary School took the study one step further, by removing the rules completely. Principal Bruce McLachlan has said that, although there are now no rules imposed by adults, the children have become self-regulating. The school has seen a drop in bullying, serious injuries and vandalism, and concentration levels in classes are on the rise. “We want kids to be safe and to look after them, but we end up wrapping them in cotton wool when … they should be able to fall over … When you look at our playground it looks chaotic. From an adult’s perspective, it looks like kids might get hurt, but they don’t.”

When Principal McLachlan initially proposed an end to the rules, a number of the teachers were, in his words, horrified. But the school has since found that tree climbing, mud slides, skateboarding and unlimited access to a big junk pile keeps the students so occupied that the school no longer needs a time-out area, and fewer teachers need to patrol during the break.

One of the ideas behind the study is that risk-taking behaviour is an important part of developing a child’s frontal lobe. It helps them to work out the consequences of their actions. “The great paradox of cotton-woolling children is that it’s more dangerous in the long-run,” said Principal McLachlan. “They have to learn risk on their own terms. It doesn’t develop by watching TV; they have to get out there.”

The researchers were expecting students to become more active, but the behavioural improvements experienced by the school have reportedly ‘amazed’ scientists.

Read more about the study at the TVNZ website

Opinion: It’s a no-brainer

Should we really be surprised by the outcome of this study? On the one hand, it’s very simple. The school is letting children be children. Playtime looks like it used to before rules and regulations began to stifle creativity and fun. But on the other hand, it must have taken a very brave school to challenge those regulations and say to its parents, teachers and insurance company that the rules were being thrown out.

These rules and regulations have developed in a relatively short space of time, and I’m a little sad that it will take far more than this one case study to turn modern thinking around. It just seems so obvious – of course children are better behaved when their minds and bodies are kept active and interested. Bullying, vandalism and acting out in class can often stem from deep-seated boredom. If you don’t let children push the boundaries in healthy, creative ways then of course they will look for other ways to take risks and try new things.

This study made me think of a family I met during my time as a scout leader. The young boy, we’ll call him James, had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) at about eight years of age. His parents, especially his mother, were naturally very protective and prone to worry. But these two parents, when faced with medicating their child, decided to take a different approach. They threw out the modern parenting books, acknowledged that their son had ten times more energy than most kids, and chose instead to provide him with so many outlets that, by the end of the day, he was able to control his impulses. Their backyard became a jungle-gym, they took him skateboarding and bought him a dog which needed a lot of exercise every day. And, as his scout leader, I could see the difference. Children with ADHD often have an underlying air of frustration and anger. James was full of energy, but he was one of the happiest children with whom I’ve ever had the privilege of working.

It really is a no-brainer. Children need to be given the opportunity to be children, not moulded into tiny, neurotic adults.

What do you think? Would we be better off without all the red tape? Is it our responsibility to ensure that children are never hurt, or should we let them fall down, if only so they can learn how to get back up again?


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