Children thrive when they are set free from rules

28 January, 2014

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 have never seen one news article spread so fast- people from every walk of life were sharing this study on social media. Why were people so excited by it?20140128-141709.jpg

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.)

Trust them
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. 

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  • Leslie Kendall Dye 28 January, 2014 at 5:41 am

    We seem to be floating on the same wavelength these days! I just posted about this on my blog today. My values as a ballet dancer and my values as a parent of a two-year-old came into a mighty war today and I learned just what a hands-off parent I really am! Discipline comes from within and is nurtured in an accepting and fairly passive environment, I think.

    Thanks for the post, I loved reading it!

  • Leslie Kendall Dye 28 January, 2014 at 6:04 am

    Also, in regard to your post about hiding evil books a while back, I er, hid all of “Super Nanny’s” new books at Barnes and Noble the other day. If I get arrested, you’re to blame! 🙂

  • ThaliaKR 28 January, 2014 at 9:14 am

    I applaud your idea of sharing the article with schools etc.

    When I brought up the topic on my fb page today, one teacher commented drily ‘Sure, children can play. Right after they have finished ticking all the boxes I’ve been asked to have ticked.’ There are definitely systemic problems here.

    Also, did you see this? Hmm, did you share this and that’s how *I* saw it!?

  • Katie 28 January, 2014 at 10:15 am

    Reading this I’m now wondering if my 3 years olds complete disregard for rules is because there are too many rules. Really interesting!

  • Timpop 28 January, 2014 at 12:39 pm

    Living the idea of idle Saturdays with other parents and kids. Bring that on!

  • Julie 28 January, 2014 at 4:18 pm

    good article but nothing new, the playwork industry in the uk have been saying the same thing for years and years! there are numerous books written here in the UK supporting the same idea. just search for playwork

  • Josie 28 January, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    I agree wholehertedly. There’s far too much control of children, too many attempts to get them to bend to how we as ‘adults’ feel they should behave. They are far less savage than we’ve been led to believe without rules as this clearly shows.

  • Juggling 28 January, 2014 at 7:54 pm

    I can relate to the comment about children being very happy on a communal week away with friends. We do this every summer and the children now form their own group and we hardly see them, even when we go on walks “together” My son, though one of the youngest, has been remarkably independent in this situation from quite an early age.
    I think variety is good in parenting – we live in a cul-de-sac and this has meant I’ve been happy for them to play out and make their own community with children in the road, but they also have some structured activities such as band and karate, and have enjoyed semi-structured things too such as Guides and Beavers. I don’t altogether agree with the commonly heard idea that kids need to be bored – I think I was a bit too bored in the 70s !

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  • 8 February, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    What a fantastic post. I try not to impose rules on my two children, or to stop them doing things with other children that adults might find ‘socially unacceptable’ (eg screaming ‘poo-poo’ at the top of their voices at the dinner table!). I think it’s important for children to learn to be social with each other, and to set their own peer guidelines of behaviour. I do explain to them that not all grown-ups like to hear that kind of talk, though (especially when Granny & Grandad are visiting!) 🙂

  • Prairie Girl 29 October, 2014 at 5:23 am

    Truth! 🙂

    I am an avid practitioner of “watching with my ears”. Thank you for giving it a name for me! Few things frustrate me more than parents who won’t just let their children “be” while they are playing.

    We realized not long ago, that the reason our yard is often full of neighbourhood kids is likely a combination of what you speak of above and that we essentially provide “The Land” (“The Overprotected Kid” from The Atlantic article this past April) but with less fire.

  • April B 18 April, 2017 at 3:06 am

    I have an honest question – does this just pertain to outside and friend play? I just can’t imagine how my kids would react to no rules. My kids wouldn’t brush their teeth, eat a healthy breakfast, go to school, limit screen time, clean their room, and so on. I am very interested in this topic, but I’m curious how to limit or eliminate rules while still making sure kids make right choices.

    • Lucy 18 April, 2017 at 10:17 am

      Hi there
      I think it is important for adults to assess what is “essential” and what can be flexible. It looks different in every home.
      It absolutely belongs inside the home, not just out. I truly believe than when we support and trust our child we see them making awesome decisions. And sometimes bad ones – but they learn through those even more than the good ones!

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