Playing sports benefits kids on and off the field
It’s Saturday morning and 8-year-old Chandler Cree is changing into his baseball uniform in the back of the car. He has just finished soccer practice at WAB, and now he and his dad, coach David Cree, are on their way to baseball practice at ISB. And let’s not forget about golf lessons. “Saturday is pretty much taken over by his sports,” admits Chandler’s dad. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
For many American families like the Crees, it’s considered perfectly normal to pack your elementary school-aged child’s day full of sports. But this isn’t necessarily the norm in Beijing. In a culture that places such a high priority on academic achievement, where 10-year-olds with after-school tutors are commonplace, we may be asking ourselves: Is it healthy to emphasize sports? Or do we risk overloading our children, causing them to fall behind academically?
Jack of all sports
From David Cree’s point of view, the benefits of participating in sports far outweigh any possible disadvantages. Through sports, he says, “kids learn that life isn’t all about them as individuals, because they have to work in teams. And they learn time management – they still have to fit in their schoolwork.”
Peggy Shaw, mother to 12-year-old Zack, 9-year-old Alex and 6-year-old Luke, agrees that there is no real downside to staying involved during the school year. “Being active helps the boys dissipate all that excess energy left over from sitting still during the school day. And it helps the boys to focus at school,” she says. Her three sons participate in sports such as skating, soccer, basketball, tennis and swimming.
Canadian David Schuster, a P.E. coach at ISB, believes sports should play an integral role in every child’s school day. “Sports teach kids to be creative thinkers, and that’s what they need to make it in this world,” he says. In addition, he points out, “Studies have shown that kids should be moving every two hours. Kids need to get up and move, not just do homework.” Schuster believes it isn’t developmentally appropriate for elementary school-aged kids to study all the time – in fact, he sees a downside to all of those after-school study sessions. “In my coaching,” Schuster says, “I can tell which kids are tutored all the time. They always need guidance. If not told what to do, they’re lost. But kids need to be independent learners. They need to know how to think, not just regurgitate what they’ve been taught. Sports [can]help with that.”
In comparison with international schools, Chinese schools typically assign much more homework in the younger grades. This means Chinese parents often feel they have to choose between school and sports. Kuang Liying, a marketing manager at a Chinese company, says her 6-year-old son, Xia Anchi, enjoys basketball, soccer, roller-skating and ice-skating. She wants her child to exercise “at least two hours a day” to stay healthy, but she says, “right now my son’s still in kindergarten so he has a lot of time to play and exercise.” Once he starts elementary school, says Kuang, he’ll have a lot of homework, “so there might be less time for sports. If that’s the case I’ll make sure that he finishes his homework before he goes out and plays sports, because education is the most important thing for my kid.”
Schuster believes staying physically active is important, but he warns against too much structured activity, especially at the end of an already challenging day of academics. “At such a young age, going into a structured program could be too much,” he says. Schuster’s a fan of “non-competitive, low-organized games,” rather than programs that want to teach kids the rules of traditional sports. Those programs are geared mainly toward highly skilled kids, he says, and they don’t benefit most children. His own son, 5-year-old Collin, plays soccer three times a week at ISB in a program that focuses more on “playing around” than on following the rules. In addition, says Schuster, “I would consider one tennis or swimming lesson a week for him, but I don’t want everything structured for him all of the time. It’s better if he just moves and plays and has fun.”
Playing at any age
Wang Yaling has coached swimming at WAB for the past eight years. Her 9-year-old son, who attends a local Chinese school, plays ice hockey after school. She says after-school sports are particularly important for children like her son, who attend local schools “because at local schools, they don’t have P.E. class every day.” The students do calisthenics several times a week, she says, but it’s not enough.
Wang believes children of all ages can benefit from athletics. She recommends starting them off with swim lessons from an early age. “Children of every age can do it – it’s good for the bones,” she says. After the age of five, Wang believes a child’s growing body can handle field sports like soccer. She doesn’t recommend sports like basketball until the child is around ten years old, both because of the complex rules of the game and because of the wear and tear it puts on the child’s joints and bones.
And what of the child who grows to dislike the activity? Cree believes that if they don’t like it, you should let them quit right away. “If you push them too hard you can burn them out,” he says. “Besides, in Beijing, there are so many choices – let them find something else.” But as coach Wang notes, “Because of our cultural background, Chinese parents will say ‘don’t quit.’” Most importantly, says Cree, “Never push your own sports preferences on them. It’s more important that my son is active in sports than that he be active in ‘my’ sports.”
Schuster says that even if your children aren’t involved in organized sports, they still need to “just go to the park and kick a ball or slide down the slide. They need to play and learn how to solve problems together.” He warns, “Just don’t overdo it. Everything in moderation. Academics isn’t the end-all; sports isn’t either.” Additional reporting by Amani Zhang