Change of School Playground Environment on Bullying: A Randomized Controlled Trial
OBJECTIVE: To investigate whether increasing risk and challenge in primary school playgrounds influences interactions between children.
METHODS: In a 2-year cluster-randomized controlled trial, 8 control schools were asked to not change their play environment, whereas 8 intervention schools increased opportunities for risk and challenge (eg, rough-and-tumble play), reduced rules, and added loose parts (eg, tires). Children (n = 840), parents (n = 635), and teachers (n = 90) completed bullying questionnaires at baseline, 1 (postintervention), and 2 (follow-up) years.
RESULTS: Intervention children reported higher odds of being happy at school (at 2 years, odds ratio [OR]: 1.64; 95% confidence interval [CI]: 1.20–2.25) and playing with more children (at 1 year, OR: 1.66; 95% CI: 1.29–2.15) than control children. Although intervention children indicated they were pushed/shoved more (OR: 1.33; 95% CI: 1.03–1.71), they were less likely to tell a teacher (OR: 0.69; 95% CI: 0.52–0.92) at 2 years. No significant group differences were observed in parents reporting whether children had “ever” been bullied at school (1 year: P = .23; 2 years: P = .07). Intervention school teachers noticed more bullying in break time at 1 year (difference in scores: 0.20; 95% CI: 0.06–0.34; P = .009), with no corresponding increase in children reporting bullying to teachers (both time points, P ≥ .26).
CONCLUSIONS: Few negative outcomes were reported by children or parents, except for greater pushing/shoving in intervention schools. Whether this indicates increased resilience as indicated by lower reporting of bullying to teachers may be an unanticipated benefit.
- CI —
- confidence interval
- OR —
- odds ratio
- PRAQ-R —
- Peer Relations Assessment Questionnaires–Revised
What’s Known on This Subject:
Qualitative research suggests that keeping children busy and active during playtime can reduce bullying. However, whether increasing risk and challenge in play, which is critical for child development, affects how children interact with one another is unknown.
What This Study Adds:
Children from intervention schools with more opportunities for risk and challenge were happier at school and played with more children. Although they reported being pushed and shoved more, this translates into lower reporting of bullying to adults.
Play positively affects children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development,1–3 encouraging curiosity, imagination, gross motor activity, decision-making, and creative thinking, particularly playing outdoors in an unrestricted environment.4–9 Healthy play should also involve some risk, such as trying something new, being close to losing control, and overcoming fear.10,11 From a young age, children seek risk when they play and use their judgment to assess risk and potential injury.12,13 Children want risk; playgrounds are said to be “boring” if no risk is involved.14
However, little research has examined the pros and cons of greater risk and challenge in play.8,15–18 Qualitative studies show that keeping children busy and active during playtime can increase collaborative play and reduce bullying,19–21 but how risk and challenge itself influence bullying is understudied.21 Examining this issue seems timely given that bullying is common22,23 and negatively affects children’s health.24,25 Making playgrounds more interesting by meeting the need for greater risk and challenge could conceivably make children less likely to seek out other challenges in the form of unwanted behaviors.26 Although bullying has been defined as intentional, repeated, and negative behavior directed at a person who has difficulty defending him- or herself either because of an actual or perceived power imbalance,27 varying definitions exist, with some preferring “aggression.”28 There is also concern that the term “bullying” is overused and often includes behaviors that do not constitute bullying.29
We recently undertook a 2-year cluster-randomized controlled trial to determine whether increasing opportunities for risk and challenge within the school playground influenced physical activity and body weight in children.30 This study was powered on the basis of physical activity but provided a unique opportunity to explore whether the intervention affected children’s interactions with one another, particularly negative interactions like bullying.
The PLAY study was undertaken in 16 New Zealand primary schools (years 1–8 inclusive) that were randomly assigned to the intervention (given NZ$15 000 to assist with altering school play spaces) or the control (asked to not change anything in their school play spaces and given NZ$5000 toward playground redevelopment at study end) conditions for 2 years (1-year intervention, 1-year follow-up). Ethical approval was obtained from the University of Otago (reference 10/077) and the Auckland University of Technology (reference 10/95) ethics committees.
Main methods are outlined elsewhere.30 In brief, low- to middle-decile schools (greater proportion of students from low socioeconomic areas) with at least 150 pupils in the Otago and Auckland regions of New Zealand were approached (n = 21) and recruitment stopped once 16 schools provided signed consent. The research was discussed with all eligible children in class and signed consent was obtained from parents. No incentives were provided for children or parents. Pairs of schools were created by matching for region, school roll, and decile ranking and were randomly assigned to the intervention or control conditions by tossing a coin. Baseline data were collected from March to December 2011.
