Playing without rules, but with consequences


John (8) was trying to cut up some boxes to help his mother Anne. Anne gave him a very sharp knife, put some gloves on him, and sent him on his way.  As Rico wandered off, 6 inch knife in hand, she knew what would probably happen. “I thought he’s going to cut himself.  I’ve made some effort to protect his hands, and hopefully he won’t hit himself in the groin”.  Sure enough, 5 minutes later, John wanders inside blood dripping from his leg. Nothing serious. But a deepish cut nonetheless.

On the same day I went out the back after my older boys alerted me to the fact my three year old had ridden his bike (proper 2 wheeler, no training wheels) off the back deck (about a metre drop) onto the concrete path – no helmet. Cut head, otherwise OK.

Is this bad parenting?  Were Anne and I both negligent? Big questions.  Extreme examples  – Anne at least is past my comfort zone. And granted both incidents could have ended far worse. They didn’t, and our kids were exposed to risk with consequences.

I think most parents would judge this as going slightly too far, being slightly too loose (negligent even?). What do you think?  What do you let your kids do?  What’s your tolerance of risk and benefit?

The world has changed from the one most of us grew up in.  Do you remember as a child  the fun of exploring the world on your own terms?  Your free range childhood?  Do you remember the rough and tumble of the school yard jungle?

Our actions were our own and consequences were expected. In the light of the lack of rules, it’s hard to believe most of us made it! See this cool video

What has happened to all that?  Why has the modern childhood become a sanitised version of what most of us had?  Is it better or worse?

That’s been a big question I’ve had as I have watched my three boys grow up. I’ve been reflecting on this and thinking about my own childhood.  I’ve been thinking about the sign in the school my boys went to that says “No running on the concrete”.  I’ve been scheming how to change things.


Our project called PLAY in 8 NZ Primary schools came to an end, the story went viral.  That’s worldwide – everywhere, millions of reads,  millions of Facebook likes and tweets.  Here’s the original article on the front page of the NZ Sunday Star Times. Then everywhere else including the Atlantic, The Independent and the list goes on and on. The Economist even ran a story.  Bruce (Principal at Swanson School) is now doing more media than teaching, and I’m propping up when he can’t do it.  Bruce you are a legend.

What did we do at Swanson school?  We abandoned school yard rules, and rather than mini lord of the flies erupting, we saw spontaneous decreases in bullying, accidents, and improvements in classroom learning and behaviour. We saw a different twist on similar themes at our other schools. Full and final results of the study and all the science behind that will be coming in the next few months – it is going to take the team at Otago Uni time to work through the (massive) dataset.

I’m not sure exactly how all this happened – ridiculous rules in the first place and then talking a school into abandoning them – but it has, and the online reaction made me realise that we are not alone in thinking that the political correctness and cotton wool had gone several steps too far. That the emperor of children’s play was well and truly naked and has been for a long time.

The great paradox you see is that in the pursuit of safety and well being for our beloved children, we make them less safe in the long run.

I’ve said that for years – the right time to learn how to manage risk and manage emotions is when you are eight years old, up a tree or in a fight with the kid next door.  Rather that than when you are in a Subaru WRC at 18 with the cops after you and a few beers on board…..

So thanks everyone who read and liked the story.  Electronic likes are great to show a social change, but the reality is that when push comes to shove (literally), we need to actually walk the talk too.  So if you are a parent, my challenge is to keep living the dream and let your kids go free range. You will ned to push that button.

That’s it, risk and adventure on their (the kids’) own terms.  It’s primal.  It’s in their DNA, and it’s part of growing up with the skills you need to be part of society.

But every parent wants to be a good parent. They want the best for their child. They don’t want or need serious injury if it can be avoided. Parents want to operate within the law (at least I do, hopefully you too?)

So what about you? What are you willing to expose your child(ren) to, knowing some of the possible consequences? I’m not asking for negligent parenting.  I’m asking for risk carefully considered in the context of benefit. I’m asking you to reflect how many times you say “don’t do that” to your kids each day. Just some reflection on what you do.

There is no right answer. But there is the problem that you learn how to mange risk by being exposed to risk.  That’s how you do it.

I’d love to start a discussion on this in the comments below, or post your story by email.  Your free range childhood or what you think the right balance is for your kids.  Facebook likes are one thing. Actual debate is  better. Actually living this is sometimes scary but ultimately what we must move towards.

21 Comments on “Playing without rules, but with consequences

  1. Grant, I read the Sunday Star Times piece the day it came out. Later that day I was just off to the movies when our eldest son wanted to go surfing. Not a problem I said, I’ll drop you down there before I go and you can walk home. When we got to the beach the surf was huge, really massive, one of the biggest days I’ve ever seen at Taylor’s. But, in he went, and off I went. I will freely acknowledge I was feeling a little sick as I drove up the hill from the beach, and did ponder, as I sat in the movies, whether he was still alive, and whether I would have left him alone there had I not had your comments fresh in my mind. Came back alive and exhausted himself which makes for a much more pleasant teenager. Follow the link to see the waves – not bad for a 15 yo!

