I took my three-year old son Vinnie to a football session yesterday. I am generally completely oblivious to and disinterested in all things football. However, Vinnie has shown a real enthusiasm for and potential skill in the game, so I am naturally supportive and I wanted to learn alongside him. The first five minutes of the session were great. Parents were kicking balls around with their children in our local university sports facility, which is a relatively new and very inspiring space. Vinnie was so excited to show me all he could do, it turns out he is quite good, we were laughing, running, kicking balls, catching, jumping – and other parents were doing the same.
But then the main part of the session started and I experienced first hand how to completely disengage a roomful of people. The parents retreated to sit on benches around the side of the room and the children were all asked to go and ‘sit still and listen’ to the coaches – ‘sitting still and listening’ is not a natural activity of my three year old son. The two (young 20-something) coaches had obviously drawn short straws in the pub the night before on who was going to take on the pseudo-kids-tv-presenter role, and talk over-enthusiastically and patronisingly to the gaggle of mini Beckhams about how today we are all going to go on an underwater journey to find Spongebob Squarepants in his cave, and won’t that be fun children.
There commenced a convoluted physical activity , which involved pretending to be octopuses, hiding from sharks and diving on the floor, interspersed with regular moments where the children all had to ‘sit still and listen’ to the next instruction. The perfectly well-intended idea was that while the children were looking for Spongebob Squarepants (who remained elusive for the whole session) they were learning about gently dribbling, bouncing and rolling the balls. Not kicking. Not running. This went on for 50 minutes.
So while Vinnie and I dutifully pretended to be squids for five minutes or so, I could rapidly see my son losing interest, and I wasn’t far behind him to be honest. It then descended into my familiar parental angst of trying and failing to get my child to do what he was ‘meant to be doing’ where for him, he just wanted to kick a ball around with me. They totally lost him after 10 mins, and despite my attempts to reconcile the situation he spent the rest of the time running around knocking over the goalposts, lying on the floor wailing, shouting at the top of his voice how he urgently needed a biscuit, and generally the whole experience became A Bit Stressful.
My frustration was that all those coaches needed to have done was open up that incredible space, got the parents and their children to kick the balls around together, and then go round spending time with us individually showing us a few techniques by modelling (as at one point one of the coaches casually did some ball-flicking-in-the-air-with-his-feet move and it was incredible – we wanted more of that!). My son would have undoubtedly stayed engaged for the whole hour that way, and my blood pressure may have remained stable.
We see the same in music. Often, all that is needed is to provide young people with space, equipment, time with people they care about (whether friends or parents) and with some expertise in the room to model, guide and show them the way. And I would argue this applies to the earliest years as well as to teenagers. Some of the best music making and creating among young people comes out of these informal, self-led environments. Teachers aren’t redundant, far from it, they hold expertise in learning and skill in music that is absolutely critical. But the compulsion to ‘teach the class’ is reversed and the focus becomes around supporting each individual to learn.
Throughout my football experience I was internally screaming ‘just do it’. Do it, then explain. Show it, then tell. And no matter what, don’t ever involve Spongebob Squarepants.
Updated 5th December 2016