Posted: Feb 03, 2014 11:00 AM
 
One year ago, Swanson Primary School in New Zealand decided to eliminate recess rules as part of a research study. The results are in, and Americans should take note. Bullying decreased and classroom concentration increased. Free play, as it turns out, makes for a better school environment.

An elementary school in New Zealand is making headlines because they decided to get rid of rules at recess. Yes, you read that correctly. Swanson Primary School said no to rules at recess as part of a research study, and the results are eye-opening. As a result of the changes made on the playground, administrators saw a decrease in the rates of bullying, vandalism and injures, and an increase in classroom concentration. Bottom line:  When you let kids play on their own terms, they are better for it.

These kids are getting dirty, climbing branches and tapping into their imaginations, and they are performing better in the classroom and experiencing improved peer relationships as a result.

The playground at Swanson Primary School might look a little chaotic from the outside, but the children are busy and engaged during recess. They climb trees, ride skateboards and play bullrush. They create mudslides and play in a "loose parts pit," which contains wood, junk and an old fire hose. These kids are getting dirty, climbing branches and tapping into their imaginations, and they are performing better in the classroom and experiencing improved peer relationships as a result.

That, right there, is the power of play.

Fancy playgrounds with impeccable equipment are nice, and often times a lot of fun, but kids need the freedom to engage in self-directed play. Many public schools in the U.S. have seen a significant decrease in recess time in recent years, and many have added increased structure to the mix. In an effort to increase physical activity for children, some schools are adding mandatory exercise programs, at the expense of free play. And we can't forget about the overprotective parenting factor. Kids are bubble wrapped these days. While I am in favor of supervising children at play, parents can do that while allowing their children to engage in healthy risk taking. It doesn't have to be either-or.

Swanson Primary School is sticking with their no rules for recess policy, and for good reason. Uninhibited free play helps kids thrive.

The only question is, will America follow their lead? It's not likely, but it should be considered.

Uninhibited free play helps kids thrive.

Risk is good

How often do you hear people talking about chasing dreams, and working through difficult times only to come out on top? Sometimes people take risks because they want to (quitting a stable job to start a small business, for example), other times people are forced into it. Life isn't always easy, and we have to learn to weigh the risks and benefits before proceeding. That's what we tell adults, anyway.

On the playground, we sing a different tune. We stop our children from reaching for the high monkey bars because they are too young, too small or just "not ready." We wait as long as humanly possible to remove those training wheels. We hover and watch and constantly assess what our children are capable of doing at any given age instead of letting them learn about risk taking.

Kids should be encouraged to engage in healthy risk taking. They might fall, and they might even break a bone at some point, but they will also learn a lot along the way.

Better peer relationships

When kids have the opportunity to play with other kids without rules, restrictions and directions, they learn to make their own rules. They invent new games that require assigning roles and working out a plot line. They find ways to include others and work through difficult things like taking turns. They solve problems independently. They have to, after all. If they don't, the play comes to an end.

Kids learn to work together, make compromises and listen to one another.

The very essence of free play among groups is that all group members need to be happy for the play to continue. If any group members are not satisfied, they can quit the game and put an end to the fun. Kids learn to work together, make compromises and listen to one another. That improves overall social interaction skills, which helps in the classroom and just about everywhere else.

Learning thrives

little boy sitting at school deskChildren learn by doing. You can drill them and test them and pound them with worksheets from 10 years ago, but they learn more when they are engaged in an activity. The imagination is an incredible tool, but it needs maintenance. When children are deprived of play, their imaginations dwindle.

Given the chance to play, imagine and use their own two hands to learn, children thrive in the classroom. They learn to think outside the box and approach problem-solving with confidence. They are active, engaged and curious.

I suspect that no rules at recess would scare most safety conscious Americans, but I think it's time to take a cue from our friends in New Zealand and let kids play.

More on the benefits of play

The power of play
Teaching independence through play
Expand imaginations with make believe-play

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