Monday, 7 April 2014

Where do the children play?

The question of whether kids these days are too coddled, and their sport and games too sanitised and free from competition, is rattling around the public consciousness once again. 

Mia Freedman has decided that "we're accidentally raising a generation of soft kids" by not keeping score and using league tables in under-tens AFL.  Meanwhile on The Atlantic Hanna Rosin is exploring a Welsh playground where kids are free to build stuff out of old bits and pieces lying around, light fires, throw tyres into creeks, and generally do their own thing.

The general argument is that losing games and skinning knees builds character, that learning to handle failure graciously is important and success means more when you have to work for it, rather than being over-helped by hovering grown-ups. 

But where are the disabled kids in this competitive, free-range environment?

by Gaertringen on Pixabay
When I was a kid, school sport was massively competitive.  After about grade two, I can't remember any organised sport that wasn't either a competition, or practice for a competition.  And when there's something at stake, whether it's glory or a spot on the inter-school team, nobody wants you on their team if you're going to hold them back.  While some Aspies are gifted athletically, others are like me: rough motor skills, poor body awareness, low muscle tone and shaky spatial reckoning.  Not the greatest asset on a competitive sporting team.  Your team mates will quickly realise how many balls you drop and catches you miss, and because this is a competition they'll resent your presence.  And they'll let you know.

As far as disorganised sport goes, the friendly games and messing around that happens out of school hours, I was never included in that for two reasons.  Firstly, I grew up on a farm; not far enough out of town to be properly rural with horses and swimming holes and farm stuff to do, but far enough that my parents had to drive me to and from school and there were no other kids within walking distance of home.  And secondly, nobody wanted to play with me.  Most Aspie kids experience bullying and ostracism, and I was no different.

I had stuff thrown at me from time to time.  Watermelon, usually, or wadded up bits of paper.  It didn't happen often.  But it happened enough times that I doubt I would have felt safe had my playmates had access to not just fruit and office supplies but fire and pieces of wood and metal.  Maybe having access to a more hands-on, stimulating environment would have inspired the other kids find something better to do.  Or maybe it would have just given them heavier, pointier, more-on-fire stuff to throw.  I don't know.

If kids can count, they'll keep score themselves.  And they do need places to mess around and have adventures outside the clean and ordered environment of school. But I think we need to find some middle ground.  We can't remove competition altogether but it shouldn't be the only reason sport exists.  And it must be possible to create an environment that's fun and interesting, but still safe and welcoming for everyone.