An increasingly important topic not only in the Montessori environment, but the world in general, is the concept of social justice. Strides have been made in not just increasing awareness, but righting wrongs. Obviously, there is much more that needs to be done. Interestingly enough, social and moral development is one of the hallmarks of the child growing into the second plane of development. What is right and wrong (and all the shades of grey in-between), as well as what justice means and what injustice looks like become very important. Physical education is an excellent place to explore these concepts more in depth, distinctly through sportsmanship and the history of sport.
One of the reasons that people love sport is that it is inherently fair; the rules of a sport apply to everyone equally. There is no preferential treatment for one player over another; everyone is bound to the same rule set. Money or social status do not affect the rules of one player to another the way it might in “real life.” This is a reason why people become so upset at referees; they are supposed to be the arbiters of fairness. When they make a mistake, it affects the outcome in a world that is supposed to be fair and just. A reason people find entertainment in sport is the escapism aspect it provides. Someone might not have a fair shake in life, but in sport, whether playing or watching, everyone is on equal ground. Players exhibit sportsmanship, which defines the proper way to not only play sport, but to live life. I will have a future article going in depths on sportsmanship soon.
Fairness in who gets to play a sport in the professional arena was a different story however. In the United States, segregation kept African-Americans and people of color from playing in professional leagues throughout the 1800’s and early 1900’s. However, in many cases, it was sport that made the first breakthroughs in breaking down the barriers of segregation. It was hard for people to hold onto old tropes and prejudices of race when they began to witness African-American athletic excellence. Notable standouts include Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Althea Gibson, Fritz Pollard, Wilma Rudolph, Muhammad Ali, and Arthur Ashe. They are just a few of the many who would change the national and political discourse of race relations in the United States.
Another favorite example of mine is how sport saved a country on the brink of civil war. Nelson Mandela was elected the president of South Africa, and the country was rebounding from the apartheid regime, but it was not clear whether the country could come together through the rift created by it segregated past. It cannot be understated how important rugby, specifically the South African team the Springboks, would be in building a new nationalism. Nelson Mandela embraced the Springboks, which used to be a symbol of the apartheid, in an effort to reunite the country. For first time, it had black players as well as white players on the team. They performed admirably in the World Cup (which was in South Africa at the time) and won over the whole country with the performance, which went along way in stabilizing peace and inspiring a country to do better.
While the child is working on understanding the concept of justice and fairness, they do not do this in a vacuum. The child not only navigates this terrain as an individual, but within social structures of family and (now more importantly than ever) friends. The child wants to participate in groups, and the group will have its core beliefs and structures, which the child will participate in creating, obeying, and possibly rejecting. This dance (or dilemma) can be seen everyday when a group of students at recess argue about what game to play and what rules they are going to follow. It can feel like a whole recess is wasted with arguments, but this work is essential in this plane of development. It can be very difficult to keep from intervening, because to the adult, the solution may be so simple, but the children are working hard to get to their conclusion.
Personally, I try to intervene as little as possible, but I do have upper elementary students who will consistently ask me to make teams for them because they know my knowledge of their athletic abilities (being their PE teacher and coach) helps me make the teams as fair as possible. But, I only volunteer this service when asked. Everyday, I give them the opportunity to do this process themselves (which sometimes they do). The same goes for being the referee for their game. I do not volunteer to do this unless asked. I have asked students why they like me refereeing their games, and the consensus is that they want the maximum playing time during their recess, and following an objective authority during the game enables them to play instead of argue. What is interesting is that my lower elementary students never ask me to make teams or enforce rules unless there is a significant argument. However, I am never asked premeditatedly; it’s always in response to a perceived injustice.
I would love to hear if you have had a similar experience to me in this regard of age groups. Is this a phenomenon that you experience during your recess? If so, I wonder if there is a mini sensitive period within that lower elementary age for rule creation and argument, but the older students forsake this for maximum playing time because they can foresee the arguments “wasting” time. Please share your own experience in the comments below.