Bold Grammar School Principal Throws Out All Playground Rules, With Surprising Results

  • Rick Chandler

OK, I have the conch, so everyone has to listen.

In an era of adults dressing their children in bubble wrap and banning everything remotely fun, a bold grammar school principal in New Zealand has taken the extraordinary step of banning all playground rules. Yep: when kids head out of the classroom to play during recess and lunchtime at Swanson School in Auckland, there are in effect no rules regulating their behavior.

Want to climb a tree? Be our guest. Sift through that construction rubble and play with the concrete chunks? Go ahead. You can make giant slingshots and launch your classmates, you can play with broken glass. Kids can bug other kids with impunity, and use real bugs.

Well, I’m sure they didn’t ditch all the rules. The National Post story doesn’t mention it, but I can’t believe that recess is just like “The Purge”. Example: see that kid riding in the tire in the photo above? If there had been no rules on the playground at my grammar school, that tire would be on fire, and heading toward the freeway.

I guess that New Zealand kids are more naturally well-behaved.

But even so, what’s happened at this particular school so far may surprise you. The National Post:

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.

It’s a zero-tolerance policy for rules.

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?

It’s recess: let’s take a look at what the Swanson kids are doing now:

Holy shit.

Concrete blocks, a long metal tube aimed at the school and smaller chunks of debris that fit inside? I see no way this can end badly.

But the school insists the new approach is working.

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.

And the theory is that when kids are left to their own devices, allowed to make mistakes and discover on their own what’s harmful and what isn’t, that they will make good choices. It’s a direct repudiation of the nanny state. It may not work in the highly litigious climate that you would find in North America, but at least this school is proving that a looser, alternative approach has a place in the discussion.

Of course it’s all fun and games until the kids start making spears and hunting pigs. And who let the signal fire go out?