Team Sports – what age?

It can be challenging sometimes to decide when it is appropriate to allow children to engage in organized sport – does one say yes when the child shows interest or are there some guiding principles to keep in mind?
For those working with Waldorf education, it is helpful to look for some guidance from its picture of child development. For the first seven years, the  child is understood to be slowly coming into her body, of slowly severing her ties with the spiritual worlds and having very different ways of relating to the world than adults or even older children. If one thinks that this is true picture of the young child, then one can readily see that organized sports, on the whole, are not appropriate for this age range.
Anything which brings heightened self consciousness and self awareness – a feeling of separation – is not in keeping wit the needs of very young children. To be on a team, one has to have a sense of self as well as a sense for the team. One has to be aware of what one is doing, both as an individual and in relation to the other players. One has to be wide awake, to react to the ball, for instance. This is exactly opposite to the dreamy sense of oneness that is the natural state of little children and which should be preserved until they themselves grow out of it.
Further, in order to work to strengthen the rhythmic center of the child, the breathing in and breathing out which helps him find a balanced relationship to the world, movement which has a strong musical element should be favored. Ring games, especially those with sing-songy verses are best for little ones and are what they seek out naturally. Of course, every little child would like to join in when the big kids are playing baseball or soccer, but left to their own devices, most young children will drift in and out of such games and spend more time watching and imitating than actually joining in. This obviously isn’t possible when they’ve been signed up to join a team!
By 9, as the child reaches and passes the hallmark “nine year change”, she has sufficiently developed a sense of self to be able to participate fully and appropriately in team sports. She has “grown into herself” and is developing a strong sense of who she is as an individual. This is the year (third grade) in Waldorf schools when children carry speaking parts in plays and when they learn to sing and play music in parts. To stand on one’s own feet, in one’s sense of selfhood, is becoming important.
And, as she learns to be her true self, the child also needs to learn how to interact appropriately with others. Team sports can be an excellent way to learn cooperation, team work and sharing and should be a part of every child’s life starting around age 9 or 10. (This doesn’t mean, however, that they need to play on a team all the time – one or two seasons on a soccer or baseball team might be sufficient for many!)
Further, as the child stretches into adolescence, she also needs to ground her growing intellect with a sense of her own body and physicalness. Sports – whether in teams or on an individual level – should also include competition at this point. She needs to learn how to push herself, how to develop strategies, how to win – and how to lose. Somewhere along the line many Waldorf people seem to have lost healthy sense for competition and I think this is a real mistake. Cut-throat competition might not be either useful or healthy – but learning how to win and lose are important parts of life. At one 5th grade pentathalon competition ( perhaps ‘gathering’ is a more accurate word ) I attended all the children got awards and individual rounds were weighed to ensure everyone won something. I find this patronizing to children and a far cry from a pedagogy which recognizes that though one might have few abilities in one area of life, there is always a place where one excels. Thus losing or doing very poorly at something like sports is no shame.
As always, it comes down to the attitude of the adults. If losing a hockey game is akin to treachery, if an adult’s own pain at losing gets in the way of the child’s,  or if children are shamed, then winning and losing become not healthy life lessons but agonizing pain. But if the adults – parents, coaches, teachers and so on – have a good natured sense of fair play and a “it’s great if you win but not the end of the world if you lose” attitude, then I think organized sport can offer children some of the most important lessons in human interaction available.

Posted on September 8, 2007 in General Homeschooling

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