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

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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?

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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. 

 

11 comments

  • I remember the delight I felt when we enrolled our son into a new school and the children were hanging out of trees, riding billy arts down an embankment and jumping on trampolines. 12 years later he is a confident mature boy who is learning to balance a financially secure life with taking some risks and having an adventure. There is more to school than an ATAR!

    Commenter
    Netta
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    February 04, 2014, 8:18AM
    • Isn't childhood about skinned knees, broken arms and the occasional bleeding nose?

      As the article states, its through the act of burning oneself by touching the flame that we learn not to do that again.

      Now obviously games like bull rush can be dangerous if it is taken too far but in the majority its just a bit of harmless fun. I think if appropriately supervised there's no harm in a bit of rough housing.

      When I hear about schools banning handstands and cartwheels I wonder what kind of world it is we live in where kids can't even enjoy these most simple of pleasures.

      As far as I'm concerned any time spent running around is better than an hour in front of the idiot box or playing video games. When I was a kid we had one thing to play with it was called "outside" and my parents didn't want us in the house until the sun was coming down.

      Commenter
      Adrian
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 04, 2014, 8:46AM
      • I do wonder to what extent sheer laziness on the part of school administrations comes into play. That is, rather than assess problematic scenarios on a case-by-case basis, and use good judgement, it is far simpler on their part to implement a single, unqestionable rule.

        Then even in cases where the rule actually does more harm than good, they can sit back and confidently profess that at least the same rule exists for everyone.

        Commenter
        Markus
        Location
        Canberra
        Date and time
        February 04, 2014, 2:32PM
    • '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'

      That's the amazing thing about such parents, they don't even have to exist. As part of the escalating climate of fear Mr Furedi refers to, all it takes is the potential for such a parent to exist for a school, or even an entire education department, to implement new regulations and restrictions across the board.

      Commenter
      Markus
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      February 04, 2014, 10:47AM
      • No.... I think you do blame the parents... in the most part.

        But also the lawyers and the insurance companies and the politicians and the paranoid, and over bearing local councils.

        All of these have contributed to such a risk-averse, 'someone must be blamed' culture, that we rob our children of some of the greatest educational experiences they can have. Mostly, though, it's parents that have made the demands.

        There has been an explosion in the number of single-child families... and the much older age of many parents. Those two factors seem to combine to create a lack of adventure and an aversion to risk that far outweighs reality.

        It's no surprise that it's a pragmatic country like NZ that has tried to break the bubble of protection around our kids. Just look at the other fantastic activities that you can do over there that are way too risky for us pathetic Australians.

        Sadly, I suspect any push to bring back personal responsibility will be howled down by the paranoid masses. After all, you have to have someone to sue when you scrape your knee, don't you?

        Commenter
        Oz
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        February 04, 2014, 11:30AM
        • There would be a lot of factors at play - but if you look at the ABS data child mortality in Australia has halved over the last 20 years or so. Perhaps the reduction of risk has also had positive aspects.

          Commenter
          Some Guy
          Date and time
          February 04, 2014, 11:55AM
          • You could conclude that, or, just as likely if not more so, improved healthcare and injury treatment.

            Commenter
            Public Joe
            Date and time
            February 04, 2014, 1:16PM
        • My son has just moved up to high school from a primary school that forbade almost all physical touching. Even 'tip' had to be played by using just the tip of a finger. I feel very sad when I think not only of all the missed opportunities for learning and growth. It made me appreciate even more the years he spent in pre-school and early primary overseas where there were no such restrictions and plenty of opportunity for physical play of every kind, both in school and on the frequent excursions and camps.

          Commenter
          azimski
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          February 04, 2014, 12:08PM
          • I would love to send my kids to school like this, they would learn so much and how to live life to the fullest. When are we going to learn the we cause more harm than good by wrapping our kids in cotton wool.

            Commenter
            finley64
            Location
            Canberra
            Date and time
            February 04, 2014, 12:29PM
            • I'm curious why the author wouldn't her son play rugby league. My mother was anti-contact sports, among various other things, but rugby was one of the few sports I was good at. If your son is a physical kid who is pretty robust and doesn't mind a few bumps it may be something he gets a lot of joy from.

              Commenter
              rl
              Location
              sydney
              Date and time
              February 04, 2014, 3:13PM

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