Each student should experience these rewards, for I know what great lessons they all hold. Regardless of background or talent, there is great short- and long-term value in having children participate in sports, fine arts, leadership / club activities and service. All school communities offer these opportunities, but it’s often not possible for each individual to experience the entire range. In other words, there are many school cultures that require specialization as a condition to participation or have specialization as a by-product (due to expectations like year-round club sports commitments or excessive nightly homework requirements).
I believe that specialization too early in life is too limiting for the majority of students. Rather, I am a proponent of broad participation and balance through at least the early part of high school.
A balanced experience for all students offers more opportunities for personal growth, especially in the type of skills that will be necessary for 21st century success. These include the ability to understand and communicate with others, the ability to work independently and responsibly and the ability to understand how your expertise can relate to and work with the individual characteristics and expertise of others.
Great growth comes to children and adolescents through the learning opportunities that come from stretching and trying new things. When we humans stretch, we often develop new flexibility and increased power. When we exercise the muscles of our experiences, we also develop greater perspective.
When we venture into a broader array of activities, we discover commonalities, traits and truths that are widely shared, perhaps universal. Those who are open to seeing commonalities across seemingly different activities are more likely to understand and model a universal truth like the idea that hard work and perseverance lead to success. When students play a sport and an instrument, these lessons become clearer. Further, lessons about collaboration and team (responsibility) common to performing arts, athletics and activities such as student government become much more apparent to students when they have meaningful experiences in all of those realms.
Breadth of opportunity in school also helps students on their journey of personal discovery. The sense of accomplishment, belonging and purpose that comes from balance helps to develop that most important of attributes — confidence.
Imagine how the athlete grows when she steps on the stage or throws a graceful pot on the potter’s wheel. Imagine the growth of the uncoordinated or nonathletic student who is genuinely cheered by teammates after scoring a basket or finishing a race. Imagine the benefits experienced by all students from the commitment and motivation that comes from participating in a community service club. These are among the most deep, satisfying and impactful moments our children can experience. They give rise to perspective, to a way of viewing the world and their place in it that leads to understanding of self and of others. And isn’t that what life, especially a good life, is all about?
The balanced experience for every child is a proven path to building confidence. It is a cornerstone of a great education.
Mark Heller is head of school at Academy at the Lakes, a PK3-12th grade independent school in the North Tampa area. For more information, visit www.academyatthelakes.org.