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No Rules on the Playground? Good.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of research on play and its vital part in child development. As I work with our design team to plan our school’s natural playground, and as I watch our students play outside during recess, I’ve developed some pretty strong opinions about how rules (or the lack thereof) can influence the quality of play we allow kids to experience.

Rules stop kids from making their own rules.

When kids free play, they often choose to develop their own games—which means they make their own rules. This could include the boundaries and “safe zones” for a game of tag, or the number of times an invisible blaster gun may be fired at a robot monster before reloading is required, or how close you can get to someone during an acorn-throwing battle. These are often the only rules that kids need in order to self-govern during play, and we do them a disservice if we assume they can’t play well unless adults intervene with rules of our own.

If well-meaning adults aren’t careful, we can create a world where adults supply rules and then kids practice as much anarchy as possible within those rules. This encourages students to look at rules as arbitrary boundaries. Instead, we should encourage the type of play environment in which kids will naturally create their own rules. Usually all this takes is quelling our understandable impulse to control, prevent, and fix—there are times where kids need that from us, but play really isn’t one of them.

They will disagree with each other. There will be a kid who refuses to comply to the group’s rules. There will be a small sub-group of kids who develop alternative rules they insist on implementing. These are all sticky situations that in most cases can be resolved amongst kids with zero adult intervention. It might mean Jimmy and Bobby aren’t friends for a recess or two, and it might turn into a weeks-long ideological war between two groups of kids; neither of these are bad things. This is how kids learn low-stakes conflict resolution and negotiation. This is the proving ground where they develop empathy and the ability to compromise. This is also where cruel, contrary, or spiteful impulses are pointed out (and hopefully stamped out) by peers rather than by teachers.

Organized sports are another example of adults imposing rules on children—and I would argue that the moment adults are calling the shots, what the kids are doing can no longer be considered real play. This is why signing kids up for youth soccer is not a viable replacement for free, unstructured play, though organized sports certainly have their benefits.

Rules prevent risk management.

Can I hit the snooze button again and still make it to work on time? Should I drive through the intersection even though the signal has been yellow for a few seconds? When people consider taking a particular action by identifying and weighing potential outcomes, we call that risk management. This is a skill that adults use constantly, but it’s one that we start developing long before we grow up.

Well, we develop it before we grow up if we’re given the opportunity. Adults are increasingly depriving students of this key part of development by taking the possibility of risk out of play. When the stakes are low, taking risks has benefits that far outweigh potential consequences. That’s why allowing risk management on the playground is such an important opportunity to give students the time and space they need to explore their abilities and limits.

Some kids are fearless, and need to push their personal boundaries in order to learn through failure what they can and can’t handle. Some kids are fearful, and need to push their personal boundaries in order to build confidence and discover that they are stronger, faster, or more able than they thought. Taking risks and pushing boundaries is the healthy way for both types of children to learn, even though they have opposite attitudes toward play.

Developing new skills (like balancing on a beam, jumping from tree stump to tree stump, or climbing a tree) can take time, and sometimes requires failure. This might mean scrapes, bruises, and even sprained ligaments or broken bones–but kids’ bodies are very resilient, and this is how they learn what their bodies are capable of and how far they can reasonably push themselves. This skill continues to pay dividends as their bodies mature, and their risk management begins to translate to mental and emotional assessments in addition to physical ones.

How can they have these experiences if we limit opportunities for risky play through stringent rules?

Rules lead to injury.

Did you know that there are more injuries on the newer, “safer” play equipment at schools and parks than there were on the old metal stuff we used to play on? I think there are a few reasons. For one thing, challenging play equipment makes kids healthier and stronger, which makes them more resilient when they fall (which they inevitably will, no matter how safe we make their playgrounds). Strenuous aerobic activity causes more oxygen to move through the blood stream and contributes to better bone density, which makes bone breaks less likely. It also helps kids build muscle mass in the right places—stabilizing the tendons in their knees and ankles, and developing fast-twitch muscles that allow for better reflexive responses and corrective movement when they lose their balance.

The rules we use to restrict kids often prevent them from the very activities that would most aid their physical development. This applies to playground construction, but also to rules we make about climbing on top of the monkey bars, scaling the walls of the playscape, and jumping off of swings. It is no wonder, then, that overweight, brittle-boned, muscle-less children are injuring themselves far more frequently despite the “safe” environment we have created for them to play in—the rules we impose ultimately make the kids less safe from injury.

Interestingly, far more children are also injured while participating in organized sports than in play accidents. This seems to further indicate that where someone else is regulating the activity, kids are less likely to learn key self-awareness that can develop coordination and strength while simultaneously preventing injury.

Rules invite boredom.

Many playground rules are knee-jerk responses to a particular child’s creativity. This is how we end up with schools with regulations against running on woodchips, or playing on wet grass, or bouncing balls higher than your waist. These rules were clearly made by a well-meaning administrator after seeing a child get injured, or perhaps only after imagining the potential injuries such behavior might cause. This attitude toward play can result in extreme over-regulation, which in turn makes kids feel like they aren’t allowed to play at all.

In today’s playground design world, playscapes are described in terms of the number of pathways they offer. This counts the various ways a child can enter and exit the structure. Many schools limit the number of pathways unnecessarily by making rules against their students’ more creative innovations. How many schools don’t allow kids to climb up the slide? In the name of crowd control or safety, we limit options and discourage creativity. Heavily regulated playgrounds make for bored kids—they know what would be fun, but it’s the very thing they aren’t allowed to do. While we would love to be able to prevent all possible injuries or mishaps on the playground, allowing that to be the primary motivation in playground design and rulemaking implies that we would rather kids play not at all if they can’t play risk-free.

Unfortunately, schools with this tendency get what they ask for. Kids sit around the playground equipment but don’t play, and ask teachers when they can go back inside. In the name of safety, rules stunt kids’ natural creativity and curiosity and start them on the path of boredom and disengagement.

Rules: where should adults draw the line?

Obviously, some degree of control in the play environment is necessary, and rules have their place. Many outdoor play specialists have found, however, that two or three general blanket rules serve kids much better than a laundry list of regulations. Try telling kids that they must respect each other and respect their environment, and then working with them on understanding what those rules mean practically. This keeps you from micro-managing their play with specifics, but also leaves room for conversations about how rough is too rough, how high is too high, and how far is too far.

When it comes to rules for play, remember that it’s usually the adults that need more regulating, not the kids. Let’s give the students freedom to fall and fail when the stakes are low, trusting that a little more danger in play will help them learn to navigate more serious danger in other situations.


Want to read more about natural playgrounds and the importance of free play? These three books are a great place to start:

Last Child In the Woods, by Richard Louv

Balanced and Barefoot, Angela J. Hanscom

Leave No Child Inside, An Orion Reader

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