“Kids only get in trouble when they’re bored,” an educator from an elementary school in Auckland, New Zealand says, and kids don’t have time to be bored when they are fully engaged.
“Engagement” and “engaged” are two words we hear a lot in U.S. education reform and practice. But what do they really mean? Whose version of the words do we intend when we use them?
I’m jumping back into the blog after months of wiggling my way into a new research site that is in a community where most kids of all ages have the run of the neighborhood. They run through backyards, crawl in ditches, shoot hoops in the road, jump fences, chase the occasional chicken, run from and with dogs, play soccer in the red clay dirt, and swing as high as they can so their jump off will be more exciting.
The kids in this neighborhood don’t need plastic or wood playgrounds, their whole neighborhood is their playscape, and their imaginations are wide and impressive. Old picnic tables become stages where songs and dances are performed, which may be an activity that “educators” can find some value in. But what about jumping from swings sailing way above our heads?
A research study is underway in New Zealand that challenges the assumptions that guide so many of the “rules” governing children’s and youth’s playtime at schools. Four schools agreed to abandon their rules for the playground and the initial findings are simultaneously fascinating and predictable.
Watch a news report and read an article here about the research and its impact on one school.
Is it possible that adults’ rules create harsher social conditions for kids?
Is it possible that adults’ rules create barriers to full physical and cognitive engagement?
Is it possible that adults’ rules restrict kids’ creativity, imagination, motivation, and – dare I say it – “engagement”?
Sitting outside in the community where I am doing work, I watch a four-year-old boy climb to the top of the wood-and-plastic playground apparatus and I predict that he will slide down the cylinder-shaped slide.
But he doesn’t. And I can see how one adult expectation of how the playground equipment is “supposed” to be used could restrict play – and therefore development. Come to think of it, how fun is it really to continuously, day in and day out, climb up the steps in the same way and slide down the slide in the same way? Even a four-year-old masters the expected use of the playground equipment and boredom starts to set in.
Instead of sliding down, he struggles to pull himself up on top of the cylinder shaped slide, grunting and pushing his small arms to their limit until he manages to get one foot in place and finally the other.
Standing on top of the cylinder slide, arms stretched out to his sides, this young boy has achieved something. He is standing on top of the world looking out over the playground, the swings, the picnic tables, the tree trunk seats, and even the one-story homes that surround the playground.
I have to admit that my heart skipped a beat and I’m pretty sure my eyes tripled in size and my mouth fell open. Yes, I am questioning and challenging the ways adults restrict children’s bodies (and therefore minds), but I am not immune to the assumptions circulating in a society that is saturated with “safety” mindedness and rules. What if he gets hurt? Should I intervene and stop him? Should I talk to the kids and create a rule about not jumping off the top of the playground equipment?
He lands, hard, and jumps up laughing and smiling and runs to the other side of the playground.
He struggled to make his body do something new, do something he didn’t know for sure he was capable of doing but confident enough to give it a try, and he did it. It wasn’t pretty or graceful or effortless, but it was evidence of motivation, perseverance, risk-taking toward the outer range of ability (determined by him), and success.
Is this not what educators wish children and youth would consistently do?
Being engaged in something isn’t just going through the motions of what was already planned ahead of time. For this young boy, continuing to climb up the steps and slide down the same slide in the same fashion day in and day out and well beyond the time within which he has mastered the activity does not produce “engagement.” When he is faced with having mastered the expected use of the equipment, he makes decisions about whether to abandon the equipment altogether or innovate a use of the equipment that will be more challenging (cognitively and physically – though I don’t see those as separate). Indeed, he figures out a way to challenge himself without the help of well-intended adults who may create a new activity for him that isn’t appropriately engaging. Part of the attraction and motivation of this new task that he has decided to take on may, in fact, be the unpredictability of it, the fact that the outcome isn’t already determined and every step between the beginning and ending laid out in a predictable fashion. He has to depend on himself and his creative use of the materials available to him, not someone else’s plan.
The Auckland school hasn’t entirely abandoned all rules for the playground, but the rules they do create are created in conversation with kids as issues arise. To too many adults such an approach is way too inefficient. Isn’t it easier to just have the rules ahead of time, teach the rules to kids, and then have adults around to surveil the kids and ensure rules are followed?
My response would be that efficiency in the eyes of adults is not equal to a commitment to the development and growth of children and youth. Educators are not supposed to be aiming for efficiency, but for something much more complex and beautiful: the cultivation of young people who are comfortable in their own bodies, confident enough to take risks, imaginative enough to grow beyond themselves, and content with who they are.
This young boy’s accomplishment was met with his own laughter and smiles and running off to continue his journey of mastering new things. He didn’t look to adults or peers for approval, and I’m pretty sure that powerful feeling that so many of us have had throughout our lives of “I can do that” planted a seed of certainty in him that wouldn’t have been possible had there been rules about not jumping off the playground equipment.
My witnessing his work/play also planted a seed of certainty in me that offers a little more comfort in standing back and letting children play in the ways that make them feel good by pushing themselves physically and cognitively. The Auckland school has found that “no rules” on the playground has resulted in a significant decrease in bullying behavior, a significant decrease in kids being in “trouble,” and a significant decrease in the need for adults to be supervising the playground.
“No rules” actually seems like it could be an “efficient” way to rid playgrounds of unbearable taunting and bad behavior.
Perhaps efficiency and engagement could find a way to live among one another after all.
**Thanks to JT for passing along the no rules article and to the Browns for inspiring me to jump back in after a long hiatus from blogging.