Should kids be encouraged to 'play rough' at school?


Photo: Getty

I like to think I'm not a ‘helicopter’, ‘paranoid’, ‘cotton wool’ or whatever is the latest insulting label is for a modern day parent.  My generation stands accused of a lot of things but the latest is for smothering kids up in bubble wrap and taking away their freedom, independence and the lessons that come with testing their limits.

I accept this assessment so unquestioningly that I boast about letting my kids walk to school, hang at the local mall and roam the local bushland alone. I vow I’m so free range that if my local school banned handstands I’d be up there joining the kids for an upside down disobedience display faster than it takes to do a cartwheel. 

Yet I have to admit I do flinch when my kids are somersaulting into pools, screaming down a steep hill on their bike or getting wiped out in the surf. I yell out ‘CAREFUL!!!’ at least every few minutes when they are being particularly boisterous.  I try not to - I really do - but it’s as if the fact that they’ve come from my body means their hurts are my own.  I often wince as I put Band-Aids on bloody knees and hearing them scream in pain actually hurts my heart.

But what happens when you do fight that often-involuntary urge to be zealous?


Recently a childcare centre sent out this video about schools in New Zealand that have bought back rough play. The schools encourage the tackling game Bull Rush, mud sliding, tree climbing, stick play and tricks on scooter and skateboard ramps.  

It’s fabulous to see kids so robust, noisy and delightfully filthy, free and feral.  I recognise the look in their eyes from my own children when they screech past me on a skateboard – a grimace/grin that combines terror, exhilaration and rapture.  Since this old-fashioned playground fun was re-introduced in NZ, even the teachers have been surprised at the changes in the children. Not only do the kids seem happier, there’s less bullying, vandalism and serious injuries. There’s also been an increase in concentration.  It’s been well worth the cost of stain removers and Band-Aids.

The schools signed up to the deregulation of playtime as part of a study by Auckland University of Technology and the University of Otago. Professor of Public Health Grant Schofield said it wasn’t just about fun and play but long-term development. He told NZ media "The great paradox of cotton-wooling children is it's more dangerous in the long-run."

Risk-taking is a vital part of growing up. Children develop the frontal lobe ability to work out consequences by doing, not watching. They also develop competence and confidence.  Too much regulation and not enough play actually stunts their brains. 

I’m forever grateful that my children go to the local school that still has play equipment.  The closest school ripped it all out years ago and replaced it with astro turf. My daughter is thrilled to be about to go on excursion with abseiling, swimming, canoeing and rock climbing.  Meanwhile her friends at the other school can’t even stay overnight on their democracy tour to Canberra.  It’s clear some schools have decided parents won’t accept risk to their children and have robbed them of such rites of passage.

Frank Furedi is an academic author who goes beyond the ‘helicopter parenting’ label.  In his book Paranoid Parenting he warned that rules, limits and mistrust contribute to an escalating climate of fear; a ‘continual quest for safety just means we discover new risks and make adults and young people more insecure and anxious.'

And while parents seem to value competitive organised sport over active mucking around, part of the fierce battle for edge over others, I say let’s not just blame parents.  Schools are increasingly crowded and there’s little room for free play. I can understand schools banning hard balls when it’s standing room only on the court.  Planning in my area is so appalling we are building hundreds of new units when the school is already bulging at the seams. And while I have at times joined in the whinge about litigious parents ruining it for the rest of us, I’m yet to meet one. Besides, it seems suing schools for broken arms is not as easy as it used to be.

It’s nerve racking to let your child go. To let them face risk.  To know when to hover and when to trust.  We all have our limits and they are unique.

I wouldn’t want my son playing supervised Rugby League, yet I let him play cricket out on the road while I’m inside.  Our kids are also unique. My daughter loves Bull Rush; my son hates it and  I remember detesting it.

We need to encourage individual risk taking, not push less physical kids into games they dislike.  We helicopters are working on becoming gliders that tow our kids to the heights and then cut the rope to let them soar.  Help us to not help them.