An elementary school in Langley British Columbia has been in the news for the last few days because it recently implemented a ‘no-hands’ recess policy for kids in kindergarden. Ya, you read that right. Because of a number of injuries, the school has ‘ban[ned] all forms of hands-on play’. This includes ‘tag, holding hands and imaginary fighting games’. The policy was put in place for the safety of the children.
We aren’t keeping kids safe by telling them they can’t touch. It feels absolutely absurd to even write those words. As a sexual health educator, when I think about this policy, I immediately think about the impacts of teaching abstinence as sex education. This perspective seems mightily similar to Coghlan Fundamental Elementary School’s new ‘hands-off’ policy. Fundamentally, both are stating that if there is no touching, there will be no injury.
First, people touch. For the under 6 set and for the massive group that we might call ‘unmarried’, touching is a fundamental way to communicate with others. And for the most part, it’s healthy and enriching and promotes positive connection and relationships. Or at least that’s what we ought to teach kids.
Secondly, people get hurt. And while sometimes the injuries are significant, for the most part (young and unmarried) people fall, cry, get up and carry on.
The interplay between touching and getting hurt is actually important. This idea of keeping people safe by disallowing touch just doesn’t fly. Our kids need to test boundaries in order to determine where the line in the sand is. As they and their bodies change, they’ll retest some boundaries which makes perfect sense. With their competencies developing, and with their maturing and increasingly refined understanding of the impacts of their consequences, and with feedback from us, our kids learn how to be with and how to touch others without causing injury. That learning only happens if that’s what we teach them.
If kids learn that touching should be avoided because it causes injury, we’re messaging that physical contact is dangerous which is just not true. I have often thought about ‘safe sex’ as a negative way of framing the need for birth control or STI prevention since sex isn’t inherently ‘unsafe’. When we predominantly frame sex as something that requires safety, we draw a connection between sex and danger and our need to manage that danger. I think our kids are better off if we message that touch and sex are inherently good and safe. We can additionally message that, like so many things, there can be negative consequences to touching (ie. without permission, too roughly) and sex (without permission or without protection from STIs or pregnancy). At the right time, in the right place and in the right way, we need to encourage touch in its many forms.
I’m guessing no schools will follow in the footsteps of Coghlan Elementary. Its misguided plan to keep kids safe will do the exact opposite. Now we just need to shift the thinking around abstinence education…