  2. Surely consequences are the natural rules of everything we do. We learn best by experience and wrapping our kids in cotton wool interrupts this process. This doesn’t mean we should be negligent in our parental obligation… our kids still need our guidance… but doing everything for them does them the dis-service of not allowing them to learn through experiencing their world and the consequences of their actions. It’s a balancing act between ‘natural’ consequences where we do nothing, ‘logical’ consequences where we impose boundaries, and the health and happiness of our young ones.

  3. The grandparents of my children usually are the first to stand up and cry “watch out, he’s going to fall and hurt himself!!”… to which I reply “Good, if he does fall, he will learn how not to do it the next time.” And it mostly works, they progress rapidly. Neither of them has broken teeth or bones. My 4 year old boy has been riding a straight 2-wheel bike like a demon on the wind since 3 yo. My 8 yo girl did the same on her scooter since 2 yo and today she gives boys a hard time at soccer, loves the fun in athletics, and climbs trees (and kiddy park furniture) like a monkey. While at the same time not being a tomboy at all (oh my god, the amount of pink and Hello Kitty stuff in the house…). I let her do risky stuff (like climbing above 3 meters high) but I don’t let her out of my sight – I trust her capability and judgement, but not the neighbours’.

    I draw the limit for my two kids at “permanent damage” – if there is a chance that the injury, either physical or mental, will become permanent, I intervene and educate. Otherwise, I mostly let it fly. I was lucky to grow up free, roaming the entire neighbourhood alone on my bike when I was a kid. Broke a lot of bicycles, scraped my knees, hands, and chin a lot, banged my head on hard surfaces, and often returned home with bicycle parts in hand and tears in my eyes – but I had to do it myself, there were no cell phones at the time and I had to get myself and the bike home. My kids didn’t get that chance – the neighbourhood has changed dramatically and so has the lifestyle – they are supervised by adults 24/7 and this can’t be a good thing. So we try to get out more and cut them lose a bit more.

    The 8 yo helps us cook – sharp knives and gas stove included. She’s scared, which is a good thing – means she understands the danger. We capacitate her with the technical skills, monitor the first flights, and let her ease in without pushing. Slowly she gets the naturality of it all. The 4 yo can’t be trusted like that, it’s too soon (and he’s a wild boy), but still I risk some things and he usually astounds us positively. By treating them like “adults in a permanent learning state”, we see them develop and flourish fast. They are happy, whole kids. Almost everyone that sees our kids the first time is confused about their age and ends up saying, “wow, he/she is so well developed for the age!”. Sometimes I push things too far, I forget they are just small kids – but they remind me of it and we re-center our expectations. 🙂 Most of the times I forget because they actually respond at level: they have both been known to respond with adult logic, leaving us speechless (and calling our bluffs and vices). The challenge here is to avoid the temptation of asserting “authority” over them, and just be fair. 😉

    We’re proud of our kids, because they face reality directly and don’t live in a sheltered dream world. While at the same time having all the space for dreaming as they wish. Well, almost – we all have to run to work/school in the morning. :/

    And now a confession: both my kids are alive due to blind luck. Both of them went through deadly situations that just didn’t happen. If it were not for luck, the girl would have fallen 10 meters onto the street pavement and the boy would have been crushed by a bus’ wheel at full speed. These are the dangers of living in the city. There are no lions or hyenas, but the danger persists. One day we were playing volleyball on a 2nd storey terrace and the ball flew off (obviously) on to the street. We had moved in recently, the investment had been high, so we skimped on a new fence and just put up a makeshift fence blocking the view out of the terrace, above the 1 meter concrete wall. We knew this would prevent the then 3yo’s curiosity and mostly believed that the 7yo would not have a reason to go there anyway. The wall below would take care of the rest. So I went downstairs to get the ball, the kids stayed up in the terrace. The girl wanted to see me, so she got a chair, put it up against the wall, and stood above the wall and the 40cm makeshift fence. How she didn’t lean and fall, I don’t know. I blew a gasket when I saw her – typical emotional reaction of a “guilty” parent. The boy’s story is about the bike. We went out cycling (mom, dad, and 4yo) for the first time together, thinking about a nice long ride to see if the kid could handle it. He rides like mad in the sheltered vicinity of the kiddie park, so we thought it would be ok. It was going well until we approached the busy road where we caught the cyclepath; surprisingly, instead of following me, he just zoomed past us straight out into the street exactly when a bus was sprinting by. What saved him was a small stone barrier that separates the cyclepath from the road. 20cm of stone kept him alive and well. Again we were shocked at how a split second can undo lives.