At baseline and 1 year, the play environments of all 16 schools were evaluated for 7 play opportunities: (1) risk and challenge, (2) engagement with natural elements, (3) ability to actively manipulate and change the play environment (eg, loose parts), (4) wheeled play (eg, bicycles, skateboards), (5) ball games, (6) opportunity for children to socialize, and (7) quality of independent access. Each item was scored from 1 (very poor) to 5 (excellent), and an overall score was determined for the whole school play environment (maximum of 35). After baseline evaluations, intervention schools were provided with tailored suggestions for improvements including the following: reducing the number of school rules (allowing tree climbing or rough-and-tumble play), allowing children to play outside when raining, using bicycles and skateboards at school (currently not typically allowed), and encouraging free play (use of loose parts such as tires and tree stumps to encourage imaginative play). Figure 1 shows one of the larger environmental changes (building mounds in a previously flat space). Because only low- to middle-socioeconomic schools were recruited, most recommendations involved no to little additional cost (eg, letting the grass grow long to encourage imaginative play, repurposing real estate signs for sledding down hills, plastic piping for water play). All children in intervention schools were exposed to the intervention; however, for pragmatic reasons, only those in years 2 (aged 6–7) and 4 (aged 8–9) were asked to participate in outcome assessments.
Outcome Assessments: Peer Relations Assessment Questionnaires–Revised
A peer-relations assessment package31 was used to assess bullying at all time points with separate questionnaires for children, parents, and teachers. The Peer Relations Assessment Questionnaires–Revised (PRAQ-R) survey multiple stakeholders in the school community, so that repeated questionnaires can assess intervention effectiveness. Because of copyright issues, permission was not granted to reproduce these questionnaires in full; only those questions relevant to our specific groups were included in analyses.
The PRAQ-R for Junior Students was completed during school time, with the children in small groups and separated so they could not see each other’s answers. Ten questions asked the children (1) how they felt at school, (2) whether they liked playtime, (3) how they played during playtime, and (4) whether they had ever been a bully or a victim at school (Supplemental Table 5). Cartoons illustrated some concepts (eg, Fig 2 shows physical bullying). Other questions were presented with smiley faces ranging from happy to sad. The questionnaire did not mention “bullying,” and no discussion preceded the questionnaire other than to explain to children that they were not being examined and that their answers would remain private. The questions were read out loud to the children by the same researcher at each measurement, and children recorded their answers on the forms.
The PRAQ-R for Parents (3 questions) was completed at all 3 time points, included a definition of bullying (Supplemental Table 6), and assessed whether bullying had “ever” occurred. Parents were asked about (1) their child’s relationships with other children in their class, (2) whether their child had been bullied at school, and (3) how this had affected their child.
Only the teachers of children in years 2 and 4 at baseline (eg, 4–11 teachers per school) and all 16 school principals were asked to complete the PRAQ-R for Teachers each time. The questionnaire included a definition of bullying (Supplemental Table 7) and 8 questions asking about (1) different types of bullying, (2) where it occurred, (3) whether it was reported to them, and (4) whether the teachers believed the school was a safe place for students.
Statistical Analysis of PRAQ-R Questionnaires
The data were analyzed according to modified intention-to-treat following the CONSORT (Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials) statement extended for cluster-randomized trials.32,33 The sample size of 331 per group was based on detecting important differences in the main outcomes (BMI z score, minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity) rather than for bullying, a secondary outcome of PLAY.30 Generalized estimating equations with the use of a logit link, with an exchangeable correlation matrix and robust SEs, were used to analyze the data, which were recoded to have binary outcomes before analysis (see Supplemental Tables 5 and 6). The results, which compared the 2 groups, are presented as population-averaged estimates of the odds ratios (ORs). The models accounted for clustering by school and included terms for sex, age, measurement period, and dummy variables for the pairs of schools formed as part of the randomization procedure. Exploratory models considered sex × group interactions to determine if the results differed for boys and girls; where these were significant, separate estimates for boys and girls were derived from the model. Because the number of teachers was relatively small, regression analysis with the use of robust SEs was used to analyze these questionnaires for each time period. The results are therefore presented as differences in scores (Supplemental Table 7). No adjustment was made for multiple testing.
A total of 840 children were measured at baseline, with 630 remaining at 2 years (75% retention). Only 4 children (0.5%) withdrew from the main study, the remainder being lost to follow-up because of moving out of the area, a level of usual “transience”34,35 (Fig 3). Intervention and control children were broadly comparable at baseline (Table 1).
