Dodge Ball: Causing Harm Or Teaching Resilience?

A New York school has taken soccer balls, footballs — and maybe even the fun — out of recess. Officials say hard balls are a safety concern, but critics say they're being too cautious. Tell Me More's parenting roundtable weighs in.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. Today, we want to talk about recess. Now you might think that recess is about fun and games, but sometimes not every game is fun for everybody, like dodgeball.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY")

JUSTIN LONG: (as Justin) Shouldn't we, like, learn by dodging balls that are thrown at us, or...

RIP TORN: (as Patches O'Houlihan) That's what this sack of wrenches is for. If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.

LONG: (as Justin) What?

MARTIN: OK. That was from the movie "Dodgeball." But dodgeball days are over at one middle school on Long Island, New York. That school made news this month by banning dodgeballs, footballs, baseballs and soccer balls from recess as too dangerous. Now they said it was a temporary measure, but that school's not the only one. A New Hampshire district voted earlier this year to ban dodgeball and other, quote, human-target sports.

But, you know, school officials might be the ones ducking because they've left a lot of parents and kids asking where did the fun go? So we wanted to talk more about this. So we've called a diverse group of parents with different experiences. Leslie Morgan Steiner is author of the books "Crazy Love" and "Mommy Wars," and mom of three. Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and a father of two. Anupy Singla is a cookbook author and a mom of two. And Cheryl Richardson is a director of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. She's also a mom of two. Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Thanks, Michel.

ANUPY SINGLA: Thank you.

MARTIN: OK, I think we should get the traumatic dodgeball stories out first. OK, so, Leslie, why don't you go first? You have one.

STEINER: I do. I actually have a dodgeball and kickball trauma story. The dodgeball was one time where, in front of my entire elementary school, perhaps the entire world, I was the first one to get out. And I could remember the ball hitting me and how much it stung. And then also in kickball once, I tried to steal third base in a really stupid way and I got out, and I ran screaming and crying back into the school. But I'll tell you, even given both of those, I remain a huge fan of dodgeball and kickball 'cause I learned a lot from both experiences, and I wasn't scarred for life. I was just scarred in the moment.

MARTIN: What do you think you learned?

STEINER: Well, in both cases, I went crying in to my teachers. And I was the kind of, like, sweet, little, goody two-shoes girl who was always close to my teachers. And they were wonderful to me, and they bucked me up and they told me I had many great qualities even though I was not a good athlete. And they gave me, you know, shelter. And that just helped me just to see that it's not all about sports and it's not all about being good at sports, and that I was good at many, many things. And it taught me a lot of compassion for other people, too, I think.

MARTIN: OK. Jeff, what about you? I understand that you definitely have a beef with dodgeball.

JEFF YANG: Dodgeball. I mean, I love team sports. I have nothing against team sports. I have issues with mob sports, and dodgeball is - from my own personal experience - the one systematized opportunity for bullies to target the - essentially, to winnow the herd from the weak and infirm, and I was that kid. I was the fat kid with glasses who looked like, you know, different from everybody else, ethnically and otherwise. And they ban head shots in dodgball, but they do not ban crotch shots. So it was persistently an opportunity for those guys who wanted to ascertain their place on the pecking order and food chain to crush the plankton of the classroom.

MARTIN: OK. Tell us how you really feel, Jeff. Anupy, what about you? You were telling us that your daughter recently came home and said that they can't play tag anymore.

SINGLA: You know, she was talking about that because I was telling her that I was going to be doing this interview and she'd said that - they probably didn't come out and completely ban tag, but they were discouraging them from playing tag. They go to a city school and playgrounds in the city are on rooftops sometimes, so they have less space. And I said, well, what are you doing instead? She said, well, we came up with the great game. It's called stomp. So what they do is, they stomp on each other's feet to see if they can actually, you know, get somebody or if the other person avoids it. And she says, mommy, let me try it on you, and it hurts.

