What happens when kids are in a playground with no rules?

After class is done, many of the parents at my daughter’s school will happily stay behind and let their children enjoy the playground. An easy decision, really. Let the kids burn off some energy while we catch up with friends, delaying the inevitable chaos that will result when we return home.

It’s a bit of a free-for-all with some kids playing out of sight on the field, some running helter skelter, all manner of ball games being enjoyed, and still others finding new ways to use the outdated park equipment for maximum danger potential.

Now imagine what would happen if it was like this everyday? You may have already read about a school in New Zealand doing just that as it received lots of press in the paper and was all over social media. The reason for all the attention was likely due to the surprising statistics: this unmonitored, no-rules recess approach proved not only to reduce bullying but, shockingly, there were significantly fewer injuries. (Check out this recent follow-up with the principal on how things are going.)

Let’s take it one step further. Consider the popularity of Wales’ junkyard playground, The Land. Here, kids play in mud and fire pits, enjoy rolling tires down a hill and through a creek, and sit in broken furniture. And they love it. Parents rarely enter The Land — it’s loosely supervised by “playworkers” — yet kids as young as 5-years-old happily play there, in this “unsafe” place that boasts few injuries beyond a few bruises and scrapes.

Could this approach thrive in North America? I’ll be the first to say that in principle I say yes to all of it. Yes, kids need a place to learn to test boundaries, to run and be free, and explore. Yes, we need to get out of their way and let them develop their courage, strength, and independence. Yes, we parents know how tough kids can be, and that sometimes learning their lessons the hard way is the best way for messages to sink into their stubborn minds.

But on the other side, I admit to being on the parent committee that’s trying to raise money to build a new school playground. I’ve bothered friends, harangued relatives, and even annoyed strangers just to make sure it’s up to date and has all new equipment. We’ve all sold our benefactors the party line: it will be safer.

Will it be better? To us parents, certainly, but when I asked my kid what she’d want the school to build, her answer spoke volumes: “What’s wrong with the playground now, Mommy?”

I could tell her about our plans for monkey bars without rust, wider slides, and softer surfaces (not wood chips) but she wouldn’t understand. This is the same place she’s played since junior kindergarten, the place where some of her friends have fallen and hurt themselves, and come right back to play when they were better. This is the scene of so many of the milestones I’ve watched her make, and to her the school is safe just the way it is right now.

I wouldn’t take away her fearlessness for the world; unfortunately it’s not that easy to erase my own.

Would I send her to The Land? I’m not sure I could. But oh, I really want to.

Would you send your kids? How do you feel about unsupervised recess with no limits? We’d like to hear what you’re thinking. Tweet or Facebook us, or leave a comment below.

2 responses to “What happens when kids are in a playground with no rules?

  1. I have to agree, simply because I am more of a hands-on learner myself, and learn better from actually doing something, or from firsthand experiences. For example, if an adult told me, “the stove is very hot, and if you touch it, then you will get burned,” I might have thought they were just trying to hinder my independence. But if I actually did touch the hot stove, and I got burned, then I would have understood why the adult said not to touch it.

  2. Absolutely I agree that the more a playground appeals to a child’s imagination, rather than a safety code, the better it is. Taken to the extreme, have a look at this park in Paris – didn’t seem safe, but the local kids got around it like mountain goats! http://www.landezine.com/index.php/2011/01/playground-in-belleville-park-by-base-landscape-architecture/ .
    A safer but no less fabulous alternative is this in St Kilda, Australia: http://www.melbourneplaygrounds.com.au/melbourneplaygrounds-info.php?id=19564 . Given some thought we can always do better than a slide, some swings and a climbing wall!!

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