A risky proposition

Dara Squires
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Dara Squires

If media reports are to be believed, bullying is rampant in our nation. From elementary to high school, kids are being subjected to gross abuse by their peers.

What the media usually don’t focus on is the less headline-grabbing, but more common, smaller-scale daily bullying that takes place when a dominant child in the classroom decides he or she wants things his or her way, at the expense of other children.

Before the verbal and physical abuse, there is exclusion, like a hunter marking an animal within the herd before he looses the arrow.

And really, when you take 20-30 children and put them in a room five days a week for six hours a day, personalities will collide. Dominant personalities will likely hurt sensitive personalities and once weakness is shown ... well, it’s just like the animal herd, isn’t it?

Such bullying often doesn’t ever cross the line to physical or verbal abuse, but stays as the insidious presence in the classroom, making some of the children feel as if they don’t belong within the group or cannot measure up to their peers in the estimation of the bully or dominant child.

And it’s not the kind of bullying teachers and parents can really see. There may be the occasional shove or name-calling, but when do you call it kids beings kids and when do you realise there’s a ringleader and a victim?

It’s happened with our eldest — a friendly and popular kid who has never had  a problem making friends. He’s always had poor impulse control, so tales of some interpersonal conflict in school have been typical through the years.

But lately it’s changed — lately the conflict is one-sided and friends who play with him outside of school seem to, within the walls of school and under the eyes of the dominant child in his classroom, exclude him or join with others at his expense.

It probably goes back to him standing his ground against this child when he wanted something my son refused to give him. So now he’s decided he doesn’t like him and doesn’t want anyone else to either. And within the confines of a classroom, his dominance sways.

How does one stop that? There is no stopping the child, whom I would hesitate to outright call a bully — though his actions have hurt others.

A school in Auckland, New Zealand thinks they may have found the answer. In an article titled “School Ditches Rules and Loses Bullies” published in the Fairfax News, the story of Swanson Primary and their journey towards a rule-free playground and bully-free school life is inspiring.

Just two years ago, the school become a participant in a study by a local university trying to assess whether making free play more free — by ditching some of the safety rules in the playground — would encourage more active play. Principal Bruce McLachlan explains: “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.”

Then, instead of just ditching some of the safety rules, they decided to ditch all rules, creating a mini-child run kingdom in their playground.

While most would think that letting children do whatever they want and make their own decisions would result in dominant children becoming more of a bully — as “Lord of the Flies” taught us all — they’ve found the opposite instead.

Letting the children create mudslides, climb trees, play with old hoses and tires in a pit of their own making, and generally do whatever they want at playtime kept them so busy, engaged and creatively motivated that there was no time for boredom to bring about the conflict and petty vandalism they had seen before.

It’s a huge contrast to our own schools where during “unstructured” time such as recess and lunch we tend to see the bullying, fighting, vandalism and general chaos of a system run on rules that are meant to protect but often only protect the children from discovering their own interests and engaging with one another to resolve conflict.

During recess, our children sit in a classroom playing with their same toys and games they’ve played with all year, in a static and closed environment, with their age-peers with whom they’ve been grouped according to a seating plan.

There’s really little “unstructured” or “free” about it.

During lunch they may get 20 to 30 minutes of outdoor play on a static playground with multiple rules under the watchful eyes of the rule-keepers.

The pressure and boredom will obviously lead to conflict and misbehaviour.

In reality, those same children let loose on a field or in the woods without structured toys would probably play perfectly well together, or break into natural groups that got along just fine.

Thinking back on my own childhood, my fondest “playtime” memories are of occasions such as that — occasions that would terrify modern parents because they involved wandering in the woods with my friends or playing with cow patties in a field — neither safe nor sanitary.

Maybe safe and sanitary are overrated and risky and free is what our children need in the long run. By allowing them to engage in “risky” behaviour they learn a lot more about consequences, risk assessment, conflict resolution, their own limits, and the world around them than they ever will from their classroom, TV or iPad.

You can comment on this column or access previous editions of Readily A Parent using the following short link: http://bit.ly/DaraSquires.

Organizations: Fairfax News

Geographic location: Auckland, New Zealand

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