Everyone’s favorite five-letter word: R-U-L-E-S

There was an online article that caught my eye the other day. It was about a school in New Zealand who had abandoned their playground rules as part of a study. What they found was that the children bullied less, got hurt less and were able to concentrate in the classroom more. I was astounded, as I think was the expected reaction for the article.

In some ways, this flies in the face of conventional behavior management strategies. When a program comes to me wanting to know how to handle behavior in their classroom, my first questions are about the guidelines they have in place: are the guidelines posted, or are the children supposed to “know” what they are; how many are there; how are they phrased—is it “no running” or “walking feet”; were the children involved in creating them and are the guidelines referenced when inappropriate behavior takes place? All of these go into making sure the children are aware of the expectations that you have for the classroom.

Can you spot the guidelines in this photo? What similar methods do you use in your classroom?

Can you spot the guidelines in this photo? What similar methods do you use in your classroom?

But, typically my next questions are around what is taking place before, during and after the behavior issues. A lot of times it can be narrowed down to ineffective transitions—when the children have to wait for a long time, such as during the group’s restroom break, or when activities end without notice. I suggest providing things for the children to do during those long waiting periods, like I Spy, Simon Says or fingerplays, and letting them know beforehand when activities will end. In the words of the principal of the New Zealand school, “In my experience, the time children get into trouble is when they are not busy, motivated and engaged.” That is what their recess without rules is providing: the opportunity for the children to be busy, motivated and engaged.

In those ways, I can’t say I’m terribly shocked. They are meeting the children’s need for unstructured play. The children get the privilege (and unfortunately it does seem like a privilege anymore rather than a guarantee) to use their imagination. The children are able to problem-solve independently using their critical-thinking and decision-making skills. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s working.

I’m still torn, though. I have trouble making the leap to fully unstructured play, to no guidelines whatsoever. I would hesitate to implement something like this if I had my own program. I think back to when I worked in a park’s day camp and I had to explain to the children why I told them not to climb trees during a thunderstorm. It didn’t bother me that they were climbing trees during nice weather (which is one of the things the children at the New Zealand school are now able to do), so where do we draw the line? At what point does “unstructured” become truly unsafe? I don’t know the answer. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.