The hole was big, to kid eyes it was a crowning achievement. As we put the finishing touches on it a lifeguard walked by “You’ll have to fill that in” he said “it’s not allowed.” Slowly we started dumping sand back into the pit. My littlest cousin came running up “What are you DOING?” she asked. “We have to” I said “the lifeguard told us to.” She let out a big sigh and shrugged her shoulders “Grown-ups are grown-ups and rules are rules.”
I’m sure you’ve had that moment. You are told a rule, but not WHY. It doesn’t make any sense. You just are supposed to accept it “because I said so.” I pushed back on that idea this morning during my workshop on outdoor play.
Together we brainstormed a list of playground rules. Things like “sit on the swings” and “only go down the slide” and “no throwing sand.” When we’d filled up the paper I read through it with them and then asked “Why?” Why did they have that rule?
At first you could tell people were a little offended. It is a rule! We have it for a reason! It is for safety, for fairness, for…but I gently kept pushing. Some of the rules DID have a reason, it was a licensing requirement, or a real immediate safety threat but there were other rules that seemed to be there because it had always been that way.
We talked about “only go down the slide” something that is pretty common on many playgrounds. What would happen if you got rid of that rule? “It’s for safety” was the first response “They’ll crash into each other.”Will they though? They can learn to navigate up and down ladders and stairs and other structures, why not slides?
Like any situation where you encourage kids to take a risk they need to know the limits and the expectations. One playground had only tube slides, it would be harder for teachers to monitor that one. A kindergarten teacher said her kids knew they could do it when it was just them but when the toddlers came out they stopped. We also acknowledged that different groups of kids would be ready for the rules to relax at different times and they might have to make a call based on group dynamics.
In the end, what I was encouraging wasn’t for all rules to be thrown out the window, but instead to think about why the rules were there in the first place. If they couldn’t come up with “why” then did they really need the rule? Or, could it be changed around a little bit?
This is something I’d encourage educators AND museums to do. Often rules started out for a good reason, but have stuck around because “we’ve always done it” Or maybe the rule is there because the alternative would be a hassle for us…but if we were being honest it isn’t unsafe or really a problem. Thinking through the “whys” for your rules will let you see if it is really the best way to meet your goal.