So I kind of feel like, well, you know, you could ban something but something else is going to come and take its place anyway. And so we have to look for different ways to probably make whatever's out there on the playground something that everyone can play. And yeah, somebody's going to get hit by a ball hard once in a while. But at the same time, if we ban something, something else is going to come in and we're going to have problems with that, too. So why put a band-aid on the problem?

MARTIN: Cheryl, what about you? I understand that your organization actually recommends that schools take dodgeball out of their physical education classes and recess. Why? and do you have - do you make a distinction between dodgeball and other games involving a ball, like soccer?

CHERYL RICHARDSON: Absolutely. Dodgeball, like tag, are elimination games where students who are the lowest skilled are eliminated from the game first. So it's counter-productive to the goals of physical education, where you're creating a supportive environment for learning and practicing skills. So dodgeball doesn't fall in the same category as other sports like basketball or soccer, things like that. And as Jeff mentioned, it also create - it does create that great opportunity for intimidating or bullying other students.

MARTIN: Well, what about - I mean, by that standards, so does spelling bees. I mean, don't spelling bees eliminate kids, you know, or like math challenge or things of that sort? I mean, are you just saying that competition is inherently bad? What's the - tell me.

RICHARDSON: No, competition is not inherently bad, and I think if we, you know, give every kid the trophy, that we're setting them up for failure later on in life because it takes away their opportunity to learn resilience and perseverance and all those very valuable life skills. It's the environment that the teacher creates, kind of like what Leslie mentioned earlier. That the teacher, even though it wasn't a successful experience, the teacher was able to point out positive parts of it and turn it into a positive learning lesson.

MARTIN: Anupy, what do you think about that?

SINGLA: I believe that we have to have competition. I mean, that's what I think life is all about. We have to teach kids that there is value and learning in also losing. And I got to say, I was a kid that was an immigrant to this country - came when I was three. I was the most non-sought after sports player in my entire school. It was very frustrating and degrading in a certain way. But at the same time, I feel like it gave me life lessons that really made me be a winner now as an adult. It was not fun back then on the playground being picked last. But at the same time, I had really good teachers who came in and supported me.

And I think that's part of the challenge in schools these days is that they're running shorter on staff, shorter on staff that's out there on the playground monitoring these kids, as well. And so we have to look at what the real issue is and the real problem. I don't think the problem, to me, is really dodgeball. I mean, you can work with a softer ball. I think part of the bigger issue is less money in schools, less staff out there on playgrounds monitoring these kids, and also parents that when the kids come home with a little scratch, oftentimes, come back and are complaining to the schools they want to shut that down as well. And so one answer is to ban sports like that.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, our parenting panel is with us and we're talking about schools banning dodgeball and some other recess games. I'm joined by a Cheryl Richardson of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education and Dance. Anyupy Singla, who was speaking just now, Jeff Yang and Leslie Morgan Steiner.

Now just in fairness to that school on Long Island, they are saying that they're doing a construction project, and so that their space is actually - excuse me - a little limited. And so they are supplying Nerf balls instead of, you know, dodgeballs. But I know that other people, I think, would be with Anupy on this and just say, well, you know, why is it that so every kid's got to be good at everything. Why can't there be some spheres where some kids are, you know, better than others at other things, right? And so - but, Leslie, you were saying that your kids' school feels that students don't have the emotional, what? Emotional chops, emotional skills to handle peer competition before the seventh grade.

STEINER: Yes.

MARTIN: Tell me more about that.

STEINER: And I really understand that 'cause I know these kids very well, and I think there are some kids who - they take it really personally. They feel like they're not playing a game. They feel like they are being targeted by their peers in a really unpleasant way. So I understand the school's policy to do that. But my kids are very competitive and I know a lot of really competitive kids, and there's always a loser in these rules because what I see is the kids who are naturally, kind of exuberantly competitive, they end up feeling really ashamed of the fact that they love dodgeball and they love competition. So I think that it's a tricky balance.

