Lifting Recess Rules Reduces Bullying, New Zealand Study Finds

Published March 21, 2014

By reducing recess rules and expanding students’ playtime, Swanson School in Auckland, New Zealand has seen less bullying and more classroom concentration.

The school joined an Auckland University study originally meant to see whether better playground equipment reduced obesity and bullying by causing an increase in physical exertion. The study changed course dramatically after revamping the equipment proved too expensive, said Grant Schofield, a study coauthor and professor at the university.

“Walk around a modern schoolyard, and there is quite a lot of supervision from teachers,” Schofield said in an interview. “Swanson had about six teachers on duty for lunchtime, and most of their interaction with the kids was very negative.”

Over-Regulated Playground
“When we started looking at our playground, it struck me that it was very regulated,” said Principal Bruce McLachlan. “There were a number of rules which had been established by teachers over a long period of time, most of which were based on the need to take care of the children and not let them get hurt.”

Without announcing anything to the children or their parents, supervisors began removing rules, one at a time. Basically, unless an action hurt someone or damaged their property, it became fair game.

“The change was evolutionary rather than revolutionary,” McLachlan said. “We essentially stopped saying no. “

After several weeks, classroom achievement went up, and bullying ceased almost entirely, Schofield said. Kids spent their time skateboarding, climbing trees, playing with dirt, and investigating the “loose parts pit,” which includes discarded wood, tires, and an old fire hose. The school jettisoned its timeout corner and reduced the number of teachers who had to monitor recess.

Anti-Bullying Measure
“[Students] have realized that if they stop playing in order to get a teacher to mediate, they are going to miss out on valuable play time.… Better to compromise and carry on,” McLachlan said. “When you look at our playground, it can look chaotic and, at times, messy. From an adult’s perspective it looks like kids might get hurt, but they don’t. What they are doing is managing their own risk, rather than relying on adults or a modified physical environment to manage the risk for them.”

Other benefits include better problem-solving, independent development, and risk management skills, McLachlan said. The final study results will be released this year.

Researchers measured the level of bullying before and after the changes, interviewing students, parents, and teachers. That is not a “perfect measure,” but it provides an adequate picture, Schofield said.

In the United States, one in five students reported being bullied on school property in 2011, the latest statistics available, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fear of Lawsuits
McLachlan says one reason this system works well in New Zealand is freedom from national regulations on schools and protection from lawsuits.

New Zealand’s government insurance program pays for the medical costs of injuries, which means fewer lawsuits, McLachlan said. For a similar approach to work in U.S. schools, they would probably have to get all parents to sign a waiver, said Michael Gurian, founder of the Gurian Institute.

“The instinct of professionals is to let kids work it out, but they don’t want litigation,” Gurian said. “We would need a change in the relationship between our system and our school system,” Gurian said.

Teaching Self-Discipline
In areas with much violence, such as inner cities, reducing rules may not be wise, he said, but overall the Institute’s data indicates giving kids more freedom and playtime has myriad positive results.

“We create a lot of discipline problems by over-coding our kids’ behavior,” Gurian said. “By stepping in, these kids can’t develop self-mastery and self-discipline.”

The prevalence of lawsuits shows many U.S. parents are looking only at the risks of certain activities, not the potential benefits, he said.

“If too many controls are placed on play, there is less learning,” McLachlan said. “It is better for a boy to test himself at [age] eight, up a tree or on a scooter, than behind the wheel of a car at 18.”

Image by Phalinn Ooi.