Schoolchildren banned from playing hide-and-seek – and that’s just for starters

A school in England has recently banned children from playing hide-and-seek. It has also banned children from writing notes to each other. It has also – and this truly stretches credibility – banned children from having best friends.

These prohibitions were all passed on to me at an event where I was invited to talk on the topic of risk in childhood. After the talk, a parent came up to me. Her opening words were “I read your book No Fear a few years ago. Back then, I thought you were overstating your case. Now, I realise I was wrong.”

The parent – an articulate mother whose child goes to a private school somewhere in London and the South East – explained that the school had apparently enforced these bans because of concerns about bullying, arguments and upsets. But she was genuinely baffled as to why any school would take such drastic steps.

I share this parent’s bafflement. I take no pleasure in having been proved right, nor in sharing the news in this post. The parent is taking the matter up with the school, in the hope of getting the bans overturned – which is why I am not giving too many details, and not naming her or the school. I will let you know if I hear any more. In the meantime, I would be interested to know if you have heard of any similar prohibitions here in the UK. Leave a comment here, or contact me by email.

48 responses to “Schoolchildren banned from playing hide-and-seek – and that’s just for starters

  1. I hope the parent in question throws the book at them. Worrying how much like ‘total societies’ schools can become. Keep collecting this stories Tim, we all need them at hand to wave when the cynics or willingly blinkered cover their ears.

  2. total madness!! Surely close friends and relationship building should be encouraged – what are we teaching our children?!?!?

  3. Meryl, Mel, Caroline – thanks for your comments. It’s hard to understand why a school would do these things. I know heads feel they have a tough job, but surely they must realise that in the long run such actions are almost certain to be counterproductive? Do any heads or teachers reading this feel inclined to leave a comment?

  4. Sounds like communist china during the revolution.

  5. I remember us being miffed at school when they banned British Bulldog and Stonehenge Football* (this would be late 70s)… Now they may have had a point about those, but for goodness’ sake… I hope that children’s inventiveness in getting around mindless restrictions will be part of what causes the required egg/face action, though as it’s a private school I imagine some voting with feet/wallets might provide some impetus.

    * one rule: “no biting below the ankles”

  6. I’m gob smaked! I feel it’s the inability to deal with situations as they come up and judge each on it’s own merits or de-merits as the case may be. There is an overwhelming desire in todays society to blanket rule everything so that we can some how function like a machine with no emotion in the pursuit of efficiency and ?perfection. We do not value HUMANity any more. It pains me enormously. Let children be children and can we please all take repsonsbility for the odd misdemeanours that inevitably happens and accept the human element in them when they do. To err is in indeed very human. Please, please do away with this god forsaken, mindless blanket rulling and inhibiting in an attempt to cover ones own back and poorly disguise it to be for the good of others!

  7. Ludicrous! I voted with my feet many years ago and took my children out of the school system totally. Somehow they have managed to become bright, happy, kind, polite, well educated, young people without any input from teachers or schools.

    • Margaret O'Donnell

      good for you. My children never went to nursery and still managed to excel, and why shouldn’t they. Between us we have 5 degrees one with a masters. You don’t need the system, just common sense.

  8. You do realise that these rules usually aren’t put into place until after a series of incidents have occurred. It’s a way for the school to protect themselves should something happen as a result of playing those games. The whole best friend thing is really about making sure students don’t feel ostracised in school, which is a form of bullying. Maybe look at from the schools prospective it’s a way to protect themselves from possible issues especially when people can sue over anything. That’s why these policies need to be put in place. It’s unfortunate, but this is the society we have created and so we just have to suck it up.

    • Nick – thanks for your comment. One would hope that such bans are not made lightly. But you seem to be suggesting they should just be accepted. I disagree. Bans like this are part of a wider pattern of the overprotection of children, and the underestimation of their competence. I think schools should be held to account, if their actions damage or undermine children’s growth and development. They need to find ways to resist pressures from anxious parents, who should not be allowed to think that they have a veto over the experiences of all children. Yes schools are part of society, but they can change their rules and ethos – and in any case, wider society is itself capable of change (and is I believe changing for the better on this issue). Finally, I think the fear of being sued is wildly overstated (at least here in the UK).

