Throwing out the rule book

Abolish regulations about children’s play at school, says Grant Schofield of New Zealand's Auckland University of Technology. They’ll get more exercise, and sort out the details for themselves.

Kids running in the playgroundThere has been global debate about the need for children to be more active, especially in the developed world. I was one of the leaders of Play, a joint project between the University of Otago Dunedin School of Medicine and my own AUT Human Potential Centre,  funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand, which took a research-based approach to this issue.

Our original plan was to make adaptations to school play environments. These included building new playground equipment, adding line markings to asphalt courts, and increasing the amount of sports equipment available in schools. Understandably, the first choice of all the schools involved was to make major additions to their playground structures.

"One school, where bullying and behavioural issues were a concern, made the decision to abandon all school rules."

The barriers to this style of intervention were as follows:

Cost: The cost of building playground structures in New Zealand meant that the amount of playground equipment purchased would be minimal, which in turn meant that it was likely to be inconsequential in the effect it would have on play behaviour.

Health and Safety: The laws regulating the safety of playground equipment in NZ schools, while not as stringent as in the UK and US, meant that most of the funding would need to be directed towards ensuring the safety of the equipment, for example on safety matting and on meeting height restrictions.

Boredom: It quickly became apparent to the research team that by implementing traditional static structures, we were promoting a lack of risk and adventure, and removing the option for students to play and explore on their own terms.

With the help of a playground specialist, we investigated alternatives that were not only cheaper, but also fun and child-focused. By simply abandoning some existing playground rules and encouraging - or at least not discouraging - risk and adventurous play, we realised some major advantages in school play environments for very little cost.

While the uptake by schools varied, each school relaxed rules and adapted its existing play policy to some degree. These changes included relaxing rules around tree climbing, allowing bikes and scooters at interval and lunchtime, and opening up previously out of bounds areas within the playground. Some schools used their funding to install smaller, but usually more exciting, pieces of equipment that encouraged fast, spinning movement.

The research component spanned a 24-month period and monitored aspects such as children’s height and weight, physical activity, and bullying at the school. These data are currently under analysis, but some important pointers have already emerged.

Rule 1: There are no rules

All the schools adapted their rules to varying degrees. But Swanson School, where bullying and behavioural issues were a concern, made the decision to abandon all school rules. This has attracted media attention on a global scale, going viral on international social media networks. Swanson is a lower decile primary school in West Auckland, NZ, with students aged 5 to 13 years. The principal, Bruce McLaughlin, was open to the idea of rethinking the importance of play in children's lives, allowing his students to play on their own terms.  Obviously, there are still actual society-wide laws in place – no crime, purposeful hurting or fighting. But the usual ‘don't run here’, ‘no ball areas’ and ‘no wheels’ rules are all gone.

Not surprisingly, students at Swanson School have demonstrated an ability to monitor their own behaviour and that of their fellow students. The removal of traditional rules has in itself constituted a new set of values within the playground environment. Staff members at Swanson are reporting a reduction in bullying, less time spent in time-out, and better classroom behaviour, across all school years.

Doing it for the kids 

Setting up the projects in schools was easier than anticipated, and doesn’t cost much. Our research also revealed overwhelming public support for this type of approach, including among the majority of parents. Schools don't need to bow to the vocal minority – if parents don't want their kids climbing trees, they can tell them not to. Free-range parenting requires some effort – mostly by parents adopting a more permissive attitude. This is not negligent parenting - we are talking about kids’ long-term health and safety.

For the future? I think we need to take the increasing public support for allowing children to roam, play and engage in ‘normal’ human behaviours by the scruff of the neck. We need to use this support as a social marketing policy for physical activity. We have been preaching the boring old ‘60 minutes a day of moderate-intensity physical activity’ for years. It clearly has not had the desired effect. Just let our kids play.

Grant Schofield is professor of public health and director of the Human Potential Centre, Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand.

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