Last Friday we held a special prize-giving assembly to reward those who had taken part in our recent garden design competition and the Scratch computer project. In the garden design competition there were winners and losers, and while all children were acknowledged for their participation and complimented for their entries, there was undoubtedly still some disappointment. On the other hand, some children who won had never won anything before, and didn’t expect to win, and so were absolutely delighted with their success. For other children there was the opportunity to feel pleased for their friends and classmates.
The Scratch competition was a completely different type of competition in that pupils who opted to do this project completed the five modules in their own time and, whether done individually or as a group, they competed only against themselves to achieve a certain standard.
While it is not our practice to encourage children to compete with each other in class, but rather to challenge themselves to reach their own potential, we do organise competitions from time to time or mention external competitions such as a writing competition, computer project or art competition. This gives those children who like a challenge a chance to push themselves to reach a certain standard and to learn from the experience for the next time. Many competitions involve collaboration and cooperative work and the satisfaction often comes simply from taking part. There is absolutely no pressure on any child to enter any competition and those who do not wish to do so are supported in their choice and encouraged to challenge themselves in many other ways. We will continue to choose competitions carefully to ensure that they support curriculum objectives and that we primarily focus on process rather than outcome.
The topic of children and competition is one which has been talked about and has divided opinion for years. One argument is that competition encourages children to excel in today’s fiercely competitive world, while another argument is that competition destroys self-esteem and can lead to resentment. So where does the truth lie? Is there such a thing as ‘healthy competition’? Or is competition the opposite of co-operation, which helps children to learn to communicate effectively with others, trust others and accept differences? No doubt the answer is not so black and white. There is a belief that healthy competition inspires children to do their best rather than settle for ‘good enough’. Competition can encourage students to become more inquisitive, research more and strive to do the very best they can. Competition can be healthy when it provides feedback to children about their performance and how they can improve and it can help them to self-evaluate and learn for next time. It can provide valuable lessons such as teaching children to be better prepared for life by treating opponents with dignity and respect and by being gracious in either success or defeat. Many argue that if children play competitive sports from a young age they get used to both winning and not winning and we can end the ‘all must win prizes’ culture. This is the reason that in the UK the national curriculum includes a requirement for all primary schools to provide competitive sports. In addition, competition teaches critical thinking, decision making and problem solving, all skills which are vital to the future, although opponents of competition for children argue that co-operation also fosters these skills. The late Franklin D. Roosevelt, U.S. President, argued for co-operation over competition:
Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but co-operation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.
No doubt the debate will continue and the real answer may lie somewhere in between. Moderate competition can bring with it a chance to experience the highs and lows of winning and losing and the pleasure of taking part. On the other hand extreme competition where there is pressure on children to win, and nothing else is acceptable, can be devastating for children. And competition is tough. No matter how we dress it, it involves winning and losing, so if someone wins, another one or more children lose. Children need to be supported in negotiating all the emotions involved in order to help them build character and resilience, develop healthy attitudes about winning and losing and learn to handle loss.
I recently came across a study by John Tauer, a psychology professor at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minnesota. In a series of studies over a five-year period, he looked at how children ages 9 to 14 performed shooting free throws in three situations: when one player was pitted against another (direct competition); when two players worked together to get the highest combined score (cooperation); and when two players joined forces to try to score more than another pair (cooperation combined with competition).
The combination of cooperation and competition resulted in greater satisfaction and often in higher scores as well.
“It’s as consistent of a finding as we’ve had,” Dr. Tauer said. “Kids prefer the combination of competition and cooperation. It’s a significant increase in enjoyment.”
A very interesting article on Children and Competition and how to keep a healthy attitude towards competition, can be found at: