Age Mixing Games and Sports

Michael Greenberg wrote about the sports games at Sudbury Valley School (SVS) in “On the Nature of Sports at SVS and the Limitations of Language in Describing SVS to the World.” Here is how he described the sports there:

‘Here is what happens at an SVS soccer game. One person says, “Let’s play soccer” to some other people. Whoever feels like playing at that moment comes to the field. There are six-year-olds, ten-year-olds, eighteen-year-olds, maybe a staff member or parent who feels like joining in. There are boys and girls. Teams are then chosen with a conscious effort at creating evenly matched sides. Someone who hasn’t been there would not believe the amount of effort that goes into making the teams even. Given the diversity of the players, this often consists of one team having an extra “big kid” who can play well and the other team getting a small army of six-year-olds to get in his way. People want even teams because they are playing for fun. It’s no fun to play a game with lopsided teams.

After a game starts, someone will often come and say, “Can I play too?” and the teams will be rearranged to accommodate them, trading players back and forth. If that proves impossible, they will be told “Get someone equal to you to play also.” The game is played by whomever wants to play, for as long as they feel like playing. There will always be certain people who value winning, but there is little peer performance pressure. Most people don’t really care who wins.

Now, you might get the impression that people are not trying very hard to be good at the game, but that’s not true. Because the process of play is only fun if you exert effort and challenge yourself. That is why people developed the idea of games like soccer in the first place. Running around for no reason gets boring, but running around trying to kick a ball between two posts that are guarded by people who are trying to stop you—that’s exciting.

The people who play sports as we do at SVS learn far more profound lessons about life than those that can be taught by regimented, performance-oriented sports. They learn teamwork—not the “we against them” type of teamwork, but the teamwork of a diverse group of people of diverse talents organizing themselves to pursue a common activity—the teamwork of life. They learn excellence, not the “I’m a star” type of excellence, but the type of excellence that comes from setting a standard for yourself to live up to and then trying your best to live up to it.

I’m twenty-three years old and I’ve played a lot of soccer. It would be pretty silly for me to try to be better than the three eight-year-olds who crowd around my feet every time I try to kick the ball. I think that the eight-year-olds are too busy running after kids who are three feet taller than they are to worry about being the best eight-year-old. In this game, as in real life, the only standard that matters is one you set for yourself. One of the profound truths you learn is that we are all so different from each other that peer pressure and comparisons of worth are meaningless. If you’re eleven years old and you are only allowed to play with other eleven-year-olds, it’s very hard to glimpse this profound truth which unlocks the true meaning of excellence.’

In Sudbury Hong Kong, we had a similar experience. A group of people was playing “Monkey in the Middle.” Other than a 7-year-old boy, all the other players aged 11 – 15. The “Monkey” in the middle was supposed to catch the ball while other players threw the ball and kept it away from the “Monkey.” When the 7-year-old became the “Monkey”, all the other teenage players realized that it was too difficult for him to catch the ball as the circle was too big. They then announced, “Let’s make the circle smaller!” so that the little boy could enjoy the game!

We witnessed how the kids value cooperation and fun much more than comparing and competing with peers. From playing different games in Sudbury, kids learn to express themselves, listen to others, communicate different ideas, negotiate, compromise, and work as a team. And more importantly, they are always looking out for each other.