Unschooling Youth Sports

We’re big on unschooling. If you aren’t familiar with that concept, let me use a more friendly term. I actually prefer the term “child-led learning”.

“Unschool” sounds like a lot of sleeping late and watching Diego. Wait…maybe that is what we’re doing.

Nah…what actually happens with child-led learning is that you observe what your kids are interested in, then provide them with resources and opportunities to learn more about it. They get to  go as far as they want to go with it–maybe they’ll move onto something else in a week or two, or maybe they’ll become passionate about it and do it for the rest of their lives. The general idea is to let them learn about what they want to learn about instead of deciding what you think they should learn and pushing it on them.

Maybe it doesn’t work if you’re dealing with a kid who really hates to learn, but I haven’t met one of those yet. I’ve seen lots of kids who aren’t interested in some of the things they are being forced to learn, and I’ve seen lots of kids who have been convinced that it isn’t cool to learn, but I’ve never met one who didn’t clamor to find out more about something they are interested in.

I don’t know any adults like that either. I’ve seen lots of adults who hated school but are experts on classic cars, gardening, home brewing, photography, fishing, etc. Once we find the things that strike a chord with us, we will go out of our way to learn as much as we can about it.

No force feeding necessary.

What we’re trying to do is nurture that love of learning and provide options from the get-go. What they learn isn’t nearly as important as the process of learning something…and loving it.

Ok…not on an unshcooling soapbox, because that’s not really what this post is about. There’s plenty more information about unschooling out there, and plenty of places to argue about it with other people if you are so inclined.

What I’m actually interested in is how this concept applies to kids’ sports. We were talking last night about how much our 3yo loves to play soccer. The immediate idea (even for us) is to put her on a soccer team. But wait…why? This is completely contrary to her personality. She has absolutely zero interest in being on a team, going to scheduled practices, wearing a uniform, etc. She just loves to go out and kick the ball around the yard with her sisters and neighborhood friends.

So why should we introduce all the things she would hate about playing in an organized program and place limits on the parts she loves?

Instead of hauling her to a practice where she can be told what to do for 45 minutes (and when she has to stop), why not let her play for 15 minutes or an  hour and a half the way she likes to play and decide for herself when she wants to stop? I think she’ll end up with more time kicking and running, have more fun, and have the aspects of playing soccer that she loves nurtured. If she’s really into it and decides she wants to compete later on, she’ll let us know. That’s the time to get her into a program. Until then, why not just let her have fun and get better at the same time?

If a love and passion for the game grows, she’ll ask for the structure. She’ll crave it. If she gets structure too soon, that love may never get a chance to grow.

Some people (“people” here means adults, but kids are also people) run just for the heck of it. They don’t use watches, distance, pace, or anything. They just run. Not for a race or any kind of competition. They just love to run. What do you think would happen to their passion for running if you forced them to enter 5ks and placed them on a program with a coach? I mean, most of them could probably be better runners with coaching and a training program, but is that what they want? If so, they’d already be doing that.

I’m not saying organized youth sports are bad. I loved playing organized sports when I was a kid. But I was a different kind of kid than she is. I was really into the competition side of sports, and I wanted that trophy*. But I spent many more hours playing baseball and football in the yard than I did on organized teams. I played in the backyard because I loved baseball and football, and I’m pretty sure the backyard was the place I made my biggest gains, not at practice 2x a week for a few months.

Every kid is different. If we were dealing with our 5yo, who actually doesn’t give a flip about soccer, she’d be all about the team. She enjoys running and loves entering races. She likes running on her own, but entering a race ignites something extra in her. She doesn’t  win, but she’s ok with that. She loves the idea of being involved in a big event. If that’s what does it for her that’s great, and we’ll pursue it that way.

Even as unschoolers, I think we can sometimes fall into the trap of putting that approach into a box, labeling it “Education”, and forgetting it can apply to everything else.

*Back then, only the champions got trophies.


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