Wednesday, March 18, 2015

“Play Ball” - Baseball Season Is Upon Us

I was walking past a playing field the other day and there was a 4-year-old boy and his dad, each with baseball gloves, standing near home plate. The dad was explaining how to put on the glove, which hand to put it on and how to get the fingers in the right spots. 

Then he explained the process of throwing and catching. “Watch the ball. Then grab it with your glove.” He tossed the ball right to the boy, it hit the glove and fell to the ground. “Come on. Grab it when it gets there.” The boy stood there. Dad said, “Pick up the ball and throw it to me.” The boy gleefully picked up the ball and threw it - the ball seemed to fly randomly out of his hand, not in the direction of his dad.

Next Dad explained the rules of baseball. He explained about the bases, which direction to run if you get a hit, where to stand and bat, etc...about 5 minutes of baseball rules while the boy stood still with the ball in his hand.

Suddenly, the boy got a huge smile and a gleam in his eye and joyfully ran around the bases, stepping on one, missing the others, taking two laps, all the while holding the ball. Dad said, “All right, let’s go. I’ll teach you baseball another time.”

This all transpired within about ten minutes. 

I was offered a story to share in this post. I am going to let you in on my thoughts and opinions in writing about this story. I do not claim to have the “one and only way.” And I know I am going against the stream and out on a limb here. 

So....I have said this before, the way young children learn is by imitation.

First of all, four-year-olds don’t thrive with instructing and explaining. If you want your child to ‘learn’ baseball, start with simply throwing and catching. Even better, start with rolling the ball back and forth to each other before you days or weeks later move on to tossing. Back and forth, no instructions - just show him how it’s done. And Dad or Mom, be satisfied with playing the simple toss-and-catch game for months. Throwing and catching develops large and fine motor skills and eye-motor coordination. These are important capacities for life! Try and make it fun, not an instructional lecture. Just do it, don’t talk about it much.

One result of instructing young children in the rules and etiquette of a sport is that it eliminates the role of imitation, and the activity of creating the rules for yourself. I can remember as a young child playing ‘baseball’ in my friend’s yard. There were five of us, not the required nine on a team. First we spent time arguing about and finally agreeing to the rules. “We’ll have only 2 bases. And if the ball lands in those bushes, it is a double. If it goes over the neighbor’s fence the game is over and we run and hide, and Mark will pitch for both teams...” We had to create with what was available. And I repeat, we had to create. Co-creating the framework of a play activity is such an important activity. Practicing the creating of rules that work for a particular situation with the particular people involved is an important skill that needs practice starting in early childhood.

I think organized sports for young children is a mistake. 
T-ball, soccer, basketball as organized sports for the under 8-year-olds does not support their development of a variety of skills and capacities. It exposes the young ones to the competition aspects of sports, as well as a focus on winning rather than playing for its own sake, for the fun of it. Additionally, the game requires focus and attention, capacities that are not usually present in young children. Demanding these of young children is stressful for all involved.

Instead of the children having an unstructured Saturday at home, playing out of their own initiative with what is available, and with plenty of time, they are rushed off to the practice or the game.

It is interesting that we use the expression, ‘playing sports.’ Perhaps for adults it is a sort of play activity, though unlike creative play, the rules are hard and fast. For young children, play involves activity that is unbounded by external rules. Play is a creative activity where anything goes and is moderated by the relating to the others involved in the play. Play involves imagination and is not fixed. Play is the essential work of the young child and is part of how the imitation of previously observed events is tried out and new skills are learned. The best way for young children to learn is imitation. It is their natural learning mode. 

Children need time for free play — time to explore the game on their own without structure. It’s then they learn creativity, problem solving, adaptability and conflict resolution, [Luis Fernando Llosa, a former reporter for Sports Illustrated] says. “Look at Wayne Gretzky — one of the most creative athletes of our time. And how did he develop that? He didn’t start playing organized hockey at age five. He played on a pond with friends. And even when he did start playing organized hockey, he would go back to the pond and play for fun. That’s where you learn all the moves and fluidity.” (Blair Crawford, Ottawa Citizen, October 2014)

Have you ever watched parents at a young children’s sporting match? Even though some leagues explain to the parents about wanting the fun of playing to be primary, even though they are asked to model polite ‘fan behavior,’ it turns into shouting and rooting for your child’s performance and that their team win.

At the start I mentioned the glee with which the boy ran around the bases after the delivery of Dad’s instruction. That is the joy that I want to live in the children and find expression in their activities. How can we foster an environment where that joy flourishes? That is what we need more of for the children, and for our own future.

The best way for young children to learn is imitation. It is their natural learning modality. If your child has been seeing people play baseball, and is interested in that game, he will pick up a stick or ball and ‘play’ that he is playing baseball. For a young child, imitation and self-created play is the path to developing the skills required of the sport you are hoping to teach.