I want to share my thoughts and our journey and it is very much a journey....that is never complete. I've been thinking about risk and how it is managed in schools and why it is managed the way it is.
Why are we afraid to allow children to engage in risky play, why do we think that they will deliberately go out and hurt themselves or others if we take away the rules?
Good short article here.
I believe assumptions about children are one of the worst things we can do, in fact I fully believe we get what we expect.
I completely understand that many children come into school with severe behaviour and that in some schools these children are in the majority. There is obviously a need to scaffold their behaviour as we would their learning and immediately allowing them to 'free range' as we are able to do now would probably not be the answer. But is controlling the answer, is banning certain types of play the answer, or should we be trusting children more? In my opinion children with behavioural needs are more in need of social play, learning to negotiate, cooperate, empathise and care about others is something that will need to be taught. In my opinion play is the ideal way to teach this and the playground an exceptional venue.
One of the saddest comments I ever heard from a prospective parent was "I am concerned that you let the juniors play with the seniors, why is there not a separate playground?" The belief that the seniors were in some way a negative effect on the juniors broke my heart. Learning in a mixed age environment is in my opinion crucial during play and what he did not know or hadn't seen was how amazing our senior children were with the juniors, how they mentored, cared and supported them. Do the seniors make mistakes from time to time, yes of course they do...you know what they say about glasshouses and stones.
Needless to say this parent did not send his child to our school and for that I was quite glad.
Firstly I will give you a picture of what our school looks like now at playtime and lunchtime.
Children basically free range around our site. We have a small bush area and some will climb trees, play with sticks and generally pretend play in this area. Along the edge of our school can be found piles of tyres and planks of wood...these are their treasured huts. On the court is a basic skate ramp and around the outside of the field now runs a lovely bike track which children can use as they like. Seniors and juniors mingle, play games together and 'free range.' Some children bring spades to school and spend their time digging, others bring their nerf guns on Nerf day Thursday and water guns on Water gun wednesday. Many kick balls or play games they organise themselves out on the field and others play farmer farmer in the courtyard because they have forgotten their hat. Some sit under trees where they have strung up sheets to make a different type of hut. Next to the bush children play on the monkey bars and often use the rails as access ways to the trees so they can sit in them. We have pretend fighting....most of it is non-contact and is negotiated by the children, to a large degree it is in role as pirates, cowboys, superheroes etc. The sandpit is a shared space with half of it used for huts and half used for normal sandpit duties. Basically the playground is full of children following their urges.
We have no rules, but we do have habits and guidelines set by the School Council. When problems are raised with the council (two children from each class, so 20 children) we talk about ways to mitigate these problems. These guidelines are fed back to the classes. If an ongoing problem is identified the council may decide it is necessary to 'ban' something for a short time, but this hardly ever happens. Our children have come to understand that if they lose our trust they may lose the right to engage in that activity for a while. It is more likely that the person causing the trouble will have that privilege removed from them for a short while.
Do we have issues? Yes just like any other school....but hardly ever and usually they just need our assistance in the negotiation process.
While these children were being rewarded, we had amazing children doing the right thing all of the time without being recognised.
I went to a course about helping boys with behaviour and came back to school inspired. At this stage I was the DP. We implemented something called the Good Citizen project (my term for a combination of strategies) which basically focused on giving recognition in a huge way to those consistent children (boys in particular)encouraging them into leadership and dispersing the leadership across the school...so rather than having year six children on the council, the school council became made up of year 1 - 6 children. There were many other pieces in the puzzle along the way, but slowly the culture turned around. I guess what we basically did was give the children back their voice.
Over the years we have seen huge changes in our children. They appreciate our trust. They learn so much about risk taking and soon learn their limits. They learn to speak up for themselves. To negotiate, to set their own guidelines for play. The playground is so busy, they rarely have time to get themselves into 'trouble.' The playground is just one big vehicle for the key competencies and such a real venue for learning. By taking any rules away and giving the voice to the children we have made our playground a happier and safer place to be.
I think this goes hand in hand with growth mindset. If children are not given the opportunity to learn about risk, to follow urges, to learn to negotiate, empathise and actually see the effect any negative actions have on others and learn through experience, how can they develop. If we put rules in place for everything, eliminate risk by banning things, how are we allowing them to learn in authentic contexts. Of course we need to be there if it goes wrong, of course we will step in if needed. But in my opinion by banning things, we are only increasing the risk that they will engage in this activity when we are not around to help, when they have left our school, and not understand their limits, because they have never tested them. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand that they consequences for these children are likely to be on a much greater scale than a school would ever put in place.
By controlling children I think we are increasing the likelihood that they will engage in risky behaviour that is beyond their limits. I mean, what is the thing you are most likely to do if someone says you can not do it?
I think a lot of that thinking happens in authentic contexts that children self-direct themselves.