Schoolyards are getting as regulated as the U.S. economy. A Colorado school, like many others, recently banned the game of “tag.” When kids run away from each other, they may trip, fall, and hurt themselves. A New York school banned kids from using balls during recess, but not during sports events, because “unstructured play with hardballs” is dangerous, school leaders said.
While U.S. schools respond to the minority of lawsuit-happy parents by restricting everyone else’s freedom and fun, other countries are deregulating recess and finding it improves school climate and kids’ character. Here are five reasons they’ve found for relaxing the recess rules.
1. Less bullying. You wouldn’t know it from the media frenzy, but school bullying actually has seen a steep decline. Several New Zealand schools found removing recess rules eliminated bullying almost entirely. A university experiment conducted in conjunction with the recess changes found active play kept kids so busy they stayed out of trouble. Eventually, Swanson Primary School in Auckland was able to eliminate its timeout corner and reduce the number of grown-ups on playground patrol.
2. More exercise. How sensible is it for nanny-statists to complain about how fat kids are these days while axing one of the main ways kids can burn off energy and calories? Not sensible at all. No extra government programs are needed to revive this built-in, natural exercise program for kids. If little kids aren’t able to run around and scream for fun, something’s wrong.
3. Kids learn how to handle risk. If adults handled transportation the way schools regulate playgrounds, cars would be outlawed. Parents may not like to acknowledge this, but there is no way to eliminate danger from this world. As Hanna Rosin recently wrote in The Atlantic Monthly, despite a huge increase in kid cocooning, the number of playground injuries and deaths per capita has hardly budged. A better way to handle danger is to let kids gradually learn to manage it on their own. “If too many controls are placed on play, there is less learning,” Swanson Principal Bruce McLachlan told School Reform News. “It is better for a boy to test himself at eight, up a tree or on a scooter, than behind the wheel of a car at 18.”
4. Kids learn creativity. The United States has long been a nation of inventors, tinkerers, and re-mixers, but you wouldn’t think so to look at our playgrounds, even though 58 percent of Americans think schools should foster kids’ creativity, according to a 2013 Gallup/PKD poll. Rosin tells of a play area in Wales called The Land, where kids start and dowse fires, roll tires around, build and reconfigure forts with discarded wood, and slosh through a pond. In a 2010 book, Anthony Esolen designates raising kids indoors as one of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. Sanitized playgrounds, with no re-mixable parts and with rubber floors instead of dirt, essentially extend the indoors. To exercise their imaginations, kids need tools and freedom.
5. Fostering confident self-governance. The United States is designed to be a self-governing republic. That means little citizens need to learn how to govern themselves before they become eligible to vote. What better way than to develop this capacity organically, through play? As the New Zealand researchers found, when kids are given freedom within very basic rules, such as “do whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt other people,” they learn to regulate themselves. That’s a good lesson for kids and for society at large.
Kids’ lives are regulated enough. We can afford to give them a few minutes of freedom on the playground each day.