A Risky Propo­si­tion

The Southern Gazette - - NEWS - BY DARA SQUIRES Dara Squires is a free­lance writer and mother of three. You can con­tact her on Face­book at ‘ www.face­book.com/read­ilya­parent’.

Read­ily a Par­ent

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 doesn’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 re­al­ize 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 that 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 minichild run king­dom in their play­ground.

While most would think 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 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 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 20-30 min­utes of out­door play on a static play­ground with mul­ti­ple rules un­der the watch­ful eyes of the rule­keep­ers.

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.

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