Tuesday, March 22, 2016


In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learn to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.  ~Charles Darwin

Unless they've been taught the values of competition by adults or older siblings, the young children I've known have always been more driven to cooperate and collaborate rather than to vie against one another. Certainly they occasionally tussle over toys, but that is typically a short-lived phase, one that I've come to view as a scientific exploration: experiments in understanding the other people that invariably bring the children to a study of the concept of fairness.

All day long, without any prompting from the adults, the children at Woodland Park organize themselves into teams to engage in projects together: digging canals in the sand in which the water flows, creating stories, building, leading and following.

Every now and then someone will challenge a friend to a foot race, an idea usually planted by a father. One will at first claim victory, but as that game evolves, the one who is fleetest begins to understand that if he wins every time, if there is no hope for his friend, the friend will soon give it up, ending the game, and so begins to introduce concepts like the "head start" as they instinctively work toward creating a "race" in which a tie is the most likely outcome. Just yesterday, two girls where racing down the hill over and over. One of them was clearly the fastest, but after the first couple times, the faster girl began to moderate her speed so that the two of them arrived at the bottom together, shouting each time as they did, "Tie!" before running back to the top to start again.

In his book No Contest: The Case Against Competition, Alfie Kohn examines four common myths about competition: that competition is inevitable, that competition keeps productivity high and is necessary for excellence, that recreation requires competition, and that competition builds character. He makes the case that competition is, on the contrary, more a matter of social training and culture rather than "human nature"; that trying to do well and trying to beat others are two different things (e.g., success is being confused with competition); that while all games require overcoming some obstacle, it is not a given that the obstacle must be other people; and it's cooperativeness, not competitiveness, that is linked to emotional maturity and strong personal identity.

Of course, those of us who work with young children already know all of this. We see the natural drive to work together, to help one another, to collaborate and cooperate in everything that happens in our classrooms. This is the natural state of humankind, of course, to work together: it's how we thrive rather than merely survive.

What matters is to awaken in ourselves this spirit of cooperation, this feeling of joy in being and doing together, without any thought of reward or punishment. Most young people have it spontaneously, freely, if it is not corrupted by their elders. ~J. Krishnamarti

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