Moral Education in the Guise of a Physical Education Program

by: Chaim Feuerman

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at 5, 1, 1990, pp. 37- 38. Reprinted here with permission.
Children play in their work.1 In planning learning experiences, early childhood educators have long been guided by this fundamental principle of child development. But once children have reached the middle grades and have “climbed out of the sand box” some educators tend to assume that it is no longer valid. It does, in fact, continue to apply, but in a somewhat different form.
For pre-adolescents and adolescents, “Children’s play is their work” means that much of their “real world” exists on the basketball court, the football field and the baseball diamond. It is there that youngsters personally encounter ambition, the striving toward desired goals, recognition, self-esteem, discipline, self-restraint, persistence despite obstacles, competitiveness, rivalry, fair and foul play. In short, at games and in sports young people experience a panorama of human needs as well as the moral issues which are engendered by the struggle to satisfy those needs.
This middle childhood view of play as reality is unlike that of many adults who think of class work as the “real” business at hand for youngsters. In contrast, many middle school children perceive classroom activities imposed upon them by adults as artificial contrivances, which lack meaningfulness and seem unrelated to their lives. They view classroom exercises as motions to be gone through in order to get to the “real-life” business of recess and after-school game time.
This perception applies to moral development, as well as to academic curricula. Traditional middot programs often, of necessity, involve idealized, rather than real-life, classroom presentations. (One such program is the currently popular “Apples of Gold” lashon hara contest in which thousands of yeshiva pupils are participating.) These are often followed by a paper-and-pencil test of students’ mastery of the dinim of a given target midda. Presumably, it is hoped that if children know what is right they will tend to do what is right. To what extent this hope is actualized in real life situations is difficult to measure objectively. For although it is understood that if children don’t know what is right they cannot be expected to do what is right; at the same time, if children know what is right, on what basis may we safely assume that they will do what is right? 2
A significant body of educational research indicates quite clearly that such transfer of training does not automatically occur in students. In fact, it has been shown that teachers themselves need onsite coaching to facilitate the transfer of teaching skills from workshop to workplace.3 “Thus, it appears reasonable to suggest that similar real-life “on-site coaching” enables youngsters to transfer middot training from schoolroom to schoolyard. But this can only be accomplished with sensitive educators who are willing to monitor playground activity and to be available at recess, game time and after school programs. It is during these spontaneous times that teachers can ferret out those kinds of interactions that form the basis for a lesson in moral education.
At the Westchester Day School we have developed a moral education program emanating from indoor and outdoor play, physical education activities, and an extra-curricular after-school program of intramural and inter-school competitive sports activities. Although there is no formal component to our program, the physical education teachers meet with all the students on an almost daily basis. As a result, and because they interact with the children in an informal, spontaneous way, they develop an easy, open rapport with them and can detect areas of moral sensitivity which emerge. The teachers confer daily with each other and with members of the administration and faculty. Issues and situations are thus dealt with immediately and directly, and are often reinforced in classrooms and programs as well. It becomes clear that the physical education teachers must serve as role models for the students and must be sensitive to the values which the yeshiva espouses.
The effectiveness of our program was realized at a Sunday morning teacher- parent-child minyan and breakfast that was held prior to a late morning basketball game. The breakfast featured seventh and eighth graders who offered divrei-Torah on the theme “Sportsmanship from a Torah Perspective”. The children, who prepared their own material, spoke about including everyone in an activity regardless of ability- “If some one ‘goofs’ we try not to laugh, criticize or ridicule,” declared one child. Said another:
“We try to be sensitive to one another and be considerate of one another’s feelings, whether we win or lose. We will even try to pass the ball to someone who rarely gets it, even if it means that we risk losing the game. We value, appreciate and honor consideration of feelings by giving the underdog a pat on the back. We help and encourage each other along.”
They spoke of helping members of the other team who might have fallen; of resisting the “temptation to smirk or gloat” in an opponent’s downfall, of accepting the referee’s decision gracefully, of wearing kippot, eating only kosher refreshments, and of asking themselves, “How should a yeshiva student act differently from others in a situation like this?” 4
Bearing in mind that children’s play is their work, educators should view the playfield as a potential setting for moral education. The game arena is the place where children, with our coaching, can learn positive middot. A school’s moral education program can and should involve the real business of school life for children- recess and play time. In so doing in can touch the children’s lives where they believe it really counts.
1 See Stone, L. Joseph and Church, Joseph, Childhood and Adolescence – A Psychology of the Growing Person. New York: Random House, 1957, p.150.
2 Indeed, in a major presentations at a recent national yeshiva educators’ convention, one respected veteran manahel with an enviable decades-long record of implementing a variety of middot programs, lamented woefully regarding the serious shortcomings which our students manifest in this regard. This is true, he said, both in yeshivot where the teaching of middot in consciously taught and stressed as well as in those where it is not. It would therefore seem that student’s knowing what is right does not necessarily ensure their doing what is right.
3 Joyce, Bruce and Showers, Beverly, “Improving Inservice Training: The Message of Research.” Educational Leadership 37 (February 1980): pp. 379-385.
4 The students supported their views by quoting statements from Hazal such as “B’nfol oyvekha al tismah,” “Ain l’kha adam she’ain lo sha’ah,” “Al t’hay baz l’khal adam, “ “Hevay mekabel et kal adam b’sever panim yafot, “ etc.