There are lots of theories about bullies. To some, they’re pitiful victims of low self-esteem, driven to hurt others by their own self-loathing. To others, they’re arrogant, unfeeling jerks with a future in the penitentiary. A recent study commissioned by the Royal Bank of Scotland suggests something much simpler: they’re bored, and given a more stimulating play space, they’d spend recess exercising their imaginations and their bodies instead of their fists.
1/6th of the children in the study reported being bored on the playground and ¼ reported being bullied. (In the United States, 17% of kids in grades 6-10 report being bullied.) When playgrounds were redesigned by the non-profit group Learning Through Landscapes, bullying dropped by 64% and vandalism dropped by 28%. What worked this magic? A private “friendship bench” staffed with a friendly student “buddy” for loners to talk to, a “games master” to lead kids in old-fashioned playground games, lots of colorful platforms for climbing, and grassy space, hills and boulders to provide a link to nature.
“They have no exposure to nature,” says John Rooney of Gotham Playgrounds and Surfacing in San Diego. “A lot of playgrounds are metal and plastic. A movement has started to make more natural playgrounds. It make sense to me.”
Modern playgrounds are probably safer than they’ve ever been, a development that owes as much to fear of litigation as it does to child development experts. Structures are built of metal tubing with rounded edges, the ground is padded with rubber chips, and potentially dangerous toys like seesaws, merry-go-rounds and tall slides have gone the way of the dodo bird. While this may make life easier for anxious school officials, it doesn’t leave much room for exhiliration.
So what does an engaging playground look like? Dr. Vicki Folds, Ed.D, Director of Curriculum Development for childcare provider Children of America, agrees with Learning Through Landscapes that the focus should be on providing space for collaborative, active play. “Instead of purchasing expensive stationary playground equipment think physical activities and what portable elements you need to accomplish those activities,” she says. “Organize at least two different daily choices of activities to do that teachers take to the playground such as ball bouncing, chasing bubbles, bean bag toss, hula hoops, shoot the hoop, jump ropes, etc.”
Experts agree that unsupervised play can lead to problems. “Teachers need a plan for their outdoor time just like they do for their indoor learning times,” says Fold. “Teachers must circulate the playground during the entire outdoor time. Teachers should engage in activities with slow starters and participate when invited.” To engage the quieter kids who often suffer from bullying, she suggests, “Offer other choices besides the traditional playground options; such as setting up an art area with an easel and art material, setting up a quiet reading area, etc. When able, start a flower or vegetable garden so children have responsibilities for tending and taking care of the garden as a school project.”
Of course, all these improvements require adult supervision and funding that not every school district can afford. For parents worried about bullying, though, a few hours spent volunteering on the playground may pay off in peace of mind.
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