The last time you passed by your old school, was it still there?
Last week a conference was held in Hamilton about children's playgrounds, and school playgrounds featured at this conference too. I read an article about it on Saturday from the paper earlier in the week, Playgrounds advocates say kids need more risk (Waikato Times 29/4/15). Victoria Farmer from the University of Otago had the following to say about introducing risk to playgrounds:
"Children need little bits of risk to be able to manage bigger risk later on."
Each child had a different risk tolerance - just as some adults love roller coasters and others won't go near them - and kids tended to be quite good at managing it themselves, she said.
For example, giving kids the go-ahead to climb trees didn't mean all the pupils would soon be peering down from the tip of trunks.
Children who were interested tended to creep up a little way, try a bit more the next time and so on until they figured out what they could handle.
While adults could still be watching, they should try not to interfere, Farmer said.
So she challenged schools to start making small changes.
"I bet you there's something that works for each school."
Examples Farmer had seen in schools in the trial included letting their grass grow long so kids could take their games into it, creating hilly play places and bringing loose items such as branches or tyres into playgrounds.
One school bought raincoats and gumboots so kids could go outside at break if it was raining.
"A principal said [kids] learn that if they go out in the teeming rain they'll come back wet. And if the teachers say 'no, there aren't any changes of clothes' they learn what they can and can't do themselves. It's no longer a rule."
Sadly, as good as the intentions are and as much as educators would love to throw the rule book out of the playground and bring in an element of risk, this is the dominant thinking:
But schools could face a parent backlash and culpability if something went wrong, Waikato Principals' Association president John Coulam said.
So tree-climbing and bullrush were generally ruled out and many schools didn't allow tackle rugby unless a teacher was supervising.
"I really don't think much has disappeared from schools," he said.
"A child can climb a tree outside of school hours. They don't have to do everything at school... Why would we expose ourselves to the risk?"
"What happens if you let a child climb a tall tree and they fall and they break their neck? The school's responsible. It's easier to say don't climb the tree."
Rules stated that play equipment more than a metre high needed a safety surface under it, he said.
And, under Ministry of Education guidelines, schools had to provide a safe physical environment for students.
Upcoming health and safety changes also had board members worrying about being held personally responsible for any injuries.
Liability is the cause of the hesitation to free up playground protocols and encourage children to learn to take calculated risks during play. Principals spoke at our Waikato NZEI Area Council end of year function and AGM last year about how they fear for their personal financial security as they can be made liable if a serious accident happens on school grounds at any time. This can also extend to members of the Board of Trustees.
But this reticence to allowing children to take risks, the cottonwooling of students, has long term implications as these children grow up. Somewhere along the way I remember commentators like the late Celia Lashlie lamenting the fact that children, particularly boys, have not been allowed to take risks in their play, and therefore do not know their limitations. Fast forward to these boys getting their first car, their first real taste of independence, and they wrap it around a power pole.
Of course this article immediately made me think about the playground of the school I went to until the end of Standard 4, Ngarua. Ngarua is on Highway 27, bang smack in the middle of the towns Te Aroha, Morrinsville and Matamata. Alas, the school roll shrank and shrank and was closed in 2001. Now a kura kaupapa occupies the site and the local children have to travel that little bit further to get to school.
Below is my #edsketch15 sketch of our old playground. Most of this stuff was install by the fathers of the district when I was about 6 years old. When I was ten a massive wooden fort was also constructed, and I was heartbroken when my family moved away a few months after it was completed, because I felt I hadn't had my fair go at playing on it.
I was very sad when at the end of my first year at T Coll, when I went to Ngarua to do my practicum, to find that pretty much all of our old playground had been ripped out due to it not meeting OSH requirements.
I sketched these items from the Ngarua School playground of my childhood, posted it on Facebook and tagged in my old school friends and cousins who also went there for comment. The bamboo, tractor, tyre swing, big log, fence battens and tyres, and the poles up in the trees all got mentions from my old school friends.
I only remember three serious injuries in six or so years:
- my cousin's broken leg playing lunchtime soccer or rugby;
- one broken arm, possibly, from memory, a fall from the poles in the trees while playing tiggy in the trees;
- and one concussion from a game with the tyre swing (principal rang my mum to assess him as she was a St John's officer and she went with him and his mum to the doctors - he and I laughed about it when we grew up).
We also played tackle rugby, games that involved branding with balls (but no aiming at heads was a rule set by us kids), tackle bullrush and a game call Hares and Hounds (but the teachers banned us from playing it round the front of the school so people wouldn't crash running around corners).
No teachers were on duty, but they surveyed us from the staff room. We ran the playground ourselves, Form 2 kids sorted stuff out, and if we needed a teacher, we went and got one.
Near the beginning of my teaching career, I began teaching at Walton School, just down the road and around the corner from Ngarua, and a new OSH approved playground was installed in my second term there. It wasn't long before the first of many broken arms during the eight years I was there occurred on that OSH approved playground with the approved ground cover. Bob, who used to be the principal before retiring at the end of 2012, said he'd never experienced as many injuries as the injuries that came off that OSH approved playground.