This morning was Games Day at my sons’ Elementary School. In their school in Scotland they had one afternoon at the end of each academic year that was Sports Day. I had assumed that this was just a vocabulary difference but actually the two events were really quite different.
At their school in Scotland, there was an emphasis on athletics type events, not like proper track and field, but events with a sharp start, a clear finish and obvious winners. The events, therefore, were things like flat (sprint) races, egg and spoon and obstacle courses. By contrast, at their American school the emphasis was more on having fun while being active rather than there being much that would approximate a recognised sport. So, for instance, there were events that involved carrying a stack of pizza boxes, transporting water from one bucket to another using a sponge and pairs of children throwing water balloons to each other until it inevitably burst. With the younger kids, there was very much an emphasis on having fun – there was even a pirate hunt for pieces of eight – albeit while using gross motor skills and hand-eye co-ordination. It was only when observing my Fifth Grader that I saw any competitive aspect to the event as they were divided into two teams and were scoring points during each event. Some of those kids were fiercely competitive too, the veins in their foreheads bulging and screaming at their peers like drill sergeants. Even so, however, the competition was between the two teams rather than between individuals which somewhat diluted it.
I think it would be fair to describe Games Day as organised chaos. The gym teacher had clearly put a great deal of effort into preparing the kids for the events as they all seemed to know what they were doing but as an observer, not comprehending what the actual point of the game was, it often felt like I was just watching a pile of kids in tie-dyed t-shirts running around in frenetically random ways. I didn’t care because I would personally rather be a spectator of kids having fun than of kids being bored waiting for their brief stint in a relay race. Because that was another difference between our experiences in Scotland and here in Pennsylvania: the amount of time spent actively doing something. As things were more tightly and rigidly organised in their school in Scotland, there was an awful lot of kids standing on the sidelines waiting for their turn to arrive because, of course, if you are going to have clear winners then you cannot have a whole pile of kids running in each race so they had to be broken into smaller groups. Here, on the other hand, there was never a point where the kids were not actually engaged in an activity – except for when they had a popsicle break. They rotated between activities that were already set up which meant there was no time lost waiting for the equipment to be swapped around or reset. This did present a challenge for me, however, in that I had to keep dashing around the grounds as I moved between spectating the activities of my three different children (the fourth thankfully being in preschool so that he did not become a human hurdle as he has in previous years). I am used to using slack periods to swap which of my sons I am observing. Without such slack periods, I did an awful lot of speed walking.
It is my understanding that a lot of schools have phased out the whole idea of winners for sports day. However, the school my sons attended in Scotland still handed out stickers for first, second and third places. Two of them would at least win one or two events but my now 8 year old never managed to get a sticker. This is because he does not care for sports at all and is not remotely competitive. Last year he actually danced his way through the obstacle course. Literally danced. Remember how the Sharks and the Jets dance-fight? He dance-sports. Everyone else was across the finishing line while he was still pirouetting his way across the field. He did not care one jot. Regardless, however, I think that permitting kids to experience success and failure on sports day is no bad thing. It’s part of valuable life lessons about not being capable of experiencing success in everything that you do and that you can derive pleasure from participating even when you don’t achieve complete success. Furthermore, I tell my kids that not everyone has to be great at everything. Sure, there are always going to be high achievers with the Midas Touch but most mortals will find that they are good at some things and not at others. That’s absolutely fine. I absolutely sucked at Sport and at Maths when I was in school but I was great in English, Art and History. As such, I got to experience both celebrated success and abject failure. Meanwhile, a student who perhaps struggled with academia got to experience success on sports day. It’s preparation for life. The school my kids now attend in Pennsylvania seems to be taking something of a compromise stance when it comes to the whole winning thing. For the lower grades, there was really no winning or losing going on, even when they were in teams racing against each other – as with the speed stacking of cups – because no one appeared to be keeping score. The racing was just part of the fun. With the older grades, however, they were collecting points (in some way I just could not fathom) for their teams and one team would be declared the overall winner. However, the teams were so vast and the experience of glory and defeat shared across so many that the impact of either position was diluted. That didn’t stop the kids from being grimly determined to win or to endeavour to do their best, however. There were still a whole load of inherently competitive kids. But it did remove the focus from the strengths and weaknesses of individuals. I understand that here in Pennsylvania there is a gradual phasing in of traditional team sports within school, with those sports replacing games – such as capture the flag – as the kids get older, so an event like this is probably good training in sportsmanship to a degree.
So it was a very different sports day experience for me this year than in previous years. I think each event had its pros and neither had particular cons. I have a feeling my kids enjoyed today better simply because they were always doing something and, of course, because of the newness of it all. I think my favourite difference about sports day, however, was that I got to be outside in the sunshine watching my kids participating without being eaten alive by midges.