The Olympics: Studies in Geography and Perseverance

My children are obsessed with the U.S. Women’s Volleyball team and their quest for gold. The boys cheered on Destinee Hooker, Jordan Larson and the others during their first two matches against South Korea and Brazil. Now we are waiting for the Wednesday match against China. My oldest son also has asked to watch swimming and archery (inspired by the Marvel Superhero Hawkeye, I’m guessing). Though we don’t watch a lot of daytime TV, I’m indulging him, because the Olympics can be a valuable learning experience for curious kids.

The most obvious Olympics lessons include geography and map skills. With each volleyball match we look up the competing countries on the globe and read about them in our atlas. The Web site Living Montessori Now has some wonderful Olympic geography activities including DIY globes and a whole Montessori-inspired unit for those who are interested.

Still, I think the real value in the Olympics is teaching children the value of perseverance and mastery. The kids and I talk about what it takes to win gold and to be the best in the world. It requires some natural talent, luck and timing but also practice, practice, practice. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that one reason greats like Bill Gates or the Beatles are so successful is they’ve accumulated 10,000 hours of experience and practice in their disciplines, essentially 20 hours a week for 10 years.

So let’s look at 17-year-old Missy Franklin, who just earned gold in the 100m backstroke. (Go Missy!) She’s extremely young, but she swims 2 to 4 hours a day 6 or 7 days a week, essentially 20ish hours a week. She started swimming 12 years ago at age 5, so she’s probably pretty close to the 10,000-hour mark despite her young age.

Now, before you go all “Tiger Mother” on your kids and force them to practice the piano for four hours a day, bear in mind that your child’s passion and desire has to underlie all this practice. Psychology Professor Todd Kashdan, author of Curious, had this to say on Huffington Post: “Try to ensure that the bulk of activities in their lives map onto their interests and give them challenges that push their skills to the limit,” he wrote. “Children need to feel a sense of ownership over their own actions instead of feeling controlled like ‘pawns’ by pressure, guilt, and the rules and regulations of adults.” With young children, it’s great to try out lots of things — not all at the same time — and see what sticks. They might try gymnastics today and cooking club next month. But once they really enjoy something, encourage them to master it.

Are you watching the Olympics with your children? What’s your favorite part of watching the games with your kids?