Banning Balls in School

The 8yo playing soccer with his cousin

Let’s take it as read that the public schools these days worship a false idol of “safety,” trying so hard to be risk-averse that they often end up spoiling kids’ fun and making it harder for them to learn. I’ve subscribed to Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids for years.

At the same time, this morning I felt the briefest twinge of sympathy for the Toronto principal who banned all non-sponge balls from her school (via electricarchaeo) after a parent got hit in the head with a stray soccer ball. (No word on the parent’s form in heading the ball–was it a flick-on? A nicely driven shot?) The policy’s wrongheaded and should be rescinded. But still.

Reading the story, I was reminded of an incident about a month ago, when the 8yo came home complaining that recess wasn’t fun, even though the kids were playing soccer. This was shocking, because he’s soccer-obsessed, and normally the chance to play would make anything seem appealing. “They’re blaming me for things that aren’t my fault, and it’s not fun.” We pressed him about what he meant, and it turned out that some of the smaller kids didn’t want to play if he did, and a girl had scraped something getting out of the way of one of his shots (which, to be fair, didn’t sound like it was coming all that close to her in the first place).

A few relevant facts: The 8yo is a sweet kid, who wouldn’t know how to threaten someone if he tried. That said, as the picture above makes clear, he’s a bit of a giant: nearly 5′, and solidly built. Plus, he’s kind of awesome* at soccer. He plays on travel and premier teams, 50% as a goalie, 35% as a defender, and 15% as a striker. Thanks in part to his size, he has one of the strongest legs on his (pretty successful) U-10/U-11 travel team.

My wife and I reminded him of all this, and of the fact that he’s the only kid in his class who plays that much soccer, and of the fact that he’s by far the biggest kid in his class. And we asked him to consider, if the situation were reversed, whether he might be a little scared, too.

We talked it out, and he decided that he would not kick the ball when his friends played soccer, but would just dribble and make short passes. He put the plan into effect the next day, and within a couple of recesses, all was forgiven, and everyone was happy.

Which is probably the way it’s supposed to work, right? Kids should try to work out problems on their own, but when they can’t, parents should help find a constructive solution. So I can’t support banning balls in school. But I do feel for a principal who feels overwhelmed by dozens of similar situations every day, sometimes involving kids who actually do intend some malice, and sometimes with parents who are disengaged. It doesn’t excuse such an overbroad policy: The fact that you can see how anyone might feel driven to do such a thing doesn’t mean that you should actually do it!

* “Kind of awesome,” that is, for an eight-year-old who regularly wears a “Geek Kid” t-shirt, of course. It’s not like we think he’s the next Tim Howard, or are counting on this to pay for college, or whatever. And, yes, there are people we’ve met in travel and premier who are already talking about positioning their 8 and 9 year olds for college scholarships. I am prepared to agree with you that that’s crazy.

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