A Playground With a Ball
By Dr. Reeve Robert Brenner
What, after all, would clergymen—such as those who founded the National Association for Recreational Equality (NARE)—wish that playgrounds, and recreation at large, could achieve for society in the 21st century?
The question, "what do we want our playgrounds for?" is complicated and simple simultaneously because our objectives are clear—creative play, creating playmates, inclusion of the differently-abled, non-aggressive activities with no body contact or intimidation, teaching civility, and keeping kids fit and healthy by getting them out of their chairs, away from a screen, and outdoors moving for fun and for exercise for our growing children.
So, we want them to move and cultivate a high regard for a lifetime of movement. These are uncomplicated objectives, but the best way to achieve these objectives is another matter.
We found that ball playing—virtually any game with a ball—requires movement, including chasing a ball, throwing, rebounding, retrieving and shooting, and a play area for ball playing generates many times more movement than playgrounds without a ball. But ball-playing "sports" such as baseball, football, soccer, tennis, etc., are age-limited, restrictive in playership to a sliver of a population—and even psychologically damaging. That, perhaps worst of all.
Alfie Kahn has claimed in his well researched book, No Contest, The Case Against Competition, that competition creates losers more than winners. It does not create cooperation when there are opponents to defeat. Above all, that's the rub. Losers walk away defeated. That is not what is intended with a playground. He shows that this focus on competition is damaging and not life-enhancing.
Think of the ball-playing sports we play and pay for with large funds and even larger spaces. Forget for a moment that sport ultimately derives from Sparta and that our sports are battlefields. We needed a ball-playing playground in which the children move their bodies and play alongside, not against one another and, therefore, most importantly, there would not be winners and losers. Rather you'd be playing yourself, developing your own skills alongside your playmate. No need to defeat others.
With a ball, involvement and participation is increased markedly at play. It is surprising so few ball-playing—and therefore active—games exist that require participants to take on the challenge of the court and not each other. What makes a ball game inclusive such that grandparents with grandchildren, wheelchair players and the differently-abled and various age groups can play at the same time? Answer: Play the challenge of the court, not fellow participants. That means play to improve your skills, not to defeat others.
Golf and American bowling (but not bowls or bocce) are the other recreation activities played alongside, not against. As in a ball-playing "playcourt," golfers and bowlers do not play against others; they play the game, not their fellow player. Although "contest" is unnecessary, even when they do compete, there is no offense or defense, no body contact or intimidation by size, strength, stature, gender or age. These are all irrelevant at sports played alongside another player. But, there's plenty of movement, exercise and heavy breathing. Bowling and golf are far too difficult skills to master for typical 2 ½-year-olds to suggest they are suitable as playgrounds. That's precisely why we advance and promote ball-playing playgrounds with the notion— chanted as a kind of age-appropriate ideology—which we teach to children:
"For fun we all can approve
No conflict, no competition, just groove!
Be a sport. Play the court. And improve!
Grab a ball. Any ball! Let's move!"
Children who play this noncompetitive sport know they are playing on a playground. In nearly all other ball-playing facilities, the idea of a playground with a ball is an oxymoron because the essence of a playground is non-competition with no winners and losers, with playmates, not opponents. It is precisely that which defines a playground. Not defeating friends and acquaintances.
You might be inclined to think that a ball-playing playground is an oxymoron. After all, nearly every ball-playing facility—football, baseball, soccer, tennis, etc.—is based on competition. And as Alfie Kahn's research discloses, there's the start and the source of unhealthy conflict, intimidation, winners and losers, and opponents, not playmates. That's what makes ball-playing sports unsuitable and not age-appropriate for playground-age children from toddlers to preschool children. Games and sports with rules are civilizing, but the good derived is severely compromised when body contact is a part of the dynamic, and, in that case, they are not particularly civilizing, even for older children.
But ball-playing playgrounds are purposefully not competitive by design. One plays the court, not others. One plays alongside, not against anyone. That factor—no opposition, not the climbing, crawling and swinging—is what makes for a playground. That's what makes a playground with a ball. Pure play! No conflict with plenty of movement.
No conventional playground participants move around like ball players. The children on a ball-playing playcourt chase balls, throw balls, catch ball and rebound balls. It's not the ball that disqualifies a ball-playing court from being classified as a playground. The bouncing sphere is not the disqualifier. It is rather, rivalry.
Young children should not be losers or winners. They should be playmates, not rivals and opponents. They can play ball without aggression or competition. Children take on the court, not each other. They play to get better at the game—to improve their skills.
Learning rules of play when age-appropriate cultivates civility. Children under 3 begin to graduate from the climbing, crawling structures they eventually find repetitive to ball-playing. They play with balls of various sizes and shoot at the lower rims at which they soon learn to score.
Then they graduate to the higher-level rims, and eventually, as they grow older, begin banking the ball as though playing billiards with a basketball. The idea is this: think, master the angles, figure out the banks, shoot, rebound the ball and play—in harmony and friendship with other playmates even coaching and helping one another—to master the challenge.
A playground with a ball? This thesis can be compressed into one self-evident notion: that a ball playing "playcourt" will, for preschool and older children, provide greater movement, realize greater fitness potential, offer important physical skill challenge and self improvement opportunities than non-ball playing playground alternatives. And every child loves a ball.
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