An Auckland elementary school recently abandoned its recess rules, following the suggestion of a university study that included no one who’d ever read Lord of the Flies.

Fortunately for Swanson Primary School, everything went as planned: bullying, injuries and vandalism are disappearing. These New Zealand kids now spend recesses skateboarding and ascending trees, as well as enjoying “mudslides” and “bullrush, ” which I presume are either tag games or the kids set up a cocktail bar behind the merry-go-round (which they could, since there are no rules).

On Facebook, where the story’s been shared several thousand times, Swanson itself isn’t the focus of the issue. You too are likely thumbing up the general thumbs-down to overaggressive school rules and regulations and the cotton-wooling of our children.

And why not? Giving kids autonomy is wise. But the incomplete issue here is the location you’re supporting: Why do you think dropping rules at school would benefit our children?

Two reasons it doesn’t work: children need boundaries and schools must be accountable to parents.

Rules Rule

“Let kids be kids” is the emotion people are posting. However, backing a school’s play for free-play is easy since you are likely not involved with a school running this system.

Imagine you’re the parent who gets this call:

Admin: Hi, is this Daniel’s mom?

Parent: Yes, it is.

Admin: I’m calling with good news and bad news. Bad news is: Daniel had an accident at recess today.

Parent: What happened?

Admin: Well, he was shimmying up the kauri tree and slipped. 

Parent: MY – PRECIOUS!

Admin: It was gruesome. He actually drove his femur straight up through his clavicle. Quite astonishing. He could barely make a decent tackle in the rugby game afterward.

Parent: Wait – what is the GOOD news?

Admin: Oh! The good news is: Daniel’s not in any trouble at all! He was totally allowed to fall out of that tree! 

Point is: Your child hadn’t yet recognized his limitations and no one reminded him. Would you endorse the hands-off attitude now? (“Hands-on” would have literally kept Daniel from losing his battle with gravity, by the way.) You provide a structure for your kids at home so why ditch it during a school’s playtime?

Secondly, the article rightly points out that children need to take risks to experiment with consequences. Readers support this, recalling fond (??) memories of boo-boos on their knees – but did you shred your skin on school property or own your own time?

That’s an important difference because, based on my days teaching in Hong Kong, I learned that recess rules are designed to avoid physical and financial pain.

Cover Your Assets

In HK, the playgrounds (i.e., courtyards) contain nothing natural. No grass, trees, rocks, hills… just painted court lines. Aside from the occasional bag of apples being thrown at you from an apartment above, how can you get hurt without obvious hazards? Yet, some schools restrict heavily (no ball games, no chasing games) since they’re always responsible to parents.

  • “My child has a hairline fracture in his foot because another boy tripped him during a soccer game. Where was the teacher to stop the sliding tackles?”
  • “My child is ill tonight because it was so hot outside today and she played tag for so long. Where was the teacher to remind her to take a break?”
  • “My child got impaled by a pair of scissors. Where was the teacher to keep him away from the apartment windows?”
“Rock… paper… sci–WHO THREW THOSE?!”

“Rock beats sci–OW!! WHO THREW THOSE?!”

International and private schools are businesses. They’re subject to litigation if negligence is proven. Curtailing children’s play opposes the study that Swanson Primary adopted, yes, but it also limits lawsuits.

Is everything going well so far? Yes. Lord Humungus hasn’t conquered the NZ playgrounds. Nevertheless, once the first major injury happens, the school will need to revert to customary guidelines. Why? Parents will demand it. Jobs will depend on it.

You can select your kids’ level of carefree-dom as they explore the world but schools need to provide freedom within a framework. You can’t just throw recess rules out the window like you would an old sledgehammer.

I favour new ideas in education and respect the New Zealand institute’s individuality. But we can’t seesaw on playground safety at schools – we need one recess bell ring to rule us all.


Want to contact your school? You should! But read why you should never email your child’s teacher.

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Written by Peter Cullen

Peter Cullen loves to teach children. He specializes in literacy (elementary level) and has a lot of fun creating games and activities for class lessons. He also writes, manages social media accounts and announces roller derby games.



Your point about litigation is an interesting one, and I wonder if the NZ approach reflects in part a radically different approach to personal injury law. They have a no fault system that I believe would cover schoolyard injuries due to negligence. That means the kid gets compensated for her injury without any need (or ability) for the family to sue the teacher/school. I’m simplifying a bit, but maybe the litigation concerns all but disappear in NZ…

Peter Cullen

The “personal injury law” info is quite revealing, Hilary. Thanks for mentioning it. I would be curious to know if that’s a dominant reason for the schools’ belief in this experiment. Keep watching NZ for updates!


You said: “…a university study that included no one who’d ever read Lord of the Flies,” – as if Lord of the Flies was a factual story of how children always behave when not supervised by adults. Lord of the Flies is a novel by a creative mind written as a parody of an earlier very popular novel, The Coral Island.”


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