Spontaneous Order on the Free-Range Playground


U.S. Army

New Zealand has encountered the same problems with playground bullying and acting out as schools in the United States, and has responded with the same tightening web of red tape we've seen in the northern hemisphere. "There was so many ridiculous health and safety regulations and the kids thought the static structures of playgrounds were boring," commented Professor Grant Schofield. As Director of the Human Potential Centre at Auckland University of Technology, Schofield was in a position to do something about that. Along with colleagues at Otago University, he came up with a research project involving reducing or even eliminating playground rules and letting the kids set their own limits. Then they actually persuaded schools to sign on to what constituted an experiment in free-range parenting. The results aren't surprising to those of us who ran free in our own childhoods, which is to say they're very encouraging.

Writes Marika Hill at

Ripping up the playground rulebook is having incredible effects on children at an Auckland school.

Chaos may reign at Swanson Primary School with children climbing trees, riding skateboards and playing bullrush during playtime, but surprisingly the students don't cause bedlam, the principal says.

The school is actually seeing a drop in bullying, serious injuries and vandalism, while concentration levels in class are increasing.

Principal Bruce McLachlan rid the school of playtime rules as part of a successful university experiment.

"We want kids to be safe and to look after them, but we end up wrapping them in cotton wool when in fact they should be able to fall over."

Letting children test themselves on a scooter during playtime could make them more aware of the dangers when getting behind the wheel of a car in high school, he said.

"When you look at our playground it looks chaotic. From an adult's perspective, it looks like kids might get hurt, but they don't."

Youth is a relatively low-risk time to test your limits and discover what hurts and what doesn't. Kids are practically rubber, so when they fall down off a bike or out of a tree, it may be a jolt, but it's unlikely to do permanent damage. The lessons they learn about what's fun and what's painful can be retained for later in life when the stakes are higher. I know that I gained a relatively low-cost understanding of the world wandering the streets unescorted as an eight-year-old than I would have if I'd been "protected" from the world around me, and I suspect the same is true of most kids everywhere.

And, of course, kids get to burn off a lot more steam when they play free than they do when adults ban tag and running. Those rules are imposed by adults who live in fear that children will damage their little selves, but that leaves the tots chock full of unreleased energy and uncertain of the limits of their worlds—limits they'll have to discover when they're older and the consequences can be more severe (or else they won't discover at all as they internalize the fear in which they've been marinated).

Principal Bruce McLachlan told TVNZ that resistance to the free-range experiment came not from parents, but from teachers who were afraid they'd be blamed for any injuries the kids suffered. Not that parents can't be control freaks themselves—the term "helicopter parent" evolved for a reason—but nothing embodies fear of risk like a bureaucrat. And it's hard to get in trouble for piling on more rules rather than stripping away the ones that cause problems.

The New Zealand research has yet to be published, and it will be interesting to see the formal results. In fact, the research was originally intended to just encourage more activity, and the behavioral improvements were unexpected gravy.

Grant Schofield is also something of a paleo guy on his Twitter feed and blog, Reasonoids may be interested to know.

(H/T CharlesWT)

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  1. Well, holy shit. They’re not murdering each other now that they have freedom?

    1. “Lord of the Kiwis”

    2. They are, but they have just taken the adults hostage and are blackmailing them into telling the outside world that everything is okay.

  2. So I guess no one next to down under thinks of the children. Where’s the UN when you need it?

  3. resistance to the free-range experiment came not from parents, but from teachers who were afraid they’d be blamed for any injuries the kids suffered

    Ding ding ding. Although I am sure the teachers’ fears are justified, after several decades of parents being told everything that happens to your kid is someone else’s fault.

    1. Steps to liberty:

      1. Kill all the lawyers.
      2. Repeat step 1 often.

      1. And kill the idiots who say, There ought to be a law…

      2. CADE
        I thank you, good people: there shall be no money;
        all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will
        apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree
        like brothers and worship me their lord.

        The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

        Nay, that I mean to do. Is not this a lamentable
        thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should
        be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled
        o’er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings:
        but I say, ’tis the bee’s wax; for I did but seal
        once to a thing, and I was never mine own man

        King Henry VI, Part II , (Act IV) , Scene 2,

  4. And it’s hard to get in trouble for piling on more rules rather than stripping away the ones that cause problems.

    Well, yes. And doesn’t that mean that any experiment in “free range” child care is doomed to fail? Because failure is not defined in terms of the overall wellbeing, but in the prevention of individual calamities.

    I’m not even sure this problem is solvable, libertopia or otherwise. There will always be the expectation of some level of oversight/accountability. State and Private Actors both need defined bounds of conduct for liability resolution. And anecdotal incidents will always always lead to a liability investigation of some sort, more often than not resulting in increased rules.

    1. Yeah, I don’t think this is going to work out because it’s not actually “free range parenting”. It’s free range daycare. As soon as something bad happens, heads are going to roll. Free range parenting is a practical application of the serenity prayer. The parent knows they have a handle on things, regardless of how they are perceived. But free range daycare can be indistinguishable from negligent daycare to the parent. I wouldn’t confuse the two.

      1. Exactly. The horrible way we treat our children is just a symptom of the much larger problem that our society has lost the ability to understand that individual clamaties are a fact of life and trying to hard to prevent them causes more harm than good.

      2. As a society we seemed to have lost the ability to do risk and cost benefit assessment. Whenever there is a problem the “but we must stop this from happening again” position always wins.

        1. Don’t disagree John, but, in order to fix a problem we need to know why it happens. We (as a country) were not this litigious 30-50 years ago.

          And this is a question for all above.

          What changed and why? Or is it the nature of all legal systems to evolve in this manner?

          1. How many more laws today are there from 30-50 years ago. Every year in California we get a couple of hundred and none repealed.

  5. letting kids be kids. Wow, what a radical thought. It is often amazing how a generation that survived riding bikes without helmets, climbing trees, being in cars with no rear seat belt, etc etc etc has gone out of its way to life-proof childhood for its kids.

    1. That has always baffled me. Sure, I saw some crazy injuries, but mostly, I saw a lot of kids hoping up after spectacular crashes, with little but a scratch or bruise. I’ve just started assuming that most people around my age (40) were boring pansies when they were kids.

      1. We used to figure-8 “race” on bicycle. No one was tracking laps, it was just fun trying to aim at back tires and stuff. See if you could knock them down without going down yourself. Ended up with many multi-bike crashes.

    2. My brother and I were pretty much never home between the hours of 8am and 6pm, between school and being outside playing. I think my Ma was glad to have us out of the house.

      Do you think there is a difference between suburban and rural parents in this regard? All the suburbanite kids I knew growing up had much more restrictive childhoods. My family lived on 40 acres of woods on a dirt road and we basically ran wild.

      1. Do you think there is a difference between suburban and rural

        I think there is.

        My wife has a theory, that sorta applies. She thinks people living in cities aren’t exposed to real life and death situations very often. On a farm, you raise miss Piggy from a suckling, think shes cute, you nurture and feed her till she’s grown, and then you put a bullet in her head, chop her up, put her in the freezer and eat her.

        In the city you rarely see road kill.

        You don’t experience that cycle of life and therefor don’t come to grips with the fact that everything dies and bad shit happens.

        Just her theory.

        1. You kidding? Plenty of road kill in cities. Just not much moose. Squirrels, mostly.

    3. I remember being angry when I was 5 and a seatbelt law for kids under 6 was first passed. I think I said I wanted to punch the president in the nose (I didn’t quite understand federalism at that point). Funny to think about now when 8 year olds are riding in car seats (when the hell did that happen?). My first steps down the road to libertarianism perhaps.

      I find the whole free range kids thing encouraging. I think that a lot of parents are realizing that kids need to have unstructured time where they have to figure shit out for themselves. At least gives me some hope that the next generation of kids won’t all be completely hopeless.

      1. We used to sleep in the car laying in the space between the back seat and the rear window.

        The first time I started thinking about idiotic safety laws was when I was in 9th grade. PA passed a law that gave people in a crosswalk the right of way over 2000 pound cars traveling at 40 MPH. I was so pissed and it changed me forever.

  6. Couple this research with the results from “traffic anarchy” and a picture begins to emerge that we live in a society with just way too many rules, laws, and regulations. Freedom is the cure for many ills, and it never ceases to amaze me that most people consider that a “radical” or “unrealistic” position to take.

    1. Europe has, er, differences…

      1. No one is advocating bath dodging and being hairy, here!

    2. Great Falls MT has intersections, in town, on side streets with no traffic flow devices. No stop or yield signs. You look for other traffic and you figure out the conflict.

      I think there is definitely something to be said about the mind numbing effect that rules produce. People assume the rule is keeping them safe and delegate responsibility for their own safety to the law. I lived in MT back in the days of “Reasonable and Prudent” speed limits, left and came back 12 years later. My notional experience is that the drivers became much worse. I used to brag that MT drivers were the best I’ve ever seen. Now they pretty much suck. My theory is they think that speed limit is keeping them safe and don’t pay attention anymore.

  7. Yeesh, is this a huge thing here in the US too? I’m not even 30, and I recall my public elementary school unleashing us on a couple acres of hillside every recess. Do whatever ya want, grab what sports equipment you want, etc. My private middle/high school was located in the middle of the city and was lax about us wandering off. So long as we’re back in time for class. Maybe it was a Hawaiian thing.

    1. I’m a smidge older than that, and I don’t recall recess as being something that existed at my public school – period. We were warehoused until the end of the day and packed off homewards.

    2. You were trapped on an island – where were you going to go?

    3. That’s how it was for me in the 80s. Everyone went outside for an hour or whatever it was and just did whatever. And we had awesome old metal playground equipment, chicken fights on the monkey bars, jumping off of the swingset. We weren’t supposed to, but there was some really cool swampy areas just off of the fields to explore. I remember coming back from that area once to find everything completely deserted. No one seemed very concerned when I walked back into the classroom.

  8. I think part of the problem is the well-to-do of the current parenting generation are having fewer children, and at an older age, and they have a powerful voice in their communities. So when Mom only has one precious little snowflake and she’s dangerously close to surpassing child-bearing age she takes extra care to make sure that snowflake doesn’t get too close to the heater lest his widdle body melt or his self-esteem take a hit. Despite his apparent perfection, the world is a threat.

    When we were kids, we had siblings to beat the hell out of us and no one telling our parents we were important.

    1. That’s certainly part of it. Families certainly are smaller overall, though I have no idea how much more common only-childism is than 30 or 40 years ago. Having more kids does seem to lead people to be a bit more easy going about things, probably by necessity.

    2. When I was in boy scouts 35 years ago, things were tough. As a tenderfoot, you didn’t cry home to mommy or daddy when things didn’t go your way, you toughed it out. When I turned 16, I saw then how wimped out the newer kids were becoming. Oh, my packs too heavy, I can’t do this – and the next thing you know is everyone is hauling the twerps gear. So sad.

  9. Just wait ’til the kid sitting in the center gets his foot smashed in the spring on the floppy shoes clown side!

  10. I was a latch-key kid. Does any one remember that? I barely saw my parents at all. I took myself to school and back, fed myself, roamed all over town, and managed to not die horribly. How could this be?!

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