As parents, we seek schools for our children that will best position them for a successful life’s journey. I believe that the best schools are those that present excellent academic programs (as a given), but go beyond to provide each student a broad range of opportunities:
- to create
- to serve
- to lead; and
- to experience the rewards that come from active engagement in sports, performing arts, and group activities
- lessons about effort, struggle, resilience, and responsibility to others
- lessons that teach understanding of the self and its capabilities
- lessons that teach understanding and appreciation for the strengths, weaknesses, viewpoints, and abilities of others
These are all experiences I want each student to have, for I know what great lessons they all hold. Regardless of any individual’s particular backgrounds or talents, there is great short and long-term value in having children take part in sports, in fine arts, in leadership/club activities, and in service. All school communities offer these opportunities to the entire community, but, often, the entire range is not possible for each individual to experience. 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 most of our students. Rather, I am a proponent of broad participation and balance, at least through 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 own 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 even 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 both a sport and an instrument, these lessons become clearer to them. 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, of belonging, of purpose that comes from balance helps to develop that most important of attributes — confidence. Imagine how the athlete grows when she or he steps on the stage or throws a graceful pot on the potter’s wheel. Imagine the growth of the uncoordinated or non-athletic 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 growthful 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 the 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 about the school, visit academyatthelakes.org.