      • Tim, the reality seems to be parents either accept these rule or change schools. It’s rare for school staff to change their minds once rules have been put in place or at least in my experience. I am a special education teacher and I have seen students become violent over less than a game of “hide and go seek”. So perhaps in mainstream schools these rules are or seem silly but in special education these rules could be the difference between a happy children and a violent one. You talk about schools being accountable if their actions “damage or undermine children’s growth and development”, but isn’t this really a lose-lose situation? If as the school is claiming there is bullying going on isn’t that just as damaging to a children’s development as preventing children engaging in these interactions? So either way the schools are going to be held accountable, by that statement. I’m not saying that schools don’t make silly and pointless rules sometimes, but I think we need to look at the reasons why these rules are made instead of just flatly criticising them.

    • Nick, I agree with your assessment that the rules typically have some sort of precursor. But that doesn’t make them right or justified. Schools should be in the business of protecting children, not protecting themselves.

    • Margaret O'Donnell

      No, we don’t need to accept it. As parents we should have a right to say whether or not a new rule is necessary or not. The vote should go to the majority. I can not believe that parents would vote for a ban on best friends. You can’t stop a child liking one child over another. Just what are these children to do with any spare ‘play time’ they have? Maybe they will just have to sit by themselves and read a book because running about may cause a fall?

      • Margaret – thanks for this. While I’m not sure about a formal vote, I absolutely agree that schools need to take into account the views of all parents, not just the anxious minority (who are often the most vocal). I make the point in my talks: if we give the most anxious a veto, we are cheating all children of valuable learning experiences.

  9. Sarah, Peter, Hillary, Libby – thanks for adding to the voices of concern over this.

  10. How distressing that schools are banning such childhood stalwarts as games and friendships, and couching them as bullying prevention tactics. Seems far wiser and far-reaching to teach empathy, sportsmanship and inclusion, all of which take a little more (worthwhile) effort on the part of the elder. And I thought we only had these problems in the U.S.

    • Hi Suz, and thanks for the comment. I consider Lenore Skenazy a kindred spirit, and follow her Free Range Kids blog. This does give me the impression that things are worse in the US – but we certainly are not without problems like this in the UK.

  11. My child was bullied in an after-school sports program using many of these tactics. It was awful. But it was in fact her best friends and the social strength created by such tactics that also helped her deal with them. You cannot legislate away bad behavior. You can only give kids the tools to resist it.

    • Xan – thanks for this. I’m sorry to hear about what happened to your daughter. I admire the bravery of your statement about the impossibility of legislating away bad behaviour. As I am sure you would agree, this does not mean that schools should not try to tackle bullying. But it does mean that their approaches should be measured and thoughtful. They should not have the side-effect of punishing the innocent.

  12. Banning children from having best friends? Whatever next? This sounds a bit Orwellian. It’s a basic human need to build relationship with others and have friends. And some friends are going to be closer than others. I wonder how exactly the school is going to enforce it? And how does stopping children having best friends tackle bullying? The school should be made to answer these questions as it is accountable to the parents.

    Increasingly I do worry how our generation of children is going to deal with adulthood when they venture out into the real world.

  13. I forgot to mention that a few years back my step-son’s school banned children from playing outside because there were molehills and children may trip and hurt themselves. So, are children only allowed to play on completely flat grounds now? Is it too much to expect a school to do the responsible thing and teach children to watch out for potential risks and deal with them?

