A piece of academic research ignited our collective imaginations this week. The study, carried out in New Zealand, revealed that several primary schools abandoned their playground rules to great success, with one head teacher vowing never to return to rules. Instead of descending into mayhem the children simply got on with playing, and they were happier and calmer and better behaved throughout the rest of their school day.
I think it is because it confirms what we all want to believe- children are much more capable than we give them credit for and they blossom when they are given freedom.
Many of the people who posted it shared that it reflected their own childhoods. It seems as if the “Seen and Not Heard” of adult-child interactions had benefits for children – kids were expected to get out of the way and therefore were granted a lot of autonomy, gathering in small tribes away from the adults.
In recent years, as parenting has become a lot more hands on, children are spending much more time under the gaze of loving adults. And, perhaps with the disintegration of community life, there is less opportunity for children to gather together for child-only play. And it seems, in order to help children along adults have inputted more and more guidelines for safe, healthy play.
I think this study has made people reconsider all of this. If children are truly thriving without rules, organising themselves and quelling bullying behaviour, let’s encourage more of this. Let’s allow this study to impact our everyday interactions with children. Let’s aim for more freedom and more autonomy for kids.
Here are a few suggestions:
Assess your rules
Do you have a lot of rules in your household? What are they, do you need them? Can you strip them back to the things that you really value? We have one general principle; No harming people or things.* All other stuff is up for negotiation and on the spot responding.
There are many, many families who have no rules and find their children act responsibly and with respect when given this freedom. Some families opt for conversation, rather than rules.
“Children who live surrounded by rules, instead of learning about principles, end up becoming adept at getting around rules, finding the loopholes in rules, disguising non-compliance, or deflecting blame for non-compliance (i.e. lying about what they did). These are the skills that they then bring into adult life.” ~ Robyn Coburn
* We don’t discipline around this though. If Ramona pushes or hits while I am around I will get down on her level and say “I’m not going to let you hit Joseph” and I immediately distract so there isn’t another opportunity to do it and then later on, when we are both calm we have a talk about how she was feeling, what went on and how we might respond another time she gets frustrated.
Give them space
Give your kids as much space away from adults as possible. The happiest I’ve ever seen Ramona is over the course of a week that we spend once a year with all our friends and their children camping in a big field. The adults laze around eating and we hardly see the kids at all. The 15 of them just look after each other.
Can you find ways to create this kind of environment for your children? Talk to other parents and begin “Idle Saturdays” in a park where the kids begin to look after each other as a little tribe. (The more the merrier, for happiness I think. And it may take a few days of this to really see the benefits.)
An overwhelmingly loud theme from this study is TRUST. We can trust even small children to make good decisions – especially so when guided by other slightly older kids. It is entirely possible that if children make bad decisions it is BECAUSE of our mistrust and our lack of empowerment! If a child is used to being guided and helped they will learn to not trust their instinct and abilities. If left to it they will discover, learn and upskill all by themselves. They will learn how to negotiate sharing a toy with a peer because they REALLY WANT TO PLAY WITH THE TOY, and if we constantly get involved with our pleas to share, honey, SHARE, they won’t discover the tricky, essential art of negotiating with other equally eager children. If we jump on them every time they try and pour themselves a drink they will never believe they are able to have a drink of juice without spilling it… so they keep on spilling it.
Trust children. It is better for them and easier for you.
Watch with your ears
We saw a beautiful and empowering way of interacting with children whilst visiting the Forest Kindergarten in the Black Forest. They had a phrase “Watch with your ears” which meant that the adults rarely got involved in children’s activities and debates, instead they were present as busy bystanders – listening out for any signs of crisis that might need help. The workers there found that when an adult is close by kids act differently- they are less likely to work things out with each other and less likely to overcome a challenge.
Can you step back a little? Spend less time hovering and more time watching with your ears? Give your children and their friends more time and space to organise themselves.
Share the study
Would you consider sending the news article to your child’s school or kindergarten? Although they might not go the whole hog they might consider granting more autonomy to the children in their classrooms and playground.
You might have guessed that I think autonomy and self-direciton is absolutely crucial for a child’s happiness and a family’s well being! Here are 23 Ways to Nurture Autonomy in our children.