Five questions asked the children about “happiness” at school and during playtime and some inconsistencies were apparent (Table 2). For example, intervention children were more likely to play with a lot of children at 1 year (OR: 1.66; 95% confidence interval [CI]: 1.29–2.15) and reported significantly higher odds of being happy at school at 2 years (question 5; OR: 1.64; 95% CI: 1.2–2.25). However, they were also less likely to “like the children in their class” (OR: 0.53; 95% CI: 0.41–0.70) at 2 years. In terms of bullying, no significant differences were observed between groups in verbal (question 9a: shouting) or relational (question 9b: exclusion) bullying at any time point. Intervention children were more likely to say they had been pushed/shoved (question 9c: physical bullying) during playtime, but this finding was only statistically significant at 2 years (OR: 1.33; 95% CI: 1.03–1.71). This increased reporting of pushing/shoving was reflected by lower (not higher) reports of bullying to teachers at 2 years (OR: 0.69; 95% CI: 0.52–0.92). Further analysis of “liking playtime” (question 7) showed there was a significant interaction between group and sex (P = .002), with boys being 1.52 times (95% CI: 1.01–2.28 at 1 year) more likely and girls half as likely (0.46; 95% CI: 0.23–0.92 at 2 years) to like playtime. By contrast, there were no significant sex × group interactions for the 3 questions regarding type of bullying (verbal, relational, or physical).
Of the 840 children with baseline measures, 635 parent questionnaires were received at baseline, 542 at 1 year, and 517 at 2 years. Parents indicated that intervention children were significantly more likely to have happy relations with other students at school at 1 year (OR: 1.96; 95% CI: 1.18–3.26), although this pattern was reversed at follow-up (OR: 0.49; 95% CI: 0.26–1.00) (Table 3). There were no significant differences in the number of parents reporting whether their child had ever been bullied at school (P = .23 at 1 year, P = .07 at 2 years), nor whether they had been bothered by this bullying (both P ≥ .29).
A total of 104 teachers completed the baseline questionnaire, with 90 (87%) completing at least 1 subsequent questionnaire (others had left the schools). As was observed with children and parents, few differences were apparent between the intervention and control schools (Table 4). No significant differences were observed regarding the frequency of name-calling or cruel teasing. However, teachers in the intervention schools reported a higher frequency of physical bullying (difference in scores: 0.23; 95% CI: 0.07–0.39) and a tendency for more deliberate exclusion (0.20; 95% CI: 0.00–0.40) at 2 years. Differences in these behaviors were only observed at break time, not in the classroom, and were only significant at 1 year (0.20; 95% CI: 0.06–0.034). However, there was no evidence of a corresponding increase in reported bullying to teachers from children (P ≥ .26 at both time points), nor did it affect how the teachers viewed the safety of their school environment for children (P ≥ .19 for both years).
Our study showed that increasing risk and challenge in the school playground to encourage more imaginative and risky play had relatively little effect on how children interacted with one another. Generally speaking, intervention children appeared happier at school, although some inconsistency in their response to different questions was apparent. Although both children and teachers reported more pushing/shoving or physical contact at intervention schools, this situation did not seem to be an issue for children, teachers, or parents. Interestingly, intervention children were significantly less likely to inform the teacher that someone had tried to hurt them, and the small difference noted in physical bullying by teachers was only significant at 1 year, and not serious enough to affect their view of whether the school was a “safe place” for children. Nor was this additional physical contact “going home” to parents, with parents from both groups reporting similar levels of bullying. However, the child’s sex may be important; boys appeared to enjoy playtime more than girls, perhaps reflecting this increased physical contact.29
It is difficult to compare our data with the literature because of the scarcity of studies investigating how risk and challenge in play influences interactions between children. Teachers believe that playground interventions encourage more cooperative play and that busy, active children “stay out of trouble.”19,21 Introducing loose parts (materials not typically considered as play equipment, eg, wood offcuts, tires) has been thought to lead to fewer incidents of aggressive behavior.19 School principals have also attributed a reduction in playground bullying to introducing an activity coordinator into schools to encourage activity during breaks. Whether this reduction was because children were more active, or simply because an additional adult was present on the playground is uncertain,20 but earlier work indicates that adult supervision is important for reducing bullying.37–39 However, it is also time-consuming, costly, and not always sustainable.37 Our PLAY intervention aimed to provide more opportunities for self-motivated play and engagement between children to encourage collaborative play and to increase risk and challenge,30 which, in turn, appears to have increased the amount of physical contact. However, it could be argued that the greater degree of interaction between children and the increased pushing are indicators of “success” in that the suggestions were so well accepted, they were noticeable in the playground. This is not to underplay the seriousness of bullying, which can be pervasive. Our results indicate that 50% to 61% of parents reported their child had “ever” been bullied, figures similar to those observed previously.40 Although serious bullying is the single reason why students feel unsafe at school,22 it seems unlikely that our children were being seriously bullied given that they reported being happy at school.