    What would I do differently today?… well, the safe expensive fence was promptly put up, and I’m a lot more conscious of my son’s sudden mental derailments, typical of a 4yo. As a friend of mine usually says: “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” so I try to predict the dangers and work the kids consciously beforehand. But I’m surely not going to shut them in and calm them down until they lose their “joie de vivre”. How will they deal with the world unless they are exposed to it?

    As you say, there is no right answer. Parenting is an intuitive responsibility. It’s hard to do, to. We can’t predict everything, and the only realistic choice is to capacitate and trust. They’re going to go out alone some day anyway.

    Cheers for everything. 😉

  4. I work with ECE teachers and parents of young children- who are very wrapped up in risk management and dealing with preemptive strikes.
    I LOVE what you are doing. It completely fits my philosophy as both an educator and a parent.
    Natural consequences, trusting children with risk, allowing them to explore the boundaries of what is both possible and impossible – these things create children who are confident, resilient and able to learn.
    One of my favourite little tidbits of info is that it is actually more dangerous to cut a carrot with a blunt knife than a sharp one – statistically it causes more injuries.
    Sometimes a little bit of potential danger offers a safer solution…

  5. Hi Grant – really interesting reading these last 2 posts from you. This one talking about relaxing rules and letting people experience consequences, and the previous (supermarket photo tour) talking about increasing regulation to protect people. Spot the contradiction!

    Now I realise they are two different situations, and I happen to agree with you about both, but the issue lies in where to draw the line between what is regulated and what isn’t. I don’t think there is a clear answer on that one…

    • Yes I have been thinking about the contradiction…..I guess I am thinking about risk and benefit as the terms of reference? Not sure exactly how htis applies in the food environment though. When ther eis just risk and no benefit then you do’t want that risk. When its risk and benefit then think abotu it.

      • Good point. Falling off the deck and hurting yourself has explicit learning. Death (or near to it) from a car accident with no seat belt being worn is a bit too much learning a bit too late. Consuming food that is slowly poisoning you at a slow rate doesn’t have enough learning impact for most people.

  6. I am genuinely very interested to learn more about ditching the playground rules because it is along the lines of what I (and my husband) have been thinking for ages.

    Where are the scabby knees and skinned elbows? All the hallmarks of curiosity, playing, investigating, running, jumping, tackling, burning off energy (and in some cases, gravity!) from our childhood are gone from most modern children. Parents run for the bandaids the moment a tiny scratch appears. We have schools banning handstands, cartwheels, running in the playground… the list goes on. In the meantime, children’s ability to concentrate is falling, every second child seems to be diagnosed with some sort of disorder, and teachers are throwing their hands in the air because they can’t teach their class due to all the disruptive behaviour.

    Whilst I am quite sure we are not perfect parents, and there is not a one-size-fits-all approach, some of the things we try with our children (girl, 8 in April, boy, 10 in July) are the following:

    Tablets and computers are banned midweek. Exceptions can be made if there is an appropriate reason to look something up.
    We instigated this in full this year (having always limited screen time to some extent anyway). I think they are definitely been calmer, and are now much more inclined to grab a book, play together, build Lego forts, draw, play outside etc. Use their imagination!

    They have both been walking to and from school (1km, with a busy intersection) for over 18 mths.
    Ever since they were very small, whenever we would cross a road with them, we would ask them to tell us when it was safe to cross, rather than just taking them by the hand and leading them across.

    Our daughter was a climber, right from the start (and somewhat of a daredevil), so we would take her to the playground and encourage her to climb “OK – you’re stuck. Have a look around and see where you can put your hands, where can you put your feet so you can climb down” etc.

    When they have a scrap, and come running to either of us, more often than not our response is:
    “Sort it out yourselves”. How can they learn to negotiate if someone else steps in for them every single time. And since we instigated the “And if you can’t sort it out, you’ll have to hug it out” rule, most arguments are solved very quickly!

    Our children use the sharp knives and forks to eat their dinner. So far no one has been stabbed or lost a finger, hopefully because we taught them how to use them.

    A conversation between myself and a person I didn’t know at a BBQ a few years ago went something like this:
    We were told that the pet sulphur-crested cockatoo that the kids were chasing ‘round the garden bites.

    Me: Oh well. They’ll be right. I’ve told them he bites.
    Another mother: You must be a country mother.
    Me: What makes you say that?
    Another mother: Well, I wouldn’t like my children bitten by a bird.
    Me: I wouldn’t like mine bitten by a bird either, but they have been warned, and if he DOES bite them, they’ll learn that birds can bite. Just like they were told.

