A few years back, I had heard about an elementary school in New Zealand that dropped recess rules, resulting in fascinating results.

Here’s an excerpt about this school from an article in the Independent, a British online newspaper which appeared on January 28th, 2014: 

Principal Bruce McLachlan (Swanson Primary School in Auckland, New Zealand) did away with the standard playtime rules as part of a university study conducted by Auckland University of Technology and Otago University looking at ways to encourage active play among children.
The study, which ended last year, found pupils were so occupied with the activities that the school did not need its timeout area anymore, or as many teachers patrolling the playground. Teachers also reported higher concentration levels from their students in the classroom.
Mr. McLachlan said: “The kids were motivated, busy and engaged. In my experience, the time children get into trouble is when they are not busy, motivated and engaged. It’s during that time they bully other kids, graffiti or wreck things around the school.”
“When you look at our playground it looks chaotic. From an adult’s perspective, it looks like kids might get hurt, but they don’t.”
“We want kids to be safe and to look after them, but we end up wrapping them in cotton wool when in fact they should be able to fall over.”
AUT professor of public health Grant Schofield, who worked on the team leading the study, said children develop their brain’s frontal lobe when they are taking risks, which allows them to calculate consequences. “You can’t teach them that”, Mr Schofield said. “They have to learn risk on their own terms. It doesn’t develop by watching TV, they have to get out there.”

Other area schools have since then conducted similar experiments and all report similar findings which include:

  • A decline in bullying
  • A decline in serious injuries
  • A decline in vandalism
  • A rise in student engagement

In contrast, Tim Elmore compares the outcomes of this study to what he sees in our country, in his latest Growing Leader’s Blog:

(Quoting Tim Elmore) Consider the world adults have made for students today:

  • Parents are on top of them all the time to make the grade, make the team, and make the bed – all because we want them to reach their potential.
  • Schools create more rules and policies – usually because we want to avoid litigation from parents who believe we’ve failed to nurture them.
  • Coaches work to prevent any negative situation from happening to maintain the students’ self-esteem and safety – often leaving them to actively avoid taking risks.
  • Retailers remove risky scenarios like dangerous playground equipment, toys or devices because we want to avoid all injuries and mishaps.

He goes on to say that all of these steps make sense and are well intended. But, consider for a moment the unintended consequences of this type of leadership:

  • Students depend on whatever rules are in place to regulate their safety rather than thinking for themselves.
  • Students are mere followers of the adults, failing to mature into young adults who can self-regulate, which often results in the “victim” mindset.
  • Students ultimately fail to “own” their time, talent and energy because they’re not in charge of it.  They need someone else to manage them.

I have been conducting my own mini-experiment. 

(NOTE: Many of my readers know that my grandkids attend Veritas Academy, A University-Model™ School, where I also work. They attend school part of the week and spend part of the week learning and doing school work at home.  I am privileged to teach a group of them in my home each Tuesday.)
I also have dropped recess rules. Instead I send them outdoors on breaks with little instruction. They do however know my expectations – that they will govern themselves wisely and solve any issues amongst themselves. Joey, the oldest, is charged with the mandate to maintain group unity and fairness.

The results?

  • They love creating group games that they continue to perfect through trial and error.
  • They have far less conflict amongst themselves. When they do, they are expected to resolve it themselves. If they attempt to bring an issue to me, I simply close the door and tell them they are welcome to come in once the issue is resolved. And it always is.
  • They come in energized, content and ready to work.
  • They are more mindful of how to work together to create a flourishing learning environment indoors.
  • Joey is growing in leadership skills.

I have also dropped most indoor class time rules as well. 

The one actual school rule that remains in place is the Golden Rule – “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I have replaced the others with goals and guiding principles. 
More and more, I am stepping out of the way and allowing my grandkids to govern themselves. We begin the day with prayer as we review expectations and individual character goals. For one child, it may be gaining a teachable spirit while for another it may be the willingness to try before asking for help on a difficult problem.  Goals seem to be far more motivating than rules. Then I go about the day doing my part, giving instruction as needed, and paying attention to what is going well. The kids have become quite efficient and I find the days to be very enjoyable.

I wonder why the reduction of rules results in such positive outcomes, but my guess is that it has to do with challenge. 

We take away challenge when we overly control kids.  We take away challenge when we remove all struggle and risk. Without struggle, challenge and even risk, life becomes passive – and boring. And bored kids are prone to get into trouble. God created us with a need to grow – to stretch ourselves and when we have nothing to stretch ourselves towards, to fight for, we are more apt to fight each other.