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A Times Editorial

Advocating exercise for kids is not coddling

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 1, 2002

The recent efforts by two Inverness women to get the school district to expand its intramural sports programs should be welcomed and applauded by all county residents interested in the health and development of children.

Instead, some are misinterpreting the actions as those of overprotective mothers trying to create a utopia for their daughters: a place where no child ever gets her feelings hurt and everyone wins all the time.

Fortunately, officials within the Citrus County School District understand the concerns of Susan Reeder and Mercedia White and are taking appropriate steps to correct an unnecessary imbalance.

Reeder and White both have daughters who tried out for the girls volleyball team at Inverness Middle School but didn't make the cut. While accepting that some kids are simply better athletes than others, they asked the logical question: Why are there no options at the school for children who still want to participate in sports, even if they don't make the starting team?

Interestingly, had their children attended any of the other three middle schools in the county, the mothers might never have brought the issue to the attention of the School Board, and this problem might never have been addressed. That's because middle schools in Citrus Springs, Crystal River and Lecanto offer intramural sports programs. The obvious question, then, is the one the women raised: Why not at Inverness Middle?

Inverness Middle used to have an intramural program, but it faded out about a decade ago for a number of reasons. Principal Cindy Staten has said that she does not oppose intramurals, but she raises questions about costs, the availability of facilities for the programs and, especially, supervision of the children.

These are valid concerns, but they are also solvable problems. For proof, just look at the other middle schools around the county.

Are we to believe that the facilities are that much better at the other schools, that the teachers and potential coaches are more dedicated elsewhere, that the parents at those other three schools care more about their children than do IMS parents?

The problem with facilities has been solved elsewhere by something as simple as reconfiguring volleyball nets in a gym so that two games can go on simultaneously. If there is a shortage of people at a certain school willing to serve as coaches, why not post the position districtwide? Uniforms can be as simple and inexpensive as T-shirts and shorts.

As for students' interest waning, other schools around the state have fixed that by offering a broad menu of sports and activities. In Brevard County, for example, the list runs from archery, bowling, wall climbing and dance (aerobics through jazzercise) to street hockey, hiking, gymnastics, skiing and water polo.

Locally, Citrus Springs Middle School has been offering seven intramural programs that involve nearly 300 students, but those numbers may drop next year when the school fields a competitive football team.

Rather than eliminating such programs, the district should search for ways to expand them. A committee of district officials and parents, formed after Reeder and White raised the issue, has taken positive, initial steps to make that happen. The panel recently recommended that two supplemental coaching positions be created at each of the four middle schools -- an idea that now goes to superintendent David Hickey for approval.

Hickey, a former middle school principal, has already expressed his enthusiasm for improving athletic and recreational options at the middle school level. The School Board has shown a strong interest in doing the same.

Cost should not be a factor, because the eight new positions would total $3,744. The district already has money available through gender equity programs that could be tapped as needed. Having paid coaches and supervisors should ease the concerns about not having enough parents who would volunteer to oversee the programs, which would be run after school when many parents are still at work.

Left unsettled in the discussions is the concern of Reeder and White over the policy of cutting children from the competitive teams. It is that point that has raised the hackles of those who believe the women are trying to coddle children rather than teach them the harsh lessons of life, such as that sometimes you win and sometimes you don't.

This opposition misses the point that Reeder, a psychologist, and White, a nurse, have been making. At the middle school ages, children should be encouraged to expand their horizons and to try new things. Is this really the time in life to send a message to a child that he or she is a failure, not good enough to play a sport?

This is not just the feeling of well-meaning mothers. Numerous studies have shown that after such an experience, youngsters refrain from challenging themselves out of a fear of rejection. There is plenty of time in a child's development to learn that not everyone can be a star; at this important time in their lives, why discourage them from even trying?

"Middle schoolers are experiencing significant levels of stress at a time when they are most vulnerable and least prepared to cope," Reeder wrote in a letter to IMS' Staten. "To exacerbate this stress via exclusion policies in the school appears both counterproductive and unnecessary. Middle school should be an opportunity for students to explore and discover many things at which they can excel. It is too early to be stepping on a child's dreams."

Another advantage of expanded intramurals is that it would involve sixth-graders who now are excluded from competitive sports for insurance reasons. Such programs at Citrus schools now have no-cut policies.

"None of us wants to see any kid cut. It's not good for their self-esteem," Lecanto Middle School principal James Kusmaul said. "And in middle school, we want them to try as many things as they possibly can to see what they like."

Certainly not to be overlooked is the inherent value of physical activity. Many reports in recent years have pointed out that we are fast becoming an obese, sedentary nation. In the days before the siren songs of 500-channel television, video games and computers, kids actually played outdoors for hours each day. Today, that is more the exception than the rule.

By offering a menu of intramural activities, the school system can take a strong step toward improving the health of our community's children. It's a step worth taking.

The value of good health, while de-emphasized in our FCAT-crazed educational system, has been recognized by thoughtful people over the ages. No less a mind than Thomas Jefferson has said, "Exercise and recreation are as necessary as reading. . . . I would rather say more necessary, as health is worth more than learning."

To that, we add: Play ball!

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