Nicholas Jones

Nicholas Jones is the New Zealand Herald’s education reporter.

Return of bullrush defies mollycoddlers

Principal Scott Thelning is bringing back bullrush to Cobham Intermediate in Christchurch to encourage risk-taking and development among pupils. Photo / Martin Hunter
Principal Scott Thelning is bringing back bullrush to Cobham Intermediate in Christchurch to encourage risk-taking and development among pupils. Photo / Martin Hunter

Bullrush and other potentially bruising activities are returning to play as research points to the long-term benefits of scraped knees and the odd broken bone.

The moves aim to counterbalance a health-and-safety culture which has seen playgrounds remodelled, particularly overseas where litigation fears have killed off tall slides and seesaws.

Principal Scott Thelning re-introduced bullrush when he was at Christchurch's Mt Pleasant Primary. He's now at the city's Cobham Intermediate, and from Friday, pupils there will be playing the NZ classic.

The game will be monitored by a teacher at first, but eventually children will be able to play unsupervised. A letter will explain the situation to parents and mouthguards will not be compulsory.

"One of the lasting memories of primary school I have is the day I tackled the biggest kid and just dived at his legs and hoped for the best," Mr Thelning said.

"We are always talking about encouraging our students to be risk-takers ... and then we ban and limit things and mollycoddle them ... How do they assess risk if we don't let them?"

An increasing body of overseas research has highlighted the importance of "acceptable risk" in play for children of all ages.

Studies have shown that a child hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.

Psychologists from the Norwegian University for Science and Technology and Queen Maud University concluded that when gradually exposing themselves to greater dangers on the playground, children used the same habitation techniques developed by therapists to conquer phobias.

The researchers, writing in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, put forward that adults' "fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology".

Mr Thelning said there were no complaints or issues when bullrush was reintroduced at Mt Pleasant School, where it is still played.

He told parents there would be three simple rules - no foot-tripping, no grabbing around the head or neck, and a call of "held" ended the physical contact.

The worst injury was when a boy bit his lip hard. Girls played the game too and often won it, he said.

"The kids understood that it was a game, and if you ran into somebody really fast it might hurt. They all absolutely loved it."

Principals' Federation president Philip Harding has recently returned from the United Kingdom, where he saw children wearing high-visibility vests on school outings.

He said New Zealand had escaped the worst of such hyper-caution, and supported the comeback of some rough-and-tumble games at schools.

"We have got to allow children the opportunity to hang on to things until their arms get sore, and know the penalty for letting go."

Countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States - where tall slides and seesaws have been removed because of litigation fears - have seen a growing backlash against the remodelling of playgrounds.

- NZ Herald

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