Editorial: So it's bully for bullrush?

Back in 1998 a Southland Times reporter driving past an Invercargill school noted an offence against school rules, and quite possibly the United Nations Rules of Engagement.

He pulled over and out came the reporting pad. At the time we didn't name the school, which was woossie of us. It was Rosedale Intermediate.

"A big lad with stout legs between his giddy-gout shirt and his ankle-high socks was leaning slightly forward, one hand pressed above his hip as if he had the stitch. He was breathing hard but he had a feral grin.

"Half a field away was his goal, a safety area. In his way were maybe 15 schoolmates, some of them returning his predatory stare. Sure, it was a mismatch, but this one-man Light Brigade had earned these rotten odds. He'd survived unscragged . . . and now seemed ready to make his last glory charge.

"He didn't get the chance. A teacher padded out of a classroom block and in moments the scene dissolved into artificial innocence as the hawkish players suddenly became idle skywatchers or grass-gazers. Nothin' going on here, teacher. Certainly not the forbidden game. The one sometimes called King Caesar but, more often, bullrush."

It took the reporter just half an hour's phone calling to confirm among local schools that, in spite of his assumption, bullrush hadn't disappeared in that 1980s and 1990s climate of concern. The great scrag game had still survived in some southern schools, sometimes unofficially and in some cases sanctioned, albeit in a form that young purists would find objectionable; strictly supervised and pretty much reduced to touch.

A recent report of Auckland's Swanson Primary School's decision to "ditch the playground rulebook" and let children test themselves and burn their energy climbing trees, riding skateboards and playing bullrush, seems to have struck a tuning fork in the ageing loins of many a commentator. On Facebook the story was shared more than 90,000 times and the principal fielded calls from 14 international media organisations and 30 other principals.

The school reported good behaviour up, bad behaviour down. The public consensus was that this was a win for robust, fundamentally healthy fun against the forces that, in deference to safety (and arguably adult exasperation at breakout fights and torn shirts), had forbidden or dissuaded children from embracing the demands and rewards of such games.

Resulting, the complainants concluded, in kids not engaging with the tamer alternatives laid on for them, which in turn has led to greater physical indolence and declining health, itself more dangerous than the occasional twisted ankle or broken bone.

It's a theory. And a legitimate topic for study. That said, however, the willingness of commentators of a certain age to evoke how good things were then and lament how terrible they are now might be at odds with the commonplace sight of so many kids still disporting themselves at schools like good'uns.

Let's not forget that school rules are typically adopted as a result of strong steers not simply from educational officialdom and politicians, but from parents. There's a lot to be said for looking at what kids want to play and working backwards from that to see how we can make it acceptably, but not drearily, safe.

The Southland Times