AUCKLAND, New Zealand — It was a meeting Principal Bruce McLachlan awaited with dread.
One of the 500 students at Swanson School in a northwest borough of Auckland had just broken his arm on the playground, and surely the boy’s parent, who had requested this face-to-face chat with its headmaster, was out for blood.
It had been mere months since the gregarious principal threw out the rulebook on the playground of concrete and mud, dotted with tall trees and hidden corners; just weeks since he had stopped reprimanding students who whipped around on their scooters or wielded sticks in play sword fights.
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.
The parent sat down, stone-faced, across from the principal.
“‘My son broke his arm in the playground, and I just want to make sure…” he began.
“And I’m thinking ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen?'” Mr. McLachlan recalled, sitting in his “fishbowl” of an office one hot Friday afternoon last month.
The parent continued: “I just wanted to make sure you don’t change this play environment, because kids break their arms.”
Mr. McLachlan took the unexpected vote of confidence as a further sign that his educational-play experiment was working: 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.
And now the principal’s unconventional approach has made waves around the world, with school administrators and parents as far away as the United States and the United Kingdom asking how they, too, can abandon a rulebook designed to assuage fears about school safety in a seemingly dangerous time. It’s an attractive idea for some Western educators who’ve recently extolled the virtues of reintroducing risk into children’s lives. But can such an about-face take shape in a world in which rules act as armor against lawsuits, at a time in which recess gets cancelled altogether in the interest of keeping children safe?
Journalists in Britain have contrasted Swanson School’s no-rules model to a recently announced crackdown in the U.K. Education secretary Michael Gove introduced “tough but proportionate” penalties for poorly behaved students, which includes such 1950s throwbacks as writing out lines on the blackboard and scrubbing away graffiti.
But free play didn’t always reign at Swanson School, Mr. McLachlan said. There used to be “understandings,” or unwritten rules about what was forbidden on the playground. “Kids weren’t allowed to ride these scooters on the playground, they weren’t allowed to climb trees and they weren’t allowed to do those things because they could hurt themselves,” Mr. McLachlan said.
“I’ve been the principal who’s stood there and said ‘Oy, kid! Get off your bike! You’ve got to walk your bike!’ Then I’d go away and think ‘Why the hell did I say that?’”
He didn’t start asking “why” until he became part of a playground and risk study by Auckland University researcher Grant Schofield and his research manager, Julia McPhee, three years ago. The researchers gave 16 schools a grant of $15,000 to build their vision of a playground that would reintroduce risk and help encourage physical activity in children.
“It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would actually abandon all school rules,” Prof. Schofield said.
Mr. McLachlan built a few play structures, but they were dismantled as part of a larger building project (he claims they’ll be resurrected somehow once the project is done). As the debris sat cordoned off with caution tape in the middle of the schoolyard, he noticed students ducking underneath, grabbing chunks of wood and metal and building their own toys.
While the caretaker and some teachers worried, Mr. McLachlan was energized to see them building makeshift seasaws and dismantling them once they got bored.
About a year ago, Mr. McLachlan quietly informed his staff that they would all just stop saying “No” when they saw a child climbing a tree or a fence, or walking toward an area that used to be “out of bounds” and no longer was. There would be no big announcement, just a silent backing away.
While many parents seemed to be on board with the new approach — the school is, after all, known for its more alternative approach — teachers were a harder sell.
“I told them, ‘If this child gets seriously hurt, I’m the one that gets blamed,'” he said. “Some of them said ‘right.'”
But the results spoke for themselves, he said. 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.
“They also weren’t telling tales on each other or going ‘So and so did this to me,’ which is what teachers deal with during recess time,” he said. “There was none of that — these kids have been totally focused on what they wanted to do.”
While he spoke, Mr. McLachlan interrupted himself to point out the window.
“There’s a kid up in the tree there,” he said, gesturing toward a seven-year-old girl in her blue uniform with striped stockings, about six feet above the concrete ground. “You’re not going to see that in every playground in New Zealand.”
You’d be more likely to find a neon-vested on-duty teacher telling her to climb down. “She could break her arm,” he said. “But she might not.”
Within five minutes, the girl was gone — a friend came by to lure her to a different playtime distraction.
Children don’t hurt themselves because they’re testing their boundaries, Mr. McLachlan said. They don’t set out to recklessly self-injure, though it may happen in the process of finding their footing.
So many of the rules, he said, are “ridiculous,” and designed to soothe adults. That said, there are still limitations to the two, 40-minute long free play breaks each day.
“Of course a child is not allowed to kill another child,” Mr. McLachlan said. “One of the rules I said facetiously is kids aren’t allowed to hurt other people. But in fact they are. … If you hurt somebody in a game where you are playing hard, or a boxing match or a stone-throwing competition, for me it’s absolutely fine — as long as the other person was willing to get hurt.”
I’ve been the principal who’s stood there and said ‘Oy, kid! Get off your bike! You’ve got to walk your bike!’ Then I’d go away and think ‘Why the hell did I say that?’
Perhaps most surprising of all is the radio silence from New Zealand’s school administrators who had to have been living under a rock on the Pacific island to avoid news stories about the experiment.
“The Ministry of Education in New Zealand or somebody should be able to come into the school and point out to the trustees what an idiot this principal is,” Mr. McLachlan said. But no one has. In fact, the support has been overwhelming, he said, musing that people must be tired of the “politically correct” attempts to shield children from danger.
Kiwi parents are much less likely to sue a school if a child is injured anyway, he said, partly because a litigious culture just doesn’t exist and also because New Zealanders’ health care is fully paid for by the state if they’re victims of an accident.
But even by New Zealand’s standards, the approach is a bold one that may not be easily copied elsewhere.
“I don’t think people realize quite the degree that Bruce is actually putting himself out there every day,” Prof. Schofield said of the colourful school principal.
It’s easy to imagine how that dreaded parent meeting might’ve gone, should the child with the broken arm have been a student in North America.
“Maybe at another school that parent would turn up and say ‘Look, this is a disgrace, you’ve got to stop, my poor son’s hurt,'” Prof. Schofield said.
“Maybe,” for Swanson School, anyway, he said, “the stars lined up.”
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