Monday, August 11, 2014

Grown-Ups Yelling

A lot of the kids I know play soccer. They're on teams, coached by dads and moms, wear jerseys, which they sometime proudly wear to school; they have practices, learn the rules and play a schedule of games for which scores are not officially recorded. As a preschooler, my daughter wasn't interested, but played on a team for two seasons in elementary school. She liked the team, her coach, her jersey, practices, and even the rules and the games, where she and her teammates always knew by how many goals they had lost. The one thing she wasn't so sure about was the sport of soccer itself.

I picked up the sport myself as an adolescent living in Athens, Greece, goofing around in the streets with neighborhood kids, then returned to America where the game was just becoming popular. As one of the most talented high school players in my hometown. I was a four-year letterman, team captain, and proud member of the Oregon state champion my senior year. It wasn't football, baseball, or basketball, so no one really took it too seriously. Our coach wound up with us because they had too many football coaches. No one really expected much from us and soccer was pure fun. We were all kind of surprised and confused when the local Rotary Club feted us with a luncheon, telling us we had made them proud.

I'd played soccer long before that, however, as a preschooler even. I honestly don't know how we'd even heard of the game because it really wasn't on the radar of American popular culture, but there was a phase during my early years when a group of neighborhood kids played soccer every day in our front lawn. We knew you kicked the ball and that there were goals. The rest we made up, negotiating increasingly complicated rules, legislating among ourselves boundaries and penalties and winning and losing. For instance, after each goal we would place the ball (we didn't have a proper soccer ball, so it might have been a basketball or whatever sphere that came to hand) at midfield, then the teams would retreat to opposite ends of the field. Someone would then say, "On your marks, get set, go!" and we would race headlong toward one another, vying for the ball. We had a lot more opportunity to use our hands than official soccer and there was a penalty box because one of us knew a little about hockey. We played football, baseball, and basketball in much the same way we played soccer, making it up together as we went along. We probably kept score, but I really don't remember it mattering.

My first "organized" sports team was Little League baseball. I think I was 7 or 8. One time during a game I was making myself useful by gathering up stray baseballs. My arms became a bit overloaded and one fell from my hands and rolled onto the field of play. As I scrambled to retrieve the ball, the action came my way, and the first baseman dropped a thrown ball. The coach then chewed me out, blaming me in front of everyone. Baseball remained fun, but after that, everything became more serious.

My first experience with school was kindergarten. We climbed the jungle gym, dug in the sand, played chase, built with blocks, colored, painted, sang songs, pretended, and more or less did what kids today do at the Woodland Park Cooperative Preschools. Last year, the kindergarteners, indeed all elementary school students, in Seattle Public Schools, took standardized tests in reading and math. All across the nation, and indeed around the world, kindergarteners are bending their heads over worksheets and homework, and their parents are being recruited to serve as informal teachers aids and tutors to "reinforce" at home the lessons being taught in school. If their child is "failing," or even if they're not, parents are expected to nag, drill, and coax their child. If a kid blows off his homework (and believe me, I think it ought to be a crime for elementary school kids to even have homework) the whole family is made to feel guilty for it. When people my age were in school, what little homework we had was our own responsibility, between us and our teachers. My parents helped me when I asked, but otherwise I was trusted to get it done. I know parents now, even parents of high schoolers, who go through their kid's backpacks at the end of each day because they feel they have a right and responsibility to know what's going on, because, after all, it's their job to nag, drill, and coax. That's what too many children have today instead of play: nagging, drilling, and coaxing, all of which, to the ears of a child, is indistinguishable from yelling.

Sure, we eventually got report cards where our parents learned about how we were doing in school. My grades were usually pretty good, but even when I did bring home a clinker, my parents would say something like, "You can do better," and leave it at that. You see, grades, success and failure, passing tests and all that, simply weren't that important to anyone. School was a place, as it should be, where it was safe to make mistakes. In fact, you were expected to fail sometimes, expected to fall down. My second grade teacher, Miss Cockfield, had this Confucius quote on the wall: "Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail."

But school can't be like that any longer because it has become serious business, big business, with profits and losses at stake. If too many kids fail, a school loses funding, teachers get fired, school doors get closed. Just as my baseball coach yelled at me because I accidentally "cost" his team of 8-year-olds an out, we're all now yelling at our kids to take it seriously, to buckle down, and win, because the "failure" of a 5-year-old is now a matter of grave consequence.

Human children are simply not designed for this. They are designed for cooperative games, they are designed for learning, they are designed for education, but without the freedom to fail (and often), without the freedom to make it up as we go along, without the freedom to try new things and have new ideas whether or not they fit the conventional wisdom, then it's a cruelty, a robbery. When we take away their free play, we take away their ability to learn life's most important lessons: to take responsibility, to persevere, to create, to make agreements with others, and yes to get back up when we fail without some grown-up yelling at us for having fallen.

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Jeanne Zuech said...

Tom - I hear you on this one! Ironically, I just wrote a [rare] post today on a version of this. I had overheard a man berating a 5yo at the park "you are not even trying" while the boy froze still on his two-wheeled bike. Broke my heart. Haunted me enough to write a post!

Lesley @ early play said...

Love this post, Thanks Teacher Tom

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