At my school we have a field day tradition in the elementary. For the space of almost two hours the whole population, PK-5th grade is in motion, rotating through 16 activity stations and 2 rest stops. Students are grouped into multi-aged teams of about 15-17 children, led by 5th graders. This year and last year we also offered 5th graders the opportunity to pair up to lead the activity stations. That meant, explaining the game, helping teams break into smaller groups and supervising play. Adults at each of the stations provided support where needed but generally it was up to the 5th graders to run the events and manage their younger charges.
All in all, this year’s field day was, in the eyes of most, a great success. Teachers praised the 5th grade leaders for their fortitude and patience and perseverance in their roles of responsibility. The giggles, smiles and shrieks of joy from the PK-4th grade students were testament to the fun they were having throughout the morning. And the 5th graders, once they were officially done and able to enjoy their ice cream treat in peace, seemed satisfied and pleased with their work.
All good, right?
When I walked around the 4 spaces where the games were in progress, I noticed that the 5th graders after about 30 minutes often looked like wilted sunflowers. The group leaders seemed to be more upbeat but after an hour, many of them appeared a bit harried and pensive, rather than wilted. Some of them were having a really good time some of the time, but the impression I gained was one of overwhelm, exhaustion and a bit of boredom; which, given their assignments, was fully understandable.
On the following morning I went to their respective classrooms and asked them for feedback on field day – what they thought went well and what they felt could be improved.
This turned out to be one of the best professional moves I ever made: I got schooled in the danger of placing faith in my adult assumptions over the genuine desires of kids. While lots of kids expressed pride in their achievement, their enthusiasm for the event was audibly muted. And listening to their specific feedback I understood why:
In response to the question “What would make field day better?” Here is what they said:
“The 5th graders should get a chance to go to all the stations and play afterwards.”
“The teachers should help us control the groups at the stations.”
“You should tell the younger kids to listen to the 5th graders.”
“The 4th graders should know that they have responsibilities, too.”
“We got kind of bored. It would be good if we could switch stations after a while.”
Of course! It dawned on me. We gave them heaps of responsibility, let them lead throughout, and they got tired, bored and felt a bit shortchanged in the fun department. As I was wrapping up my reflections with the kids, one of the 5th grader teachers added the fact that as the tasks came from us, the adults, and not from them, the 5th graders lacked the same level of investment.
All along, my colleagues and I had been working on the assumption that this is what our 5th graders wanted and needed – an authentic opportunity to lead and manage. While that my have been true for some, and of significant interest to many, what they also wanted and needed was the chance to have fun like the other kids; to enjoy responsibility mixed in with distinct phases of carefree play.
Lesson learned. Next year we’ll aim for a field day which incorporates more of what students tell us that they want and work to design an experience that remains big on fun and responsive to student leadership needs.
It feels strange to make this huge event seem like such a downer. It wasn’t. Truly, much fun was had on multiple fronts. Being mindful and aware that not all students experienced the day in the ways we adults anticipated they would strikes me as precisely the work that distinguishes us as the reflective practitioners we strive to be.