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By providing the location for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, New Zealand has done very well from its association with elves. But there’s one ‘elf’ that gets short shrift down under and that’s ’elf and safety.

New Zealand has a universal national insurance system for accidental injuries. Except in certain strictly defined circumstances, accident victims have no right to sue an at-fault party.This has helped New Zealand become the world’s adventure sports capital. Not for nothing was bungee jumping invented there.

Now, one school in New Zealand is applying this gung-ho approach to children. Last year, Bruce McLachlan, the headmaster of Swanson School in Auckland, decided to stop over-regulating the playtime behaviour of his pupils.

Sarah Boesveld reports on the results for Canada’s National Post:

“There used to be ‘understandings,’ or unwritten rules about what was forbidden on the playground. ‘Kids weren’t allowed to ride these scooters on the playground, they weren’t allowed to climb trees and they weren’t allowed to do those things because they could hurt themselves,’ Mr. McLachlan said.

“‘I’ve been the principal who’s stood there and said ‘Oy, kid! Get off your bike! You’ve got to walk your bike!’ Then I’d go away and think ‘Why the hell did I say that?’’”

But then came an Auckland University research programme which “gave 16 schools a grant of $15,000 to build their vision of a playground that would reintroduce risk and help encourage physical activity in children”:

“[McLachlan] knew children might get hurt, and that was exactly the point — perhaps if they were freed from the ‘cotton-wool’ in which their 21st century parents had them swaddled, his students may develop some resilience, use their imaginations, solve problems on their own.”

It turned out that the experiment had a beneficial effect on what happened in the classroom as well as in the playground:

“…the results spoke for themselves, [McLachlan] said… The students weren’t hurting themselves — in fact, they were so busy and physically active at recess that they returned to the classroom ready to learn. They came back vibrant and motivated, not agitated or annoyed.

“‘They also weren’t telling tales on each other or going ‘So and so did this to me,’ which is what teachers deal with during recess time,’ he said.”

Of course, accidents will happen – and thus it was that Principal McLachlan found himself face-to-face with the father of an injured pupil. The conversation went something like this:

“‘My son broke his arm in the playground, and I just want to make sure…’ he began.

“‘And I’m thinking ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen?’’ Mr. McLachlan recalled…

“The parent continued: ‘I just wanted to make sure you don’t change this play environment, because kids break their arms.’”

One can’t easily imagine such a conversation taking place in Britain, where the effect of the compensation culture has been to place ever-greater restrictions on what children can do both in and out of school.

It may be that we’re beginning to realise just how over-protective we’ve become. Let’s hope so, because the lesson from New Zealand is this: If want to let our children be children, then our adults need to grow up.

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