And I also - I went to the same school that my kids go to and it's a tiny sort of underfunded private school. And we ended up losing a lot when I was a kid. And it was one of the best things about my sports experience as a kid was learning how to lose gracefully. And it brings you together with your teammates, and there's nothing - I think there's nothing wrong with losing or being the first one out. I don't think it's fun. I think it drives parents crazy to think that their kids are being hurt in some way, but we can't protect our kids too much from that. We end up hurting them in the long run if we do.

MARTIN: Jeff, talk a little bit more about - I mean, I don't want to lose sight of the point that you were making earlier, which is, like, dodgeball is dodgeball, right? That it's not the same. It's organized, what? Mayhem.

YANG: Yeah.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more about it.

YANG: I mean, you know, I guess one thing that dodgeball really does is teach us the realities of our two-party political system I suppose. But beyond that, what really are you learning? I mean, from my own experiences with dodgeball, and again, I'm all for competition when it's taught properly, when kids are given support and given the opportunity to understand that losing does not naturally mean you're a loser, right? But in a way, dodgeball is all about losers. You know, it is that elimination process and increasingly, even if you manage to actually survive the first few rounds of, you know, flailing and hammering, you'll soon be the sole remaining person that everybody is attacking. I just don't see how this is something that kids need to learn or should learn, especially at the age where dodgeball is often played.

MARTIN: Well, what about at recess, though? I mean, can't kids - I mean, isn't one of the issues, though, for - well, I'll just say that this is one of the things that my kids complain about - is that recess is their time to blow off steam. And part of the criticism that some people have is that why - adults are in charge of kids' lives for every second of the day, except recess is the one time where they get to kind of play their own games and make their own rules and maybe make up a game. Maybe stomp isn't a game I would want to play but. You know, back in the day, you know, if kids stomped on your new speakers, like, that was grounds for like DEFCON 10. You know, I don't know about you, like, no - stomp on the new Adidas, no - that - no. But, Jeff, what about that? I mean, maybe just don't play. If you don't want to play, don't play.

YANG: Well, unfortunately, for most of these organized sports, you really don't have - I mean, if this is your exercise period, you want the kids to get out there and, like you said, let off steam but also burn some calories, and it's about fitness. I think, though, that the comment made earlier that the thing about dodgeball is, the less adept you are, the weaker, and, perhaps, the more exercise you need, the more likely you are to be sitting on the sidelines in the first 30 seconds.

So it doesn't seem to me like it even meets that particular kind of, you know, didactic or educational objective. And at the same time, I think that giving kids actually unstructured free time to make up their own games, even if the games do involve foot crushing, you know, is probably preferable to an organized sport where you are literally defining this Hobbesian view of the world. You know, nature, red in tooth and claw. And then throwing kids into the gaping maw of it.

MARTIN: I'm kind of feeling guilty that we brought these memories up for you, Jeff. Do we need to have a support conversation afterwards? I'm really - I'm feeling...

YANG: I'm in the fetal position right now, yeah.

MARTIN: OK, well, just make sure you're still facing the mic. Cheryl, what about that? Does your organization have an opinion about organized versus free play?

RICHARDSON: There needs to be a balance of the two things, and really that's where proper training of recess supervisors comes into play. They need to create an environment where kids have lots of opportunities to self-select what they want to participate in, and if they get involved in a game of dodgeball and find that they're unhappy, they need to be able to get out of that and move on to a different activity.

MARTIN: What about this whole question that - going back to Jeff's argument - that dodgeball - you do have two modes of thought here. One is that, you know what, competition is a part of life and that there's competition in other areas of life. And why can't some kids be better at some things than other kids? Versus the idea that it should be inclusive and it should be sort of fun for everybody if possible.

RICHARDSON: Oh. Yes, but there are a lot of ways to teach competition and perseverance and all the skills that go along with it without intimidating or this kind of bullying environment. We want...

MARTIN: So you agree with Jeff that dodgeball is basically organized bullying with a ball? Is that where you are on this?

RICHARDSON: I do.

MARTIN: OK. OK.

RICHARDSON: I do.

MARTIN: What about football? Do you have the same view of football?

RICHARDSON: I don't.

MARTIN: American football, no?

RICHARDSON: I don't. And I think, you know, obviously kids have..

MARTIN: But that job is kind of hitting people. Football is like hitting people for - on purpose.

RICHARDSON: This is where the teacher comes into play, though. The teacher needs to create rules and create a safe environment for kids to learn and practice their skills in a way that's not harmful or violent. Everybody needs to be challenged appropriately.

MARTIN: Anupy, how did the great tag controversy resolve itself at your school - or still no tag? Or stomp OK, tag not OK?

SINGLA: They're still, you know, out there trying to make a go of it on the playground that they've got. And they, like I said, they've got options and I think that's the key on a playground - is for all the kids to have options to do what they want to do. And so if you don't want to play dodgeball, then you go do something else. Again, I mean, I think with the dodgeball issue, bringing in softer balls makes sense and, you know, having supervisors, teachers there to supervise makes sense. You can turn a game of soccer, as I've seen with my 10-year-old daughter, into something that can feel like it's a competition, too. She plays with boys and oftentimes they've been better than her, and she's come home discouraged.

And the lesson there has been with soccer, even though it's not a ball being thrown at you, they never let you get near the ball. I've had to say to her, honey, it's OK, practice more let's get out there more, let's work with a group of girls. I've taken her to a team that has a bunch of girls so she can practice and feel comfortable in that environment. And now she's stealing the ball from some of the boys. So I feel like the parents just have to also partially be really involved with their kids and know what type of child they've got. Help them, you know, boost their self-esteem. But at the same time, I don't necessarily really believe that banning a particular sport or a particular sort of game on the playground's really the answer.

I think, like I said before, at the end of the day, it's about really having supervision. The teachers understanding how to deal with these problems and also the kids and the parents getting involved in knowing what their kids are feeling on a day-to-day basis. I was that kid that felt lonely at recess. I didn't have folks to play with. I opted out of dodgeball most days. I was never going to win or be selected. So I feel like it's just one of those things that's life. If it's not dodgeball, it's going to be something else.

MARTIN: See but, Anupy, your kids will always be popular because you are the most awesome snack mom ever. You know, that's a fact. All right, Jeff, what about your kids? Are they into sports? I'm sure they love throwing anything hard at each other. I'm sure that that's kind of the way that the universe works, right?

YANG: Yes.

MARTIN: What about them?

YANG: They are - I have two boys - one 9 and one 5. And the two of them are into throwing things and stepping on feet and all the things that boys are into. But they're also into, you know, math and spelling and stuff like that because they're, you know, they're genetically related to me. And, you know, I kind of wonder, it's maybe - it is about leveling that playing field. I mean, you know, what about a hybrid sport where it's half spelling bee, half dodgeball and if you spell a word wrong, you can - everybody throws a ball at you or something.

MARTIN: OK. Leslie, final thought from you. What sports - do you play sports now? I bet - even with your humiliation from dodgeball, I bet you do.

STEINER: I did end up playing a lot of sports in high school because I was a late blooming athlete, but I turned out to be an athlete. And my kids are all into - they're really into sports, the kind that you make up on the playground with your friends and the organized kind. And I think that we as parents and as teachers have just got to make sure we don't try to micromanage life too much for our kids.

MARTIN: Leslie Morgan Steiner is the author of the books "Crazy Love" and "Mommy Wars," and a mom of three. She was here with me in our Washington, D.C. studios along with Cheryl Richardson, a director of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. And also a mom of two. Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and a father of two, with us from NPR New York. And Anupy Singla is a cookbook author and a mom of two, with us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Thank you all so much.

STEINER: Thank you.

RICHARDSON: Thank you.

SINGLA: Thank you.

YANG: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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