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Encourage participation in playground activities

By Jane Watkinson

Encouraging Participation

The two best motivations for participating in playground activities, then, are for a child 1) to feel that he or she is good at doing things and 2) to value those things, to think that they are important or useful. How do these two motivations develop in children, and what can parents and teachers do to influence them? How can we ensure that when children ask themselves, “Do I want to do this?” and “Can I do this?” the answer to both questions is yes?

Help Kids Develop Specific Skills for Typical Playground Activities

Again, thinking that you are good at something is the most important factor in determining whether you choose to do it. Perceptions of competence are widely agreed upon by experts to be at the very heart of motivation; thus, these perceptions are very important, and, because actual competence may be the basis for positive perceptions of competence, parents and teachers should do everything they can to help children become skilled. Telling kids that they are good at something even when they aren’t just doesn’t work. We need to provide situations where children can develop and demonstrate real competence in performing meaningful and moderately difficult skills.

For this reason, parents and teachers should find out what is considered important on a particular child’s playground, then teach that child the exact skills needed in order to participate actively on that playground. The skills checklists included in this book identify the skills that children tend to use on playground equipment. If a child has a good repertoire of these skills for each piece of playground equipment, and if he or she can do the skills without assistance and in the middle of free play with other children, then he or she will have the building blocks for inclusion in play, games, and, eventually, sports in the schoolyard and neighborhood.

Teach Basic Rules and Strategies

In addition to helping children develop performance skills, you should equip each child with knowledge of the basic rules and simple strategies of typical playground games. As chapter 9 demonstrates, learning the simple rules of tag games and understanding the movement strategies that make for success in these games give a child the knowledge to take part in playground games and, eventually, in sports.

Communicate That You Value Physical Skill Without Comparing Children

Very young children might want to be good at things that their parents clearly value. If you think swimming is important, your children may well want to do it. If hitting a puck with a plastic stick gets rave reviews from Dad, then Jason may think he is good at it. But if Mom and Dad constantly compare their child negatively with other children, especially those of similar age or younger, the child may be hesitant to try new things and to practice skills. Letting children know that skill develops gradually, that practice and experience are important, and that making mistakes is an important part of learning how to do something may help improve their views about their own skills.

Keep Play Positive

Parents and teachers need to make sure that the play environment is not caustic for children. Name calling and teasing should not be tolerated. Memories of previous experiences may play a particularly important role in determining the value that a child places on doing a specific activity. If a child remembers feeling happy, satisfied, or proud (perhaps due to the reactions of people around him or her), then that activity may become increasingly important to the child. On the other hand, if the child remembers feeling foolish, humiliated, sad, or embarrassed, the activity is likely to decrease in value in the child’s mind. Memories may be particularly powerful in movement activities where kids are subject to the (often harsh) scrutiny of their peers. Adults who were clumsy (or who believed they were) describe their childhood experiences in sport and physical activity as embarrassing, humiliating, frustrating, and disappointing. They remember feeling ashamed and stupid about being inept, and their response was often to withdraw from activities because of the high cost of showing what a “spaz” they were, even when they really wanted to join in and when their friends were involved. The emotional cost was simply too high. Withdrawal from participation, and the subsequent social isolation, are seen frequently in children with disability, children with movement difficulty, and other children who may not be clumsy or unskilled but may have cognitive or language deficits that interfere with their motivation. Thus, despite the stigma or cost of choosing not to participate, withdrawal can seem like the best choice available to some children.

Emotional costs may be particularly associated with contexts in which there is a high demand for exceptional movement competence, as in competitive games. Competitive contexts have long been associated with negative emotions in children’s sport. The perception of a competitive motivational climate (discussed further in chapter 8) may play an important role in children’s decisions to drop out or withdraw from full participation. Competitive contexts put pressure on children to demonstrate how good they are at something, or that they are better than their peers. Even activities that are primarily cooperative (e.g., building a snow fort, group skipping) require that each participant make capable contributions to the activity. During both competition and cooperation, being unable to contribute sufficiently will put the whole group at risk of losing or not finishing what they have started.

It may be for this reason that children with poor movement competence or disability tend to withdraw even from cooperative activity on the playground and spend more time alone. Negative memories of being teased, being viewed as “no good,” being humiliated, or simply being unable to contribute to the group’s goal may make children reluctant to join. It is essential that children be provided with positive emotional contexts for learning, practicing, and taking part in physical activity and playground activities.


Explain the Benefits of Practice and Playground Skill

We may be able to influence the value of a skill by emphasizing or even exaggerating its importance to the child. This can be done by providing models, asking family members and friends to do the skill in order to show that they value it, and simply telling a child that it is important. For example, explaining that dodging and running fast are important in playing a social game like tag may encourage a child to practice dodging and running even though such practice requires temporarily tolerating the cost of running to the point of gasping!

If a child avoids an activity largely because he or she doesn’t value it (e.g., feels that the physical cost is too high or doesn’t see the activity’s relevance), parents may want to try to increase the perceived value of the activity, either by showing excitement when they do it themselves or by explaining that doing it may lead to other benefits such as making friends. Parents might also want to explain that not trying the activity can lead to exclusion and isolation. Most important, parents may want to do everything they can to help their child become good at the activity; if the child is good at it, then he or she will value it.

Provide Opportunities for Practice

Giving children a chance to privately practice skills that they’re struggling with is a great way to help them get better at using those skills. I recall spending a few hours at the big curly slide to teach my 4-year-old son to go down it without the pressure of other children being there. Once he could do it with me there, he was able to join in the activity at his day care rather than stand at the bottom of the slide and cheer others who did it. Thus we might try “scaffolding” a task by giving direct assistance while a child is learning how to do it; we can also help by having the child try easier versions of it first (see chapter 6) and by adopting good principles of practice (see chapter 7). These instructional approaches may encourage children to produce new answers to the questions “Do I want to do this?” and “Can I do this?”

This is an excerpt from Let’s Play.

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