Results from all 3 participating groups indicated that despite this additional pushing and shoving in intervention schools, children in these schools were no more likely (and indeed, less likely at 2 years) to tell a teacher they had been bullied than children in control schools. There are several potential reasons for this apparent discrepancy. It is possible that children accepted the pushing and shoving as a normal part of the more dynamic play environment. We speculate that this, in turn, is helping children learn how to resolve minor conflicts among themselves without seeking the help of teachers. This observation was raised by teachers as a possible mechanism through separate exit interviews undertaken with school staff.41 Alternatively, it is possible that the children felt they could not approach the teachers about the pushing and shoving because it was part of the altered play environment. This possibility seems unlikely, however, because related qualitative work with these young children showed that children in intervention schools were often unaware the intervention even existed, and certainly could not describe how the playground had changed over time.29 Although teachers in intervention schools reported more bullying during breaks than in control schools, exit interviews with staff involved directly with the intervention did not reflect these views. On the occasions bullying was mentioned, it was to emphasize that bullying and undesirable behaviors had declined since the intervention.41 Finally, the measurement tool may be an issue; teachers found the PRAQ-R to be difficult to answer because they simply did not see bullying as a big issue in their schools. Teachers often felt the need to explain their “middle of the road” answers and were concerned that the middle answers (eg, occasional bullying) may indicate a problem at the school where there was none; however, they did so because they were reluctant to answer that there was never a problem.
The main strengths of our study were the large sample size, 2-year duration, and the assessment of children’s interactions from multiple viewpoints, which enabled a more comprehensive view of the school environment. Intervention fidelity was achieved with intervention schools providing more opportunities than control schools for risk and challenge and wheeled play in particular, whereas control schools did not make any substantial changes to their play environment.30 The main limitation of our study is that bullying is difficult to assess.42 When we commenced PLAY, few options were available for quantitatively assessing children’s relationships, and we chose the short PRAQ-R questionnaires to reduce participant burden. However, its brevity meant that we could not gather information about the wider context or intent of bullying, so it may be insufficient for assessing such a complex behavior. There was also no time frame (eg, “last month/fortnight/week/term”) in any of the questionnaires, and convergence problems when analyzing the data meant that we dichotomized variables rather than treating them as multinomial, thus losing information and statistical power.43 The questions asked of each group also may appear somewhat disconnected, which might complicate comparison and interpretation. However, a strength of the questionnaire is that it assesses “bullying” from multiple perspectives; thus, different questions are required. Our observation that boys liked playtime more than girls was surprising given that thoughtfully designed play spaces deliver more choice and opportunity to expand physical skills for both boys and girls whether they possess low or high physical ability.44 However, caution should be applied when interpreting these findings, given that our study was not powered to detect differences between boys and girls as shown by the wide CIs. Finally, although we had a large sample of children and parents, we had a smaller sample of teachers, which led to wide CIs for many of the estimates. In retrospect, we should have asked all teachers at each school to complete the teacher questionnaire, because it referred to the wider school environment rather than to the children specifically being measured in PLAY.
Our study shows that increasing risk and challenge in the school playground produced positive effects, with children reporting being happier in intervention schools, a view that was supported by their parents. Although findings from teachers initially appeared to be more negative, these were attributed to the questionnaire and were in direct contrast to strong supportive views expressed by other school staff more directly involved in the intervention. Although intervention children also reported greater pushing and shoving at school, the teaching staff felt that this increased contact translated into greater resilience in the children, as indicated by significantly lower reporting of bullying to them. Such a positive effect suggests an interesting and unanticipated benefit of introducing activities that encourage children to explore greater degrees of risk and challenge in the school environment and warrants further examination.
We recognize and thank the many children, families, schools, and teachers who participated in this research and the research assistants who helped with data collection.
- Accepted January 30, 2017.
- Address correspondence to Rachael W. Taylor, PhD, Department of Medicine, University of Otago, PO Box 56, Dunedin 9054, New Zealand. E-mail:
This trial has been registered with the Australia New Zealand Clinical Trial registry (identifier ACTRN12612000675820).
FINANCIAL DISCLOSURE: The authors have indicated they have no financial relationships relevant to this article to disclose.
FUNDING: The PLAY study was funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand, and the Otago Diabetes Research Trust. Dr Farmer was in receipt of a Medicine Award and subsequently a Lottery Health Research New Zealand PhD Scholarship during her PhD study. Dr Taylor is partially funded by a fellowship from the Karitane Products Society Limited. The funders had no role in the design of the study; the collection, analysis, and interpretation of the data; the writing of the manuscript; or the decision to submit the article for publication.
POTENTIAL CONFLICT OF INTEREST: The authors have indicated they have no potential conflicts of interest to disclose.
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- Copyright © 2017 by the American Academy of Pediatrics