Recently my brother sent me a link to a blog post on the Huffington Post written by research psychologist and gender scholar Dr. Peggy Drexler called, “A Warning Against a Culture Where Every Child Wins.” In it, Dr.Drexler questions the wisdom of the anti-competitive games championed by her sons’ alternative elementary school. She also castigates the ceremonies for the sports teams he played on when he got older, in which every child got a medal just for showing up. She says this kind of ideology promotes a sense of entitlement in children and, “leaves them feeling empty and ill prepared for life in the "real world."
My brother sent me the link because he knows I'm a fan of the North County my daughter attends and that a part of their curriculum is delayed competitive sports in the early grades. While there is much about this I appreciate, like the way that it encourages free play and creative expressions of bodily movement, as a college teacher who has seen this sense of entitlement and lack of motivation in my students increase over the last decade, Dr. Drexler’s piece hit a chord.
So I searched the internet for examples of Waldorf-schooled children who excel at sports later in life and found no dearth of shining stars. Like Ben Agosto, silver medal winner in the 2006 World Olympics for skating. Or Adele Espy and several fellow alumni from her Maine Waldorf school who now compete side-by-side in Nordic National Ski championships. Espy told The Portland Press Herald, "I keep wondering what it is, too, to produce such good Nordic skiers. It's hands-on learning, but it's also really non-competitive. We would just go out and Nordic ski in the backwoods. It seems that just easing people into the sport in a comfortable way is a good idea.''
There were also several examples of how well sports programs in Waldorf high schools do, like the Austin basketball team who have competed in the final four two years in a row. When Waldorf folks talk about these programs and why they think it’s important to wait on competitive sports, they mention concerns like allowing for creative expression without the threat of competition and avoiding the burnout that many young athletes experience today by the age of 15 or 16.
Too, there is the idea that kinesthetic learning and body awareness is a large part of learning just about anything. Movement is brought into daily practices in the Waldorf classroom and a form of dance called Eurythmy is taught to increase body awareness before introducing the prescriptive, specific, forms of movement of organized sports. One Ohio school’s website states, “In the early grades, circle games develop into line games and then progress to more complex games as the children grow. This reflects their growing intelligence in the body/kinesthetic area. Eventually upper grade children compete in Olympiad style events where form and technique is important and then they are ready to move onto more conventional sports.”
My 5-and-a-half year old has done some gymnastics and dance outside of school. But I look at this as a mostly fun trial and error time for her to gather different experiences. When our school had a night devoted to educating parents about the Waldorf view of sports, many of the dads came in looking ready to object. But when they started to hear stories of kids who are pushed super hard at young ages and then burn out and push back just when they could be becoming serious professional athletes, I saw many of them change their mind. Several of them even reported their own stories of burnout in high school. The idea with Waldorf is that if you come to sports later as part of an intrinsic and more matured motivation, you will be more likely to excel and stick with it when it counts.
Thinking back to Dr. Drexler’s article, I see a fine point that may be missed. When Drexler first speaks about her son’s school and their free play games, he is a 6-year-old. To me, this seems a wonderful time for kids to fully develop their creativity and self-esteem without being too concerned with winning. But why does this mean that they will never learn to compete and win? Age 6, as I constantly hear myself say lately, is not 12...or even 10.
I do agree with Dr. Drexler that if you're participating in competitive sports teams, as her son began to do as he got older, there is absolutely no reason that everyone should get a medal just for showing up. Indeed, that seems a pretty ineffective message to send about the nature of life in the “real world.” So when my child and I do play competitive games, like cards, I see no benefit in letting her win.
To me, free play is a wonderful thing...and competition, as you mature, is wonderful too. But free play is supposed to be free and competition is supposed to be competitive. It’s the confusion between the two, as well as the inability to strike a balance, that seems most detrimental to me.
It’s my belief that if my college freshman had been allowed to play freely as young children and then asked to compete seriously as they reached their teen years, they would be better students, better competitors and more prepared all around for the trials of life they are about to face. That way they would understand that if you work hard and bring all the creativity and passion you have for something to be the best, maybe you will be.