Dani Isdale visits a school with no rules, but is the kids' playtime chaos good for learning or has the principal gone too far?
Tuesday, October 21, 2014 - 21:30

“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.

There are no tree climbing bans and scooters, bikes and building materials - however sharp or dirty – are all allowed into the playground.  

“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.

“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.”

Bruce McLachlan said yes, and the rest is history.

“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.”

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Are today's kids too soft? One principal in New Zealand thinks so, and has embarked on a radical experiment - he's thrown out the playground rule book. Kids do whatever they like at recess, and it's a free-for-all. His only directive to them is "Don't kill anyone." Dani Isdale went to see the chaos for herself, and discovered some surprising results.

REPORTER: Dani Isdale

BRUCE MCLACHLAN, PRINCIPAL: It's a noble profession, and I've been a teacher for over 30 years. I love kids. Being with kids is a great job to do. So that's who I am. I am an ex-kid, and I like having fun.

The peace and quiet of his office is a sanctuary for Bruce McLachlan. His dog, Chelsea, can - and does - hide here. But as principal, he can't ignore what's going on outside. Here, on the outskirts of Auckland, students as young as five do whatever they want in the playground. They roam around with no shoes but plenty of homemade weapons. They climb as high as they can, and often higher. Not in secret, but blatantly - proudly. These kids don't care who sees.

CHILD:  And there's basically no rules.

CHILD 2:  Yeah, there's no rules.

CHILD:  Basically.

Before school, the kids make the rules.

WOMAN:  Wait, please! yeah!

But in the two 40-minute play sessions - after forced food breaks - anything goes.

REPORTER: Are you scared? I'd be scared.

CHILD:  You'd be scared because you might be too heavy!

Oh, thanks! No rules, no limits - no problem for the principal.

REPORTER: What do you call this, Bruce? Chaos?

BRUCE MCLACHLAN: Yeah. Organised chaos.

REPORTER: Doesn't look very organised to me!

BRUCE MCLACHLAN:  No. This looks a mess, Rosie!

To me, it looked dangerous.

REPORTER:  Don't you worry when they're climbing up high?

BRUCE MCLACHLAN: I always say to people when they're looking and they see, "Oh, a kid might get hurt!" I say, "Don't look."

REPORTER:  That is very, very high.

BRUCE MCLACHLAN:  If it worries you, don't look.

REPORTER: When do you step in? How far is too far?

BRUCE MCLACHLAN:  Personally, I wouldn't step in at all. I would wait for a kid to come to me for help. So when kids are on their own, learning to do things for themselves, some of the lessons might be hard, but they're good lessons, it's good learning.

When Bruce strolls through the playground, the kids know he's there. Can't miss those shoes! They also know there's only one thing they could do to make him really mad.

REPORTER:  Do you have any rules?

BRUCE MCLACHLAN:  I suppose there are rules that people understand are rules in society, you know? Kids aren't allowed to kill each other.

REPORTER: So that's the only rule - a kid can't kill another kid?


It's been three years since Bruce introduced free-range-kids play breaks.

BRUCE MCLACHLAN: The idea was to stop saying "no". We didn't say "You can't do that," we just turned a blind eye. Over a period of time, we turned a blind eye to everything, because actually, nothing that the kids were doing was a problem.

The real problem, he says, is mollycoddling.

BRUCE MCLACHLAN: The birth of helicopter parenting - the need to wrap our kids up in cotton wool and not give them an opportunity to hurt themselves. When you do that for the very best of reasons, you're actually taking away a lot of learning opportunities for kids.

So, Bruce decided to throw out the rule book without asking the parents.

BRUCE MCLACHLAN: We didn't actually tell them what we were doing. What we were doing was basically just taking away the rules gradually, and letting kids be kids.

Needless to say, the kids think he's great. But then, they would.

BOY: I'll do one more, then I'll go back to class.

BOY 2:  It's a bow and arrow with sticks and string. It's made of it.

REPORTER: What do you do with it?

BOY 2:  Ah, you shoot it. OK. I'm still really careful not to hit anyone, though.

BRUCE MCLACHLAN:  What do you do when you can do anything you like? What do you do?

CHILD: Have fun. We, like, have fun. Climb trees. Hello!

PROFESSOR GRANT SCHOFIELD, AUT UNIVERSITY: Bruce pushed it even way past where I was willing to go.

Professor Grant Schofield and his research into playtime behaviour are partly to blame. What began as a study of childhood obesity became an investigation into how kids play.

PROFESSOR GRANT SCHOFIELD: So we went to a bunch of schools and started to think, "Could we reintroduce the idea of risky, unmanaged play? Kids playing on their own terms?"

CHILD:  Hello!

PROFESSOR GRANT SCHOFIELD: And the answer to start with from schools, at least in the higher socioeconomic areas, was, "No."

Bruce said yes. Professor Schofield believes it will pay off, because risk is good for young brains.

PROFESSOR GRANT SCHOFIELD: The bit of the brain that manages risk and controls emotion develops when you expose it to exactly that - risk and emotion. And this frontal lobe, prefrontal cortex in particular, is something that develops through childhood into early adulthood. It's a very important part of the brain. It runs simulations about the consequences of our behaviour. If I behave like this, then this will happen. If I do this, then maybe this will happen.

He says overprotection can do more harm than good.

PROFESSOR GRANT SCHOFIELD: They need this physical stimulus, and they're going to need it at some point in their life. You can do it when they're eight up a tree. You do it when they're 21 in a bar. That's a choice we're making as a society, and we're making that choice consciously.

Still, it's easier to research free-range play than it is to embrace it and to enforce it.

PROFESSOR GRANT SCHOFIELD: Bruce is walking much closer to the line than I am, because he's a hair's breadth away from someone hurting themself, and he being the villain.

ROY WAITE:  The number one rule in snorkelling, remember, don't put your head down too far - you're going to fill your snorkel with water and breathe in water.

Roy and Leda Waite have three boys - all students of Swanson School. Curtis broke his arm when he fell off his scooter during free play. Roy took him straight to the emergency room, then went to see Bruce.

BRUCE MCLACHLAN: He came in through the door - it looked as if he had a face like thunder. I showed him to the seat and we all sat down. He started off by saying, "My son broke his arm in the playground last week." I was all set to launch into an apology when he said...

ROY WAITE:  I'm happy that he's fallen off and broken his arm, as bad as it sounds as a parent. I was happy that he'd fallen off and learned his lesson and hurt himself at school and so on.

BRUCE MCLACHLAN: I just sort of went, "Wow! That's amazing."

Curtis told me he was really relieved - he didn't want to be the reason the experiment failed.

CURTIS: I used to hate going to school. Now I just love it.

But these days on the scooter, he's a little bit more careful. Bruce says fewer kids hurt themselves now than before the no-rules program was introduced. That's despite the ticking time bombs that litter this playground.

The place is an absolute mess. It's full of junk, and they don't even know where lots of it came from. I think kids are just bringing it in from their own houses. There's huge big chunks of timber, jagged edges everywhere, big bits of steel. To adults, it's rubbish. But to kids, it's awesome. The possibilities are endless. And so are the risks.

REPORTER: Do you enforce tetanus shots?


I saw them hurt themselves...

CHILD: I climbed. I'm up here. I'm up... Whoa!

I saw them help each other. Be careful. Considerate. Cooperative.

CHILD:  We can lift that up this way!

No-one was using iPods, smartphones or game consoles. They're not banned, but the kids seem too busy for technology.

BOY:  We're gonna put it down.

The bigger kids who broke up fights seemed to show up just in time, and as soon as the bell rang, they went inside, where the chaos was gone.

BRUCE MCLACHLAN: They're focused on learning here because they have had a chance to burn off all that energy. They've done what they wanted to do, and now they come back in here and they focus on learning.

This calm is proof, Bruce reckons, he's doing the right thing.

BRUCE MCLACHLAN:  And those are your choices.

Concentration, he claims, is up, Incidents of bullying, way down, Confidence - sky-high and injuries - far fewer. The teachers took a while to get on board.

DEANNA UTTLEY, TEACHER:  I kind of went, "My kids are gonna get knocked over. Bruce is crazy! This is crazy."

 ….just crazy enough to work.

BRUCE MCLACHLAN: In New Zealand, we do things, perhaps, a little bit differently. I think we like to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. So we just do it.

It's much easier for schools in New Zealand to test radical ideas - there's a national insurance scheme covering the medical costs of personal injuries, so parents don't tend to sue schools.

ROY WAITE:  Even if worst-case scenario happens, I certainly wouldn't want to take legal action. I think it's bloody great.

Not because of what the teachers do - but what they don't do. This little girl got stuck and asked for help.

GIRL:  Now I forgot how to get down.

When I asked Bruce if I could give her a hand, he told me no.

BRUCE MCLACHLAN:  You get up, you get down.

She did. Then, she climbed straight back up.


Reporter/2nd Camera




Thanks to:
Swanson Primary School students and staff
Principal Bruce McLachlan
The Waite Family

21st October 2014