Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Freedom Comes to the Schoolyard

A school principal in Auckland, New Zealand had the temerity to suspend the rules. There were so many of them that they were stifling the children. He decided to stop coddling children during recess, and to try what we may call a more libertarian approach.

He reasoned it out:

He knew children might get hurt, and that was exactly the point — perhaps if they were freed from the “cotton-wool” in which their 21st century parents had them swaddled, his students may develop some resilience, use their imaginations, solve problems on their own.

Schoolyard play had become overregulated. Perhaps the fault lay with overprotective parents. Perhaps it lay with the idea that regulation is the ultimate prophylactic. But, when the rules were relaxed, when teachers did not have to spend most of play time scolding children for breaking them, good things ensued.

Fewer children were getting hurt on the playground. Students focused better in class. There was also less bullying, less tattling. Incidents of vandalism had dropped off….

The students weren’t hurting themselves — in fact, they were so busy and physically active at recess that they returned to the classroom ready to learn. They came back vibrant and motivated, not agitated or annoyed.

Let’s see: we have national hand-wringing campaigns against bullying in schools. We want to institute more and more regulations to put an end to it. And yet, the solution might lie in free play periods.

The moral of the story is that children are naturally and instinctively inclined to engage in organized play activities. They are also inclined to take risks, to push the boundaries and to learn from experience.

This means that the Lord of the Flies is not reality.

When children’s play is overregulated and overly controlled, it brings out their worst. In that case children understand that they are expected to misbehave. So they do. They do not want to disappoint anyone’s expectations.

Moreover, when too many restrictions are imposed, children learn how to play the new game: let’s see what we can get away with.

Can the Auckland experiment work elsewhere? Can it happen in the good old USA?

One difference is striking. New Zealand does not have a litigious culture. People are not inclined to solve all problems by filing lawsuits.

I suspect that New Zealand does not have an enormous educational bureaucracy. America does.  In America, all the bureaucrats must keep busy doing something that appears to justify their salaries. What could be better than issuing reams of new rules and regulations designed to protect children from harm?

(My thanks to Lastango for alerting me to this story.)


Anonymous said...

Amazing story, thank you. It really shifts the view on these issues about children bullying and vandalizing. What if these transgressions were their ways of expressing their freedom? What if they became not just ways to get attention, but ways of saying "You're not the boss of me!"

I must confess a fear that we're going to see a huge backlash, a rebellion of young people on a scale we've never seen before... worse than the 1960s. All these "zero tolerance" policies and over-programmed after-school activities are idiot's delight. It's not for the good of the students, it's for the convenience of hyper-vigilant, I'm-busy-doing-something-else adults. School now doubles as a public works program for adults and daycare for dual-income families.

We've got freeway billboards all over the place telling us either to go spend one's life savings to attend ___ college, or gamble at a casino to win prizes, or sue someone to "fight back." Every Tom, Dick and Harry two-bit attorney is telling you to strike back at all the injustice. America is run by lawyers' whims, whether accident tort lawyers or regulatory bureaucrats. Man is serving law rather than law serving man. We've got this ObamaCare monstrosity that's changing every American's relationship to the health system. Yet only one group is exempted wholesale: lawyers. There's no tort reform whatsoever, which is the one issue ALL medical professionals can agree is in dire need of action.

The straightjacket of rampant legalism and it's attendant regulatory leviathan is paralyzing our institutions and, in this case, even spoiling playground recess.


Charles A Pennison said...

I Googled “let children take risks,” and found a lot of quality articles discussing this topic. A similar article to the one quoted in your blog post is titled “Kids need the adventure of ‘risky’ play” published in The Guardian in 2008. The conclusions are almost identical to the New Zealand story.
In my childhood (50’s and 60’s), my parents seldom complained about the skinned knees that I frequently suffered, but were upset about having to patch my pants way too often. Playground wounds were considered normal and expected.
My grandfather worked for Southern Pacific railroad in south Louisiana. He was responsible for opening and closing a railroad bridge for barge traffic, and the bridge was about three-quarters of a mile long. My dad never told me to stay off the bridge. But when I was about 10, he took me to the middle of the bridge, and showed me how to save my life, if I found myself there with an approaching train. I wonder how many urban parents would ever do such a thing as that.
I was lucky to be raised by parents who were raised in the countryside, and learned to survive a ‘risky’ childhood. They expected no less from their children. If nothing else, it helps develop common sense.

Anonymous said...

I have fond memories of the extremely physical and by today's standards violent games of capture the flag, keep-away, smear the queer and the prisoner game, that took place before school and during recess at my various elementary schools. It created an environment of focused, well-behaved boys.