Should Schools Still Play Dodgeball?

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Is dodgeball a harmless, time-honored game or school-sanctioned bullying?

Every now and again, charged debate over whether dodgeball should be played in schools flares up in the media and provokes polarizing arguments.

The dodgeball debate, however, is more than just fodder for Twitter spats and opinion pieces. The future of the game that remains popular with some students and is a cultural touchstone for many Americans is a point of major division in parts of the K-12 community.

"I will be honest, our membership is very split," said Michelle Carter, the senior program manager for SHAPE America, the nation's largest membership organization of physical education teachers. "Anecdotally, when I was teaching, and I would meet people and tell them what my job was—I'm a health and P.E. teacher—the first thing that people brought up was dodgeball. And I can tell you, some people really hated it."

Opponents of the game argue that not only is throwing things at other people not behavior we want to encourage in youth, dodgeball can lead to bullying, injury, and in some cases, lawsuits.

Dodgeball supporters fear that banning it—as some districts have—is a sign of excessive coddling that creates gritless young adults ill-prepared for the demands of the real world.

Both sides argue that imparting important social-emotional skills are at stake.

On the pro side:

"I think there is a huge irony that this debate is re-emerging now when social-emotional learning is at a fever pitch in education policy," said Dale Chu, an education consultant and a former principal of a K-6 school. "This idea that we have to be attuned to not only the academic needs of our kids but their physical and emotional needs is exactly right. So, yes on all of that, but then abolishing dodgeball, you're just removing from the table a valuable tool that schools can use to engender those SEL values folks are so keen about."

Values such as teamwork, communication, and conflict resolution, said Elizabeth Cushing, the president of Playworks, a nonprofit that partners with schools to offer structured play at recess that promotes social-emotional learning.

Bullying can be an issue if the game is not properly supervised, she said.

Banning the Game?

Her group recommends setting clear rules and expectations for students. This includes having a plan for conflict resolution—such as making students play rock, paper, scissors to settle disagreements—and having an adult play the game to model good behavior such as kind communication and working together to strategize how to eliminate players.

"I will say that banning any game, as if the game itself is the cause of bullying, is missing the underlying cause of those behaviors," Cushing said. "Dodgeball is a game kids like to play. Our approach is if there is a game that kids want to play, how might we organize it, how might we establish the expectations and the rules so everyone can be included in the game and everyone can feel safe in the game?"

On the con side:

"I don't think it contributes to a positive school climate" or positive social behavior, said Carter. She said the game is, at its core, aggressive and exacerbates power imbalances among students—the perfect conditions for bullying.

SHAPE America's official stance is that dodgeball should not be played in any school setting.

Dodgeball isn't the most rigorous activity. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention categorizes dodgeball as a moderate-intensity activity, and that's just for those who make it to the end of the game. Students eliminated early spend most of the game sitting or standing around.

"Compare that to a math class," said Dan DeJager, a physical education teacher at May Rocking High School in Fair Oaks, Calif. "That would be like a math teacher saying everyone open up your math books, if you get question 1 wrong, then close your book."

DeJager believes dodgeball remains relatively popular among physical education teachers in large part because the types of people who become P.E. teachers were probably the students who were good at dodgeball.

DeJager was not that kid. He was skinny and sickly by his own telling and acknowledges that physical education was not the most obvious career choice for him. His teaching philosophy has been shaped by his own experiences being bullied in gym class.

While many students love dodgeball, playing it may have disproportionately negative consequences for students who despise the game, said DeJager. He said students who hate P.E. are less likely to be physically active as adults.

"So, as a profession, are we doing more harm than good?" he said. "I always tell people my number one goal is not for students to move perfectly, or even be physically fit, it's for them not to hate physical activity."

Loyalty and Loathing

Whether dodgeball is valuable or detrimental may be debatable, but one thing is certain: people are passionate about the game.

Dennis Senibaldi saw that firsthand when the school board he serves on in Windham, N.H., voted to ban dodgeball and all dodgeball-like human-target games in 2013.

Senibaldi, concerned in part about what he called the "wimpification" of America, was the only board member to vote against the ban.

"Maybe I'm a caveman," he said. "I grew up playing dodgeball my entire life, my kids like to play dodgeball."

Senibaldi felt the board was over-correcting after one bullying complaint. He was especially incredulous when he learned that physical education teachers in the district had switched to small foam balls from the big, red rubber balls of his youth.

Two of his sons, twins who were in 7th grade at the time, launched a petition to reinstate the game, and the story mushroomed. Senibaldi said the board was inundated with phone calls and emails—most of them critical of the decision.

National media were knocking on his front door, he said.

"I was surprised at the level it rose to," he said. "I'm not surprised by people who thought we were crazy, disgusted by it, or laughed about it."

The district was expending so much energy defending its decision, said Senibaldi, that the board decided to reverse the ban.

So why all the fuss? Why does dodgeball inspire such loyalty and loathing?

Chu, the former principal, received many passionate responses to an opinion article he wrote earlier this year defending the game.

His piece was in response to an article published by Canadian researchers claiming dodgeball was a tool of oppression that dehumanizes people.

"All of the sudden now we're connecting it to generational oppression. For whatever reason, folks are way over their skis on this," Chu said. "With this issue, and just about any education policy, it's less about what the data says and more about values, what is important to you."

But whether charged debates over dodgeball's place in physical education has actually hurt the game's popularity is difficult to pin down. It's unclear how many schools still play the game.

Some districts, such as Texas' Austin district, have banned it.

And in a random sampling of other districts surrounding Austin, a few, including Waco, Temple, and Killeen, report that while there is no blanket ban against dodgeball in their districts, their physical education teachers opt not to have students play it in class.

In College Station, Texas, dodgeball is not part of the curriculum, but physical education teachers have kids play it on occasion.

Dodgeball isn't the only classic schoolyard game to come under more scrutiny lately.

Last year, a document was accidentally circulated by the Alabama education department that proposed doing away with several elimination-style games, according to local media. Dodgeball was one. And so were musical chairs and duck, duck goose.

A school in Washington state even tried banning tag at recess in 2015.

In both cases there was strong pushback, and the school and state department backed off their prohibitions.

And after all that controversy six years ago over the dodgeball ban in the New Hampshire district, things have settled down.

Related Blog

Senibaldi isn't even sure if schools in the district still play the game.

Every once in a while, he gets a call from an out-of-town reporter asking him to comment on dodgeball.

And sometimes, he said, "someone will just say the word 'dodgeball' and everyone will start laughing."