  14. Tim – unfortunately this doesn’t surprise me! We’ve trained hundreds of lunchtime supervisors in the last couple of years and our collection of forms of play which are banned in primary school playgrounds is just breath-taking…My personal favourite, and shockingly one of the most common, ‘no running in the playground’. Just what else are you supposed to do on a playground?! Even more worrying perhaps is that we have also heard the same stories in our work in several countries, so it’s not just the UK which appears to have lost the plot…

  15. Hi Tim, thanks for the topic and your shrewd comments. I was shocked when I first read them. I thought “Does it really happen in Britain?” Then I remembered that in Russia, in our kindergartens, parents must sign a paper that the kindergartens’ administration doesn’t take any responsibility if something bad happens with the kid. It looks like our children are marionettes in the hands of school’s or kindergarten’s administration.
    Anyway, I put some of thoughts in my blog:

  16. “but I think we need to look at the reasons why these rules are made instead of just flatly criticising them”… Up to a point, but when a school bans best friends I think you’re well past that point. Children have had best friends since there have been children. It can certainly be a problem if you’re left out (my sister was regularly home in tears because for a while she in a class of 29 there were 14 pairs of Best Friends and… her) but it’s not something you can legislate against because it’s a fundamental human trait, as Mui Tsun notes. Otherwise it’s like trying to deal with the stigma attached to free school meals by banning children from being hungry at lunchtime.

    No running in the playground? It reminds me “You can’t fight in here, this is the war room!” but it’s actually more farcical. My kids’ school has a form letter that often accompanies children home (especially my daughter…) along the lines of “Dear Parent/Carer, ……….. bumped his/her head today but no further action was considered necessary” which seems to be a sensibly measured response to inevitable minor accidents. Non-head scrapes get an “I’ve been brave!” sticker and a suitable strip of plaster if it’s leaking (we’re not sure about the stickers, we think it may encourage the Beertje to have more accidents ;-))

  17. “The whole best friend thing is really about making sure students don’t feel ostracised in school, which is a form of bullying.”

    If a child happens to not be in a best-friends group, no bullying has been committed. Grouping often is a natural process. Children with similar interests and temperament have a tendency to play together. It’s up to the teachers to try and make sure any child who is left out is being included in class activites and being encouraged to participate. If bullying does occur, then parents and teachers should work together to sort out issues. I really can’t see how banning best friends will benefit anybody.

  18. Mui, Shelly, Victoria, Peter – thanks for your contributions. As you know Shelly, schools are not a major focus of my work, so unlike you I don’t have a lot of personal experience. However, this anecdote – and the reaction to it (this page is already my 3rd most viewed post) suggests to me that there is a *lot* that needs addressing in schools. Maybe we need to talk!

    Those following this thread may be interested to know that I look at bullying in my book No Fear. I argue that the problem is one of misdiagnosis: that we are failing to make the crucial (though sometimes difficult) distinction between bullying and more minor fallings-out, spats, fights and arguments that are part and parcel of childhood. Because of this, we are in danger of over-reacting, and closing down children’s opportunities to learn how to sort out their differences for themselves. Ironically, this could leave them at greater risk of bullying, harassment or victimisation as they grow up. A reminder: you can download the whole book as a pdf – just follow the link from the publishers’ web page. See pp.44-45 for the section on bullying.

    • me nither i had a best friend in high school we were really close but then after he started dating this one girl he changed and thats all talked about he didn’t care about me anymore so i had to find a new best friend sure that best friend is my 3 time ex but still a best friend is a best friend

  19. “… distinction between bullying and more minor fallings-out, spats, fights and arguments that are part and parcel of childhood.”

    Totally agree with you Tim. Left to their own devices, children have the ability to sort out minor fallings-out among themselves. It is a valuable part of growing up. Serious bullying is of course different and grown-ups should step in and help sort things out but, like you said, I do believe there’s a lot of over-reacting and misdiagnosis. I hasten to add that I am no child expert. Just a parent who has seen a lot of children interactions, and also someone who remembers the spats and arguments from my own childhood.

