“I don’t like winning,” said the 5-year old at the end of my class. If the U.S. was a religion, that would be blasphemy. As it stands, it could be grounds for treason and I kept my eyes peeled for a visit from Homeland Security. Despite the plea from Jimmy Stewart in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” to put neighborhood, community and fellow feeling above all, let’s face it—it’s a sentiment that lasts a couple of days around Christmas and then it’s back to the cutthroat game of winners and losers.
I keep score in basketball, play volleyball with a net and get an annual thrill from the Super Bowl or World Series. I play to win in Boggle, Hearts and Solitaire and to this day, feel a childlike (or is it childish?) excitement in shooting the moon or shooting a winning basket. And a comparable annoyance when I lose. Winning and losing in sports and games is indelibly stamped on my character and I accept that. (Though even here, things can shift—my new definition of winning the Staff-8th grade basketball game is that I can walk away when it’s over!)
But now everything seems to be a competition with winners and losers. The joyful communal experiences of singing, dancing, cooking and learning in school together is reduced to American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, Hell’s Kitchen, Race to the Top. Politics has never been more about the winning team and never been less about how to work side-by-side to create a working democracy and healthy culture. Schools have always leaned too heavily to the honor roll and not considered enough as to how each child can learn and contribute, but now whole schools can lose funds if their students fail the tests based on the lie of “no child left behind.” The pressure on children to achieve, the stress to not be called a loser, the anxiety of measuring up to someone else’s standard, has never been more present and never more harmful. It’s a toxic culture that infects everything it touches.
So when my 5-year old students wanted to know if it was a winning game we were playing and a few commented as the little boy above did, they were mirroring a parent culture trying to counter-balance our obsession with winning. “If winning and losing causes harm, “ the reasoning goes, “let’s eliminate games and structures that have winners and losers.”
But I have another point of view. In-between “winning is everything” and “let’s take the net down” there is a third alternative. The little game I was playing is one of several models for it, as follows:
Kids in partners held hands facing each other and walked away to the beat while reciting “Roses are red. Violets are blue. Sugar is sweet…” On the final phrase—“and so are you!” they had to run back together, hold hands and freeze. The point was to arrive on time and feel the relationship between time, space and energy.
The second level was starting back to back and not looking to see where their partner was until the last phrase— a bit more challenging. Then to add just the right dose of “volleyball with a net” tension, the new rule was that those who didn’t get back in time were “out.”
Pay attention here, because this is my punch line. It’s good to have winning and losing games to heighten attention, increase motivation (for some) and add just the right dose of excitement. But the question we must ask is, “What becomes of the losers?” In the deadly serious and poorly thought-out game of so much in the culture, the answer is often “Prison.” California, a state that for years now has spent more money on prisons than schools, is an experienced player of that game. But in the new thinking, we offer another choice for the “losers” (or better stated, “those who get out”)— to play part of the poem on some instruments off to the side.
The moment I explain that, you can see the wheels turning in the kids’ minds. “Hmm. Should I get out on purpose so I can play that big drum first?” This is Shakespearean drama! In my experience, kids mostly want to “win” the movement game, but immediately are quite happy to get to play the instruments. And of course, we then play again to give everyone another chance and see if they've developed their strategies better.
So when another child asked me at the end of class, “Who won?” I replied: “If you got to play an instrument, you won. If you were the last one out, you won. If you enjoyed the class, you won.” And I might have gone on. “If you learned something in class, if you made a nice contact with a partner, if you improved your triangle technique, if you were happy when the class was over, etc.” And he looked at me and smiled, "I won!"
It’s a big topic and I have 20 more pages of comments, but right now I need to go kick some major butt in Solitaire.