New Zealand experiment proves that fewer rules mean better behavior — at least in the playground

schoolyardAll of us have bemoaned the fact that the Nanny school is denying children the opportunity to learn skills that are essential to getting through life.  The teachers should supervise to make sure that things don’t get too much out of control, but otherwise, they need to leave the kids alone.  Kids need to get hurt to learn how to deal with pain (because life will toss lots of pain their way); they need to get dirty to teach their immune systems how to defend the body against invaders; and they need to fight, because they need to learn how to make up.

Most importantly, they need to play competitive games, and there are a lot of reasons for that.  They need to learn how to become gracious winners . . . and gracious losers.  They need to learn that they can draw on inner depths within themselves if they really want to win.  They need to learn that the world isn’t always fair.  They need to learn that those who try harder usually do better . . . and if they don’t do better, they still earn their peers’ respect.

Additionally — and kids intuitively know this — is that competition makes things more fun.  Every weekend, I usually have a pack of teens over at my house playing highly competitive games, everything from charades to Resistance. Woe betide the misguided adult who tries to make the games more fair (i.e., “everybody wins”). In that case, the kids simply leave because the fun is gone.

With this concept in mind, yesterday’s news brought stories out of England and New Zealand, offering two different approaches to child’s play. The English approach is to reject the playing fields of Eton entirely and, instead, to go the full Harrison Bergeron.  Thus, the British Rugby Football Union is changing the rules for the under 11 crowd to make sure that all players are equal — or else!

The key components are that tournaments will no longer have a winner, they will be round-robin only. Coaches must meet before each match to try to pick evenly matched teams and if any matches are proving too “one-sided” then coaches will be forced to “adjust” their teams at halftime to make them closer. Teams will no longer be streamed on ability but will play all matches with mixed ability groups.Teams who fail to follow the new guidelines will see all their club’s age-group sides thrown out of the tournament and face further disciplinary action.

Showing that a few in England still have some backbone, the article notes that parents first thought the new rules were a spoof and that many of them are objecting. Not all of them, mind you. Indeed, I bet that quite a few Marin parents would think this is a lovely idea. I should note that, when my children have come home over the years desperately unhappy about losing, it didn’t occur to them to do away with the notion of winning. What they wanted was another chance, no tactics, and better skills, bless their little hearts.

(For more on life in a Harrison Bergeron world, check out Bret Stephens brilliant piece at the Wall Street Journal.)

New Zealand is trying a different approach, and one that is proving to be successful.  That is, it’s not just working in the fevered imagination of ardent Leftist educators; it’s actually working on the playground itself:

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.”

To those of us living in the real world — one populated by actual children rather than Ivy Tower widget children — the Auckland school’s success was pre-ordained.  Provided that children are given reasonable limits that a reasonably enforced, they will not turn into Lord of the Flies monsters.  Instead, they will become the type of children we remember from our childhood — sometimes nice, sometimes mean, usually having fun, capable of solving most of their own problems, and better able to sit still in the classrooms.