Free-Range Kids

To Stop Bullying, British School Eliminates Recess

What could go wrong?


To eliminate bullying, a school in England has eliminated ball games and jump-roping on the playground, replacing these with poetry recitations, choir, and quizzes. Said Charlotte Whelan, the Hackney New School head teacher (the British equivalent of a principal): "A school without bullying sounds like a utopia, but it is achievable."

Whether or not reciting Shelley during recess is your idea of utopia, a BBC piece on the school quotes Whelan saying, "It's long been my belief that we could be doing more for pupils while they are on their breaks," because "so often you see them aimlessly wandering the playground. We want every second at school to count."

I'm sure the kids are counting the seconds, too.

Clearly Whelan is of the belief that kids' brains shut down the moment they are not engaged in something officially academic. That's what prompted her to start the break-time poetry recitals, "and it evolved from there."

I doubt it will come as a surprise that another expert quoted in the piece said it is important for schools to create safe spaces, where kids feel "supported and included."

The issue here is not just the Dolores Umbridge-esque nature of the administration. It's the inability of that administration to believe that kids could possibly be learning anything when they are allowed to goof around. The teachable moment notion of child development is so thick here that kids are not allowed to "waste" their time even between bites.

This notion is wrong. "When they are free to play in their own ways, children practice the most important skills required to move toward adulthood—how to take initiative, make their own decisions, solve their own problems, negotiate with peers—and, yes, how to deal with others who aren't always nice," says Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College and my co-founder at Let Grow. "When we prevent them from such opportunities by taking continuous control of their lives, we prevent them from growing up."

Prevent away seems to be the philosophy of those who believe the only way to end bullying is to end any freedom the students enjoyed. Linda James, founder of a nonprofit called "Bullies Out," notes in the BBC piece: "Unstructured games can sometimes lead to nasty comments, aggressive behavior and children feeling left out."

She's right: Some sad feelings—and betrayals and loneliness—are inevitable in both childhood and adulthood. No one wants kids facing constant cruelty, but learning how to deal with some playground frustration is actually a big life skill it behooves them to learn. There's more to school than sonnets.