One of the iconic images of schools is a field full of teams playing, practicing, kicking balls, wielding field hockey sticks, running around, ponytails flying, boys’ voices yelling for a pass. Or flushed figures standing, hands on hips, breathing hard, catching their breath. Batches of boys or girls in bright colours, following a ball like iron filings following a magnet. The patterns of play are sometimes hard to discern, but then the suggestion of barely controlled chaos is not a bad one; in fact, it seems just about right. It’s hard to contain the exuberance and energy of young people, after all.
We devote a lot of time, resources and attention to physical activity at the school. Last spring we opened the William Monkman Athletic Complex, which extended two gymnasium floors to full-size and added a fitness centre, locker rooms, offices and four squash courts. Every student in the school up to the end of Grade 11 takes PE, and we run an increasingly active after-school sports programme in Junior, Middle and Senior Schools. It is far from the central purpose of our programme, but our teams do win their share of championships. Some of my own best memories of younger days are of sports and physical challenge, and I am certain that I have that much in common with what will become the memories of students at our school now sweating intensely at their play.
I never questioned sports when I was a boy; I just played. It was an expectation, which I bet is the case with our current students and their parents. Physical fitness, started young, builds into a lifetime habit, we believe. In playing sports we learn discipline, commitment, teamwork, decision-making, courage and, at times, humility. Research consistently identifies in adolescents and pre-adolescents who are physically active benefits to cognitive development, self-esteem, personal well-being and social development. While regular physical activity doesn’t result in a 100% positive correlation for all students, there is an extremely high negative correlation between inactivity and personal, social and health difficulties among young people and the adults they will become (if you’re looking for the research, I suggest you google it, send me an email, or ask any of our PE teachers, who have the information close at hand – I sent some of them an email on the topic this morning and within half an hour had about a day’s worth of reading in my inbox.) When people ask me what our school does about drug and alcohol issues, for instance, I tell them that the most important thing we have is not a set of rules (which we have), or educational sessions (which we provide), but rather it is the rich, active life full of physical pursuits, the arts, service, academics and other extra-curriculars that tap into all the nooks and crannies of a young person’s being. I am definitely not the only one who believes this – Bill Monkman a graduate of 1962, in making possible our athletic complex, says that this emphasis on sports is what kept him out of trouble (out of jail, he actually says, jokingly) and gave him all those other good things that have stayed with him all his life.
And best of all, it’s fun.