I hated playtimes as a child. When I say I was not sporty, I mean I was barely interested in walking in a straight line, let alone running, and especially not kicking, throwing or touching a ball. I had no desire to join in with games that I was not good at, that I did not enjoy and that I was inevitably picked last for. Winter was the worst time of all. I really wanted to be indoors, reading a book, with a nice hot drink, preferably lying on a chaise longue. Instead I stood shivering on the edge of the netball court, trying to read standing up while avoiding being hit by random balls.
It took me a while but I did very, very gradually, realise the virtues and values of socialising with my classmates. I even eventually joined in quite happily with playing jacks and the odd bit of skipping, though I was still utterly mystified by those who played netball at lunchtimes when they didn’t have to. But I did worry about my two little daughters when they came along. To say that they took after me was to understate the case. These Pink Lady apples had fallen about a milimetre from the tree. Neither of them was interested in sports, both were great readers. I hated to think that the playground would be the same source of misery for them that it so often was for me.
A life on the sidelines?
Luckily, the girls started off in Belgium at a school designed for the children of bureaucrats. They had sport for a scant hour a week, and playtimes were dominated by a series of non-sport-related crazes, like making complicated bracelets and collecting keyrings, about the level of sportiness my daughters could cope with.
When we came to the UK, netball kicked in with a vengeance and I was promptly called to the school by the games teacher. ‘These girls are unable to throw a ball,’ she said. ‘Ah,’ I replied, failing to show either surprise, shock, or the correct degree of interest. The teacher became agitated. ‘You need to make them practise. Throw balls to each other,’ she exhorted. ‘If you haven’t got a ball, you can use crumpled-up newspaper,’ she finally said in desperation.
I decided to splash out and buy a ball and we duly chucked it to each other in the garden. The games teacher relaxed, but I was concerned about playtimes. If the girls were as unsporty as I, were they doomed to a life on the sidelines?
I needn’t have fretted. The school had set up a clever mentoring scheme, whereby older children were given a day’s special ‘training’ in listening to the needs of the little ones, and then roamed the playground, seeking out those who lack the running-around gene and need to be encouraged to join in. The idea not only boosts the self-esteem of those chosen to mentor, but also fulfils the hugely valuable service of preventing those children, who like me were a bit different, from becoming too isolated. There is even a special designated ‘buddy stop’, where kids can go if they are looking for someone to play with.
Tips and schemes
Children are not all born with instant empathy, they need to develop it, and mentoring schemes can help to allow consideration for others and sensitivity towards different points of view to develop and flourish. The Mentoring and Befriending Foundation’s
website has loads of tips and schemes which can be applied to most playgrounds. It also offers packs which can help to start off a scheme in your school or playgroup. The schemes work really well in junior schools and can also be applied in secondaries, as students often feel more comfortable confiding their problems to peers rather than teachers.
I wish peer mentoring had been around when I was little. And all my imaginary friends wish that too.