October 2, 2014

CHIUSANO | Toddlers and Training

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I read an article in the sports section of The New York Times on Wednesday about how CrossFit was starting a program for preschoolers. Like, three year olds. It was honestly laughable to think about. Seeing the photos of kids who still need their diapers changed hanging from pull up bars nailed into gray, cell-like walls made me cringe (look it up if you don’t believe me).

Two weeks ago I wrote a column about when mothers were going to stop letting their children play football. And I stand by that (especially given Wednesday’s story about another high school player dying after taking a severe hit in a game, the third such case in less than a week). There are healthier alternatives in youth sports with less risk involved that still allow kids to exercise. But CrossFit was not one that came to mind. The intense workout regimen already has a cultish following among adults, and to think that children are being dragged into it now only reinforces that.

What happened to the days when kids played outside in the streets and in alleyways, when they went to a local playground to hang from the monkey bars, not the closest CrossFit gym? To think of paying for kids to get exercise is absurd. When I was younger and my brother and I got too restless in the house, my mom sent us outside to run around the block, or we begged her to take us to the park and throw us diving catches until we could barely stand anymore. Some of the best memories from my childhood were made playing football in the street. I met my best friend in the park near my house when our mothers struck up a conversation in the playground. How could any of these interactions happen within the dark, gray confines of a CrossFit gym?

Kids need to be let off the leash. It’s important that they be allowed to roam free as they grow up because they gain experience, they become independent. It’s hard to come home with a scraped knee for the first time when you’re running around on a padded mat. It’s impossible to figure out for yourself what exactly to do while hanging from a monkey bar when some instructor is holding you up and telling you how to pull yourself up.

When preschoolers are not in a school setting, they need to learn how to interact with other kids. The only way for that to happen is by giving them some freedom. Forcing them to spend a few hours a week in a group exercise class isn’t going to help them build relationships. They’ll associate it with going to school, and thinking like a preschooler, that sounds absolutely awful. You learn how to make friends by falling into certain social situations by accident, not by forcing them. Choosing teams for a kickball game, getting into your first playground shouting match, bridging the gap over to the girls side of the jungle gym — these are all important parts of growing up.

CrossFit might be getting more preschoolers to exercise, but it’s not happening naturally. I feel the same way about test prep. I went to a high school that required a certain score on an exam for admittance, and parents put their kids in prep classes for the test as early as elementary school. I think kids miss out on so much when they are forced into studying for a test. I had friends who studied for years to get accepted to the school and then dropped out because they were so drained from the routine. Test prep preaches repetition; there is a certain way to solve a problem, and if you do it that way enough times, you’ll be able to solve it every time. You won’t be surprised by any curveballs. But test prep is such a boxed in way of thinking about education, because in high school and in higher education (and in life, I guess), there are curveballs. It becomes impossible to think of everything in terms of a formula that’s been forced down your throat. It’s possible for kids to learn by thinking outside of the box, in the same way that it’s possible for them to exercise without someone handing them a hula hoop.

Once exercise becomes like test prep, young children will lose all opportunity to become independent, to grow up. Let kids be kids, because they only get one shot.