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No Rules Rules OK


If you have read Lord of the Flies, you might have got the impression that children left to their own devices can only come to harm. Held up as a mirror to the world and used at GCSE level to explore literature and human behaviour, the novel suggests no good can come from such chaos.

But that, thankfully for Piggy, isn’t real life and a study in New Zealand suggests abandoning rules and letting children take risks might be better for everyone in the long run.

Swanson Primary School in Auckland got rid of playtime rules as part of a university experiment and, as a result, has seen a ‘drop in bullying, serious injuries and vandalism, while concentration levels in class are increasing’. Instead of expensive play equipment, children used mudslides, played on skateboards and climbed trees: activities that health and safety regulations prevent in many schools.

Principal Bruce McLachlan said that wrapping children in cotton wool was preventing them from taking risks and making the necessary mistakes to learn things that would stand them in good stead for adulthood. Originally aimed at promoting active play, the study had much wider benefits, with fewer staff needing to monitor playtimes and a more refreshed group of children by the time the bell rang. With relative freedom and no chance to get bored, bad behaviour was minimised.

So what lessons can we learn if we hold the Swanson Primary School example as a mirror to the adult world?

We have heard (and heard) about schemes like Google’s 20% time, where employees are given one day a week to spend time on a project or hobby of their own choice. With this came great excitement, followed by a rash of suggestions that nobody really bothered with it because they were all too focused on their big and important work tasks. But maybe that’s the point. Give a member of staff some rope and they won’t take a mile or hang themselves, they will just enjoy knowing it’s there. They have options.

Basecamp – the company that makes useful work software to simplify busy lives – also offers time: a month’s sabbatical for every three years with the company, a day off in summer for every year in the company, and a menu of package holidays to make sure employees take their holiday allocation and come back rested.

As for rules, getting ride of structure has worked for online retailer Zappos, which got rid of managers, applying the Holacracy model. It is one of the largest companies to have implemented this flat approach and as a result, can farm ideas from every rung of the company, not just those on the front line.

But that’s just one change. If company X announced an end to rules, would the employees turn up to work, setting up a subculture of rules, like the children in Lord of the Flies? Or could we be trusted to be like the children of Swanson Primary School, and use the no rules rule within healthy limits?

Swanson School signed up to the study by AUT and Otago University just over two years ago. The project started when researchers considered how their own risk taking affected their lives. They are said to be amazed by the behavioural impact. The final results will be collated this year and we will be keen to see them, and what the wider world makes of them.

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