  20. For me, the key point in this thread is Nick’s comment: “If as the school is claiming there is bullying going on isn’t that just as damaging to a children’s (sic) development as preventing children engaging in these interactions?”
    I think the answer is no, it isn’t ‘just as’ damaging. I’m puzzled as to why you should think it could be Nick. Bullying is a form of exaggerated relationship, it is a question of degree – not to be condoned, but consistent with human behaviour and the assertion of differences, which goes on all the time in all societies and has to be understood and managed. Denying children the option of exploring the difference between close and less close interactions contradicts and denies natural human behaviour, rather than seeking to accommodate it. It’s surely a profoundly damaging measure, from which it is harder for a personality-under-construction to recover.
    I suppose the most damaging thing you could do is to allow bullying to take place, and then remove the option of discussiing it with others…

  21. I think Western civilization has become so risk averse that they are now just short of banning childhood altogether, as childhood is a time fraught with risk and children are, by nature, risk takers.

    Perhaps in another ten or 20 years, children won’t even be allowed to be together in the same classroom. Instead they will sit in little cubicles, each equipped with a computer and will interact with their teacher only over the computer.

  22. A friend of mine used to work for a major American-owned international management consultancy firm. They had a rule which said no one was allowed to ask personal questions about family, touch each other above the elbow or comment on personal clothing or appearance. So no “oh that’s a nice skirt”, “you got your hair cut? It’s lovely!”, “how’s your son?”. When I first heard it I was horrified. She’d been working there so long as the rules gathered up – all in response to sexual harrassment cases, and each understandable responses to try and stop such incidents – she’d not really thought through the implications. But when looked at fresh you realise that this almost entirely stops the way women in particular bond and network. We don’t talk about football or traffic – yes generalising like mad, but you get the point. It also stops you comforting a distressed colleague, or feeling at ease.

    I understand the comments above that schools will have good reasons for these bans, but they need to be looked at in the round, helped to stand back and realise what they have done.

    Get the local business school in to talk about the skills they value most – it will be the ones they develop in the playground. The resilience gained by dealing with bullies and strength built up by having a best friend – and arguing with them and making up.

    Very important issue.

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  25. Kevin, Cath, Silver Fang – thanks for the comments. As the pingback above says, I’ve posted another blog that I hope takes the topic forward in a constructive way: an interview with ex head and leading educationalist Juliet Robertson. What do people on this thread think of her views?

  26. UPDATE: I have heard back from the parent who first told me about this school. It appears that hide-and-seek is not officially banned, though there are rules in place that aim to prevent children from excluding others – which is confusing to the children (and to the parent). My personal view is that this rule is unhelpful if not unenforceable, and likely to generate more problems than it solves. It also seems that the ban on best friends was enforced by a class teacher trying to deal with friendship issues, and is not an official school position. The ban on note-writing remains in force. More encouragingly, the school has reassured the parent that it is receptive to the need for the children to learn from their experiences. Let’s hope this leads to a more thoughtful approach in future.

  27. Some kids who are bullies love playing hide-and-seek. In this game, they can find a way how to bully a kid or kids. For example, if a kid hide himself/herself inside a box or something that can be locked, bullies are going to lock him/her. Oh, I hate giving this kind of example because it happened to me when I was a kid. :(


    • Italie – thanks for commenting. I am sorry to hear about what happened to you. It is true that sometimes, children are bullied when playing games. Sometimes children are bullied by people who they think of as their best friends. I don’t think that banning games, or banning best friends, solves the problem of bullying.

  28. Hi Tim,

    I am really enjoying reading your work. I am in my final year at University and I am currently writing my dissertation which centers around the topic of children growing up in a risk averse society. It was an excerpt I read from your book “No Fear” which was given to me by one of my lecturers that prompted me to look into researching the topic for my dissertation. I was wondering if there are any articles or books that you could perhaps recommend?

    Many Thanks


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  30. According to an article in yesterday’s Sun newspaper, it is not unusual for schools to ban having best friends. The Sun gives no details – I can’t help wondering if it found the story from me – but some of the quotes are revealing.

  31. It’s going to be quite a shock when these children enter the real world and find a colleague networks they don’t know how to negotiate access to and have a boss that makes their life difficult. School should be about preparing our children and giving them the opportunity to develop many skills for adult life, ignoring difficult social settings at school and plunging out children into Te real world unprepared is cruel and achieving nothing.

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