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Surveillance and the delicate social balance in school playgrounds

Australian school councils have come out pushing for surveillance cameras to be implemented into school playgrounds to help fight bullying and crime.

This is a highly delicate issue, as one of the keys for creating a positive, social school playground is providing a level of freedom for students to gain independence away from adult scrutiny.

The balancing act of student-teacher social interactions

The social balance within school playgrounds is intricate. Some students state ‘the more people the merrier’ for their play spaces, while others can be intimidated by territorial issues with older students, or the mixing of year levels.

The delicate balance continues in teachers, with portions of students wanting teachers to engage with them or monitor their spaces if something goes wrong. Yet other students feel increased teacher presence can stifle their play.

Researchers suggest there is a tipping point between a very low level of involvement and a high level of interference from teachers. Yet if surveillance cameras are brought into school playgrounds, this has the potential to swing the balance into the overall interference range.

The social concerns in school playgrounds

Social behaviour in schools is very difficult to predict as moods, preferences and dynamics can change from one day to the next. Bullying is one major social barrier to playing in school playgrounds, including incidences of stealing equipment, gender, age and weight-related intimidation.

The extent of play in school playgrounds is reported to reduce in schools where bullying is common. Students can also be intimidated by large numbers and prefer to seek out quieter areas.

Other recognised social barriers for students in school playgrounds include lashing out at others when bored, not having peers to play with, getting along with others, or being pressured into group activities.

What is happening with teachers and supervision?

Supervising school playgrounds is an area many teachers wish to forego due to the many other demands that can be placed on them beyond classroom duties (for example, crowded curricula and the pace of change).

In almost every Australian school, teachers undertake an equal amount of playground supervision (or yard duty, as it is commonly known). Supervision occurs before school, during school (recess periods) and after school, cutting into a significant percentage of teachers’ other tasks across a school day.

Unlike classroom teaching wherein teachers have to follow policies and guidelines on planning, pedagogy, time allocations and assessments, there are no such broad guidelines for the management of school playgrounds.

Teachers are constantly working across a tightrope of decisions as to whether students’ play is too risky, unhygienic, violent/aggressive or worthwhile.

Moreover, adults can often perceive students’ playground time as a time of anxiety and stress for them, due to the occasionally chaotic and risky activities that can unfold.

The overall impact of adult supervision on students’ play has not had great results, with several studies consistently finding adult presence, scrutiny and monitoring can reduce levels of play engagement.

This relationship has also been reflected in school research, with observations that students play less frequently in directly supervised areas, although school-based evidence is less conclusive in this regard.

Is CCTV surveillance the answer to these pressures?

Surveillance technologies such as closed circuit TV (CCTV) cameras are often installed to detect or deter misbehaviour in students, and to help promote a ‘risk free’ context.

There is no doubt our students require protection, direction and care, yet surveillance in schools can take away the opportunity for students to feel trusted, live up to trust and learn how to trust others.

Surveillance is best placed outside of the school, as a reasonable measure to counter any risk of intruders, vandalism and unexplained student exits.

Setting high expectations and providing responsibility to troubled students is a widely established teaching strategy to build trust and belonging. Yet heavy regulations (like increased surveillance) or an exaggeration of fear can leave little room for students to act responsibly, and can result in a culture of suspicion and anxiety.

Students have mentioned the importance of being trusted in the school playground and for adults to ‘not be so controlling’. Play experts also acknowledge that having spaces away from the adult eye (including CCTV) or presence is important for students’ development.

When students have been given opportunities to self-direct their play in school playgrounds, they have tended to develop spaces in peripheral areas ‘away from the spotlight’, such as around fenced boundaries and tree coverage.

It is in these independent spaces where magic can be fostered by transforming mundane objects, concepts and ideas into vibrant play worlds.

Suggestions for moving forward

School decisions when planning and designing school playgrounds (including introducing CCTV) often involve little consultation with students.

The reliance on adults in the design and planning of school playgrounds can lead to undesired school playgrounds settings, resulting in reduced play engagement in the long term.

There is a long-held tension between a student’s choice to play freely and adults’ non-play agendas and concerns with respect to the school playground.

One long-held belief is that parents and teachers can often see playground spaces as an opportunity to ‘pursue their own adult agendas’ whilst students ‘let off steam’.

Although some students have mentioned the idea of surveillance in school playgrounds, more evidence and student consultation is required to support any such intervention.

Rather than being reactive by implementing another restrictive play regulation in school playgrounds, a strengths-based approach is needed to ensure students are safe, engaged and enjoying activities.

Dr Brendon Hyndman is Course Director of Postgraduate Studies in Education and a Senior Lecturer at Charles Sturt University.

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