“I suppose there are rules people understand are rules in society. Kids aren’t allowed to kill each other.”
It’s not the sort of thing you’d expect a primary school principal to tell you during a tour of his playground. But then, Bruce McLachlan is one of kind.
He takes his dog to school, wears bright red zebra print shoes and seems to have managed to convince most of the kids at Swanson School in Auckland, New Zealand, that he’s the best principal on the planet.
Because, every day, at morning tea and lunchtime, Bruce lets them do whatever they want.
“The areas are created by the kids so one of the areas that I really love is the area where they are building a hut,” Bruce tells me in a story to be broadcast on tonight’s Dateline on SBS ONE.
“There’s a lot of junk that’s been put into that hut - planks of wood, old fences, bits of old playground equipment. The hut changes on a daily basis, there was a three storey hut the other day which I was most impressed with.”
It looks like an environment where kids will get hurt. But Bruce says when they do, they pick themselves up. He wants them to learn from their mistakes.
“Even just walking through your first instinct is to say 'careful, careful'… and that’s a normal adult instinct. I always say to people when they are looking and ‘oh a kid might get hurt’, don’t look. If it worries you, don’t look.”
The blind eye, hands-off approach is his way of combatting what he calls ‘helicopter parenting’.
“Actually it’s okay if kids hurt each other. If you set out to get hurt as you are playing a particular game and you get hurt it’s okay you’re expecting it, it’s not a problem. If two kids set out to play a game such as Bullrush or tackle rugby or cops and robbers, and they know they are going to get hurt or possibly get hurt, then when they do get hurt it’s not a problem.”
The idea came from Professor Grant Schofield, who runs the Human Potential Centre at the Auckland University of Technology. He initially approached Auckland schools to investigate childhood obesity. Then he decided to focus on how kids play at school.
“We went to a bunch of schools and started to think well can we reintroduce the idea of risky unmanaged play, kids playing on their own terms and the answer to start with from schools at least in the higher socioeconomic areas was: no.”
“When you remove kids from any danger in the long run you put them in more danger,” Professor Schofield says.
“They need this physical stimulus and they need it at some point in their lives. You can do it when they are eight up a tree or when they’re 21 in a bar and that’s a choice we’re making as a society and we’re making it consciously.”
He’s still working on collating solid data for his study, but has welcomed Swanson School’s initial findings.
After the bell rings, and the kids go back to class – teachers are reporting they are concentrating better, they are more confident, bullying is less frequent and injuries have actually decreased.
That’s why Bruce plans to keep looking the other way for as long as his school’s parents will let him.
“Once you took all the rules away, what you were doing was letting kids be kids, they could do anything they liked and that was three years ago now and we wouldn’t go back, the change has been fantastic.”