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Don’t worry, parents, rough play is normal part of childhood: expert

Global News with Mariana Brussoni 25 February 2019

Roughhousing is banned from most Canadian playgrounds, but that may be about to change.

At least two Quebec elementary schools are experimenting with supervised “rough play” zones in the schoolyard.

At Quatre-Vents, an elementary school in Saint-Apollinaire, Que., the “rough play” space is outlined by cones and governed by strict rules.

When children are inside the zone, they are allowed to grab each other’s jackets, make each other fall and roll on the ground together.

Prior to the opening of the zone, Quatre-Vents students were taught how to fall without hurting themselves and that they must immediately halt play when someone says “stop.”

“There are certain students for whom it isn’t enough to simply go run in the schoolyard. They need a little more to get out their energy,” said the school’s principal, Sherley Bernier, in an interview with The Canadian Press.

According to Bernier, those children who play in the zone “are calmer and they’re more focused” when in class.

Only 15 students are allowed in the zone at one time, and participation is voluntary.

Some parents in the Quatre-Vents community have expressed worry over increased violence on the playground, but Bernier believes the program does the opposite by showing children how to act appropriately while still finding a release for their energy.

For Mariana Brussoni, associate professor at the University of British Columbia, this is a welcome update to the modern recess experience.

“With the best of intentions, we’ve really restricted what kids can do [and] how they can play in an attempt to reduce injuries, without actually realizing the unintended negative consequences of that,” Brussoni says.

“Rough and tumble play is a normal part of children’s play. It’s really adults [who are] uncomfortable [with] seeing this kind of aggression that stops it,” says Brussoni.

“[Kids] become really good at moderating the level of strength they use, the extent of force to different kids and different needs,” Brussoni explains. “This negotiation that’s going on might not be explicit, but you can see that kids adapt to each other’s abilities.”

Through her work as an injury prevention researcher at the BC Children’s Hospital, Brussoni has discovered that most people’s favourite play memory usually takes place outdoors in what she calls a “leftover space” — defined as an informal playground, such as a ditch, ravine, forest or parking lot. The play is usually unsupervised, and the subject is taking risks.

“Being outside is important because you have this sense of freedom. You can be louder and move your body more and be more rambunctious outside than you can inside,” Brussoni explains.

“Most formal playgrounds have a piece of fixed equipment, it’s usually really low and really boring. If it’s on your school playground, it’s a piece of equipment that you have seen and used day after day after day for years. It gets really boring really quickly,” says Brussoni.

“If you’re in more flexible spaces, you’ve got materials to play with — loose parts [which] can be moved so they can be used in very different ways. Kids can really use their imagination. The sky’s the limit.”

The typical Canadian recess is heavily supervised, and Brussoni says this can directly stunt the growth of children’s self-confidence.

“Kids start to doubt themselves,” says Brussoni. “They don’t build self-confidence. They expect that adults will be managing risk for them so they don’t build those skills themselves […] and they don’t build the resilience to deal with [risk] themselves.”

This can lead to disengagement, less physical activity and less interest in being outside in nature.

While this program is definitely a step in the right direction, Brussoni believes still more can be done.

As a developmental psychologist, she believes that risk is necessary for a child’s development, and this pilot project eliminates all risk.

“It takes away the spontaneity of play and then it doesn’t become play anymore,” explains Brussoni. “Kids play differently when they know an adult is watching.”

Rough play that allows the children to take risks helps prepare them for the world beyond.

“Risk is everywhere, so we have to be able to manage it and we have to be able to build resilience in our own skills and confidence in developing.”