If We Build It, They Will Come

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March is “Music in the Schools Month”.

While it is wonderful to promote the importance of music in our schools in this way, it is merely a first step in the effort to focus the public’s attention on how critical music is to our schools’ curriculums and in the lives of students.

Despite nice declarations like this, the question remains: Why do we continue to underfund or cut music programs when the research is so clear regarding their positive educational, community building and economic impact?

The broad-brush answer is,

“Because we haven’t chosen to build it.”

To fully leverage music’s power and potential to educate and change lives, schools and communities, it is not enough to simply talk about it. We must follow our words and platitudes with deeds and funding.

The fact is, if education and community leaders identified music and arts programs as being critically important to schools and communities and funded them accordingly, the public would follow. 

In short, if we build it, they will come.

The research regarding music and the arts’ positive educational and community building impact is clear. Yet, despite that research, too often education and community leaders have yet to fully embrace it. If you don’t accept, embrace and apply the “tools” (research, data and narratives) regarding music and the arts’ positive impacts, you can’t build anything.

That said, the arts community must become more organized and aggressive in holding education and community leaders accountable for their priorities and funding decisions. Building music and arts interest groups is tedious organizational work. And once developed, these groups must no longer shy away from challenging the status quo to drive real change.

The good news, however, is that that work has been made easier through the power of social media with its’ capacity to forge connections and bring people together for a common cause. That,, coupled with the fact that the data, research and narratives supporting the value of the music as an educational, community building and economic tool offers potent fodder for powerful advocacy efforts.

The first step is to move beyond the traditional “arts for art’s sake” narrative. Yes, the arts are uplifting. Yes, the arts are a window into a society’s soul. But in an environment of increasing educational expectations and declining resources, the “arts for art’s sake” argument is no longer good enough.

Further, arts advocacy is no longer simply about education and community building benefits. There is also a very significant economic impact associated with investment in music and the arts. While the common perception of “artsy types” is that they are not comfortable talking about the economics of school and community funding, the fact is, decision makers must be held accountable for not only considering the educational and community building research, but also the emerging data pointing to music and the arts’ economic impact. As arts advocates, we must all become “Creative Capitalists”, unafraid to engage in the down and dirty justifications of economic impact.

Such a shift in approach is necessary because in many cases, those who are in decision making positions do not fully understand and appreciate the importance of “arts for art’s” sake but understand very well matters relating to business, economics and the concept of return on investment.

The educational return on investment in music and arts programs is significant and growing. This is particularly relevant given that the currency of the future in this rapidly changing, global community and world economy will be creativity. The issues and challenges we face as a society are becoming more complex. To effectively address those increasingly complex issues and challenges, we must develop on our populace, a corresponding increase in creativity. Further, many of the jobs of the future don’t even exist yet. That is why the number one skill business leaders are looking for in their employees is out of the box, creative thinking and problem solving. The research confirms that the most effective tool in our educational and community arsenal to nurture creativity is music and the arts. The arts instill that characteristic as they not only allow but encourage students to “color outside the lines” without penalty.

The priorities education and community leaders establish and the funding decisions they make have great influence. If those leaders clearly articulate and then follow through with funding decisions that support those priorities, the public will follow. If music and the arts are viewed as critical and funded accordingly, the public will begin to consider them important as well and, as a result, will support their funding. We expect our leaders to lead. But they must have the courage, vision and conviction to go where the data and research regarding music and the arts’ educational, community building and economic impact takes them.

At the end of the day, if we decide to build it, they will come. 

Giving Youth Sports Back to the Kids

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It’s no secret there are significant problems in organized youth sports programs. Incidences of parents screaming at nine-year-old children over a missed basket or misplayed fly ball are commonplace. Youth league umpires and referees are regularly abused and even physically attacked. Brawls have erupted after youth league soccer matches. Obviously, something is wrong.

It’s the adults.

Youth sports programs are no longer about meeting the educational, developmental, health and recreational needs of children. They have become more about satisfying ego needs of adults. Adults have imposed their values and priorities regarding sports upon children’s games, from the organization of player drafts to the imposition of structure, organization and rules to a disproportionate emphasis on winning. Meanwhile children, more than anything, want to play sports, not to win, but to simply have fun and spend time with their friends. It is the adults who are destroying youth sports and it is time to give youth sports back to the kids.

But how will our children manage without adults supervising every aspect of their sports activities and experience?

Quite well, thank you.

Studies contrasting spontaneous youth play versus youth sport organized and run by adults indicate that children, if left to their own devices, will successfully organize, administer and manage their own games. They will choose sides and mediate disputes. They will set their own rules. In some cases, those rules may change from game to game. But they will be rules that work for them. Children will handicap their games to ensure that they are evenly matched, which makes them interesting and fun. Such organizational, mediation and interpersonal skills are valuable characteristics that children don’t truly get the opportunity to develop when adults dictate the rules and that they play the “adult”, supposedly “right” way.

A perfect example of the stark difference between “pick-up” kids’ games and adult run youth games is the common situation where there is one very superior athlete in a baseball game. In the adult organized game, the coach will have that child pitch.  The child proceeds to dominate the game, striking out most of the batters he or she faces, while the children playing in the field stand like statues, or, just as likely, pick dandelions in the outfield, waiting to field a ball that most likely won’t ever be hit, let alone hit to them.

By the end of the game, many players have never touched the ball. If left to their own devices, the children in the “pick-up” game will agree amongst themselves that the dominant player either not pitch or pitch with his or her opposite arm. In basketball, the dominant player may be allowed only a limited number of shots or may be required to shoot with his or her “off” hand.  

Children make adjustments in their games to ensure that the game will be interesting and fun, and thus, continue. Their purpose in getting together to play is to have fun. If the game is not fun, children will quit playing. And if enough quit, the game will end. That being the case, they must work to make the game interesting and fun so everyone will want to continue to play. Without adult enforced structure, dictates, rules and expectations, there is nothing holding the game together other than the kids wanting to play it.  In short, the game would cease to exist if it were not fun. You can’t blame them as “play” is supposed to be fun. In youth leagues organized by adults, the adult imposed goal of winning and dictating that the game be played the “right” way (as defined by adults) overshadows the goal of maximizing fun and participation.

Another significant difference between these two types of games is the way in which the outcome is treated. In adult organized games, the result of the contest is recorded as a win or a loss, regardless of the closeness of the game or the performances of the individuals involved. Further, standing are kept and trophies are awarded. In the pick-up game, while the result may be discussed on the walk home, it is usually considered insignificant and quickly forgotten as children focus more on the most exciting plays and the fun they had. Clearly, children have their priorities straight regarding sports as it is the process (participation, learning and having fun) rather than the end result (winning) that is most important.

How do we restructure youth sports programs to give the games back to the kids?

“De-organize” them.

In such a system, only a relatively small portion of the activities (say 25 – 30 percent) would be devoted to fundamental skill instruction. The remaining time should be turned over to the kids for them to play pick-up games…with no parental or adult involvement! Other than a safety official, adults should not be permitted to coach or instruct. And, if you want to take this concept to the next level, adults and parents wouldn’t even be allowed to watch. Get them out of the gym, field or facility. Let the kids play on their terms for themselves. The real joy of youth sports comes from playing with friends, far from the critiquing of adults.  The adults should just leave the kids alone. Let them pick their own teams, make their own rules and mediate their own disputes. The only rule they should abide by is that everyone plays.

In other words, to make the games “about the kids”, activities should resemble pick-up games. Provide a safe playing environment but let them manage their own games. As a result, they will have the space and opportunity to actually develop the personal skills – organizational, conflict resolution, leadership, personal responsibility, mediation and management – that we claim that sports participation teaches. While adults may cringe at denying their children their “expert” coaching talents, the fact is, children’s interpersonal, leadership and decision-making skills will develop more if they are left to manage their own games. Without adult supervision, the games will be closer, more interesting and most important, more fun for the kids. And don’t we adults always claim that youth sports are “about the kids”? Maybe it’s time to stop paying lip service to that concept and get the adults out of youth sports. Maybe it’s time to let the kids have their games back.