    I’m sorry, I’ve rambled, but it is a subject very close to my heart. I would love to receive more information about the study, as I would like to discuss it with the school principal of our children’s school. I really think our children learn so much through experience (good and bad), and we are limiting that learning by trying to ‘protect’ them. As Vasco noted, I do try and draw the limit at ‘permanent damage’. Otherwise, let them learn through experience. Kids can do so much more than we give them credit for – they just need to be given the opportunity to step up.

    • “Ever since they were very small, whenever we would cross a road with them, we would ask them to tell us when it was safe to cross, rather than just taking them by the hand and leading them across.”
      That is genius. Thanks for that tip. 🙂
      (…) the “And if you can’t sort it out, you’ll have to hug it out” rule.
      How does that work? What do you mean exactly by “hug it out”? (Portuguese citizen here, not familiar with 100% of your culture…)

      • Hi Vasco – it’s a bit of a joke in our house, but basically it’s a case of “Kids, either work out your differences and say sorry to each other, or you’ll have to give each other a hug!” this usually gets a goofy laugh and “Awwww Mum, do we have to?” before they go off playing together again. It seems the humour works to diffuse any tension (though obviously there are times when they are so completely overtired nothing seems to work!).

  7. Love all the comments here – read this on the first day but didn’t have time to comment then. I try to parent in a similar way: kids train us to automatically say “No!” with the crazy things they do, or ask to do. I stop myself and weigh the risk. Even if it’s annoying (e.g. repeating words or songs or making silly noises) let them do it; allow them the fullest safe range of experience in childhood. I dare say this is harder for parents like myself where two parents can focus on saying “No!” to an only child.

    Anyway, bring on the change at schools. Too many rules at primary school!

  8. In my mind, 95% or so of all kids are potentially able to do something like this:

    The neuromuscular capacity, the neuroplasticity, it’s all there right from the start, it just takes some nurturing. So, why don’t they all progress like this?… because the kid in the video was privileged to have a relative with a drumset in the house that believed in him. Kids are born with an almost infinite thirst for learning and experimenting, and it’s the adults that cut their wings for fear of an outrageous number of possibilities that mostly do not come close to applying… I fear that human potential far exceeds the practice allowed. But it is this very potential that frightens the people “in charge”, be it politicians or child-rearing adults. IMHO.

  9. I searched out your blog after reading an article in the National Post this morning in Vancouver BC (- Bruce McLachlan throwing out the recess rule book after becoming part of Prof Schofield’s research introducing risk. ) I was excited to read about Bruce’s approach at school and that there was actual research going on. This is a topic I have reflected on a great deal in my 10 years as an elementary school principal, as well as a father of four.

    After we built a new school building two years ago there was an assortment of material left around the grounds but I was hard pressed to stop children who were dragging rocks, bricks, boards around at recess, and having the best time. It was clear that they were so fully engaged in great but it raised some eyebrows and questions about safety. Although I did limit the building of catapults to launch boulders, ( I caught them before the grade one boy jumped on the opposite end) otherwise I let them build. I was aware that their fun was out of place in our buttoned down world and wouldn’t be the norm in every school. A fellow Principal approached me at a monthly meeting this year and asked if I allowed the students to play football (not soccer- “American football”) at recess. When I said yes she wondered what kind of instruction, and guidelines etc did I put in place. My answer was none at all, we have a bin of sports equipment that kids can help themselves to at recess. I realized that her question was just indicative of how we live, and as indicated in the news article, how we make rules to prevent litigation. At the same time the question had me wondering if I was not doing my job, in having too few recess rules.
    Like Bruce McLachlan I have had to meet with parents whose children have broken their arm at recess, not knowing if I will be answering the distraught parent’s questions on what I will do to mitigate the possibility of injuries in the future, or be reassured by a forgiving parent who isn’t concerned with blame, but appreciates that accidents and injuries happen sometimes when children play.
    I don’t like to cave to the over protective bubble surrounding children today. My childhood of independent play roaming my neighbourhood on my bike with friends does not seem like a radical concept for my children to appreciate today. Although friends and acquaintances in my middle age group also harken back to those “good old days”, I am in the minority when actually giving some of that lost independent back to my children.
    I think it is a matter of balance, and without it I firmly believe that many children will lack the resilience that is important in navigating everything from scraped knees to hurt feelings as they grow and perhaps just as critical is the potential that they loose the ability to make their own fun.

    I will keep trying to relax the rules, but I may not be able to feel relaxed about doing it!

  10. I’ve just seen the SBS Dateline report on Bruce’s school and thought it was fantastic. I’m studying/researching something at a slight tangent – the ability of fairy tales to help kids learn emotional resilience and courage. I’d be really interested to know if this has come up in your research at all, or whether you have been focusing on physical play?

  11. Pingback: 1060: Professor Grant Schofield Asks What The Fat Is Going On In Nutrition | The Livin La Vida Low-Carb Show

  12. I have had an interest in this topic since I first saw the Lateline report. 
    Where can I find the published paper?

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