Necessary roughness? Increasing playground risk-taking to reduce bullying

In the annual Mott Poll of US adults’ top 10 children’s health concerns, bullying ranked as the biggest concern in 2016. Many experts have tried to prevent bullying by reducing risks at school, but researchers in New Zealand took a different approach: increasing the amount of risks young children take on the school playground.

Playground environments at eight schools were modified to increase opportunities for children to be challenged and take risks. Reduced playground rules and new structures like mounds and loose tires were implemented to encourage rough-and-tumble playing. Children, teachers, and parents at these schools completed surveys about bullying – along with others at comparison schools that kept their playground environments the same. Although students playing on the modified playgrounds said they were pushed or shoved more often, they were less likely to report being bullied to a teacher and they were more likely to say they were happy at school.

Mott Poll co-director Sarah Clark commented on this study in Reuters, encouraging parents to “back off” and give their kids space to take risks during play. Clark mentions that this type of play builds resilience, and the results of the New Zealand study indicate it may also reduce the risks of bullying.

As bullying remains a major health concern for children and teens, this new research suggests potential new avenues for anti-bullying intervention efforts—beginning at very young ages right on the school playground.