by Krista Palmer with Trice Atchison
Too often we hear of students who, despite having been high achievers and ribbon winners in high school and grade school, end up feeling lost and overwhelmed as they struggle to adjust to college life. That’s why, in Waldorf education, we strive to help our children develop their ability to find direction from within.
An important aspect of childhood—one that is increasingly disappearing from many children’s lives—is having enough unstructured time and space to allow for activities that are not planned, scheduled and directed by adults—that allow, instead, for creativity, inner guidance and a lifelong love of learning to take root.
The Value of Self-Directed Play
Here are two scenarios that show the difference between an adult-led activity and self-directed play:
Picture a flat, evenly manicured soccer field complete with clearly painted lines and accurately measured goals. Six- and seven- year-olds run around in crisp, matching uniforms while an adult referees with a whistle. More adults line the edges of the field, watching and cheering.
Next, picture a backyard with a slanting hill, trees at one end, and a rock wall at the other. A group of six- and seven-year-olds wants to play soccer. They use a sweatshirt and stump for one goal, a bush and corner of the picnic table for the other. They figure out where the center of the field is, more or less, and begin to play. No adults have intervened.
The first scenario is not genuine children’s play; it is children carrying out adults’ wishes. It’s a controlled, adult-oriented experience, in which the performance is watched and evaluated. Even if the children receive only positive or neutral feedback, the fact of being closely watched creates a sense of being evaluated— of having performed well or not-so-well. This is leagues away from the kind of spontaneous, organic, self-initiated play that is natural and necessary for children in the early grades.
In the second scenario, you have a whole world created by children. They make up the rules, negotiate, argue and come to a conclusion about how to proceed. They might decide to segue into an entirely different game halfway through. They’ve exercised resourcefulness, creativity, intelligence, social skills and inner flexibility. In contrast, the repetitive focus on a few skills characteristic of early organized sports can have the effect of diminishing the childhood quality of play, creating a hard, inflexible outlook marked by black-and-white thinking. The advocacy group Alliance for Childhood is spreading the important message that play is not just fun and games; the group cites numerous studies that show that play boosts “healthy development across a broad spectrum of critical areas: intellectual, social, emotional, and physical.”
What’s the Rush?
Teachers’ observations over the years show clearly that children who have been in organized sports from a young age can experience a number of struggles. Some children, for example, become so outcome-oriented that a simple tag game can be just one more arena in which they harshly evaluate their own performance. As a result, they may vehemently deny they’ve been tagged, or they might cry. The premature focus on goals has weakened their capacity to play for the true joy of it.
These children also can have trouble holding onto the kinds of imaginative pictures that enliven a simple children’s game, such as a chasing game that involves a hungry wolf, small rabbits and rescuers. The rules and object of the game are basic; the fun is in the make-believe.
During unstructured play in the early grades, as in the homegrown soccer game described earlier, the social and emotional lives of children have room to blossom. This happens not when adults lead or too intently monitor the play, but instead when the children are allowed to remain un-self-conscious. Even having two teams creates self-consciousness, because there’s a line drawn in the sand—one against the other—begging for an outcome. However, organized team play is wonderful for sixth- grade and up. In a Waldorf school sixth grade, students study Roman civilization, law and sciences—subjects intentionally introduced at an age when a child’s emotional state is ready to meet and accept the outcomes of winning and losing, evaluating and discerning. These same developmental qualities coincide well with team play.
Competition is, of course, not bad. Even in a tag game, you need to have people running as hard as they can—because if I chase you, and you don’t even try to get away, it’s no fun. Without some sense of competition, there’s no tension—no point—but with younger children, the game is better left flexible and without a score keeper. In the sixth, seventh and eighth grades sports program, competition moves to the foreground, with both teams expected to play their best in order to bring out the best in each other. With this healthy sense of competition, even if you lose, you feel you’ve played a good game. But if you win too easily, there’s no real satisfaction in it.
By early adolescence, competitive sports can be the perfect homeopathic dose to that certain know-it-all quality that can sometimes begin to emerge. There’s a renewed sense of innocence in a child who experiences butterflies in his stomach before a game, or tries hard to remember all the rules and regulations. Except at this age, if children have had a chance in their earlier play to develop in their social and emotional interactions, they’re on much more solid ground. When they run out onto the field, they can draw on that emotional intelligence to overcome the butterflies and delve into the flow of the game. But if they’ve already “been there, done that,” they’re likely to view the game with a blasé attitude. This is an example of how giving children too much too soon can rob them of important opportunities for growth at pivotal times.
Stemming the Tide
Parents can guard their families from being swept away by the powerful trend toward earlier and earlier sports (as well as other societal trends toward too much, too soon). Here are some ways you can make a difference:
- Just because “everybody is doing it,” don’t feel neglectful or remiss in your parenting if your primary grades child is not involved in an organized sport. Remember, there’s no correspondence between early sports involvement and being a star athlete in the upper grades. Moreover, you run the risk of having a middle- or high-school-aged child who lacks spontaneity both on and off the field. Or your child may burn out altogether, just when sports could be most beneficial.
- Have the courage to let there be free time in your child’s life, and in your family’s weekends. Instead of allowing the weekend to be absorbed by children’s sports and other highly scheduled activities, with the adults looking on, engage in work around the house or yard, with the children imitating or participating as their ages allow. Go on weekend family outings together.
- The world of play is the child’s world. Genuine, spontaneous and self- initiated play is essential to healthy development. We can be aware and responsible without hovering. Let’s allow the children some breathing room, and to step into organized sports at a more appropriate age. In doing so, the children are freer to develop the creativity, flexibility, social confidence and self-knowledge they will need to one day venture forth on their own.
For more on the phenomenon of “too much, too soon” and its effects on children, look into a series of books written by child development specialist David Elkind, entitled, Miseducation, The Power of Play, The Hurried Child, and All Grown Up and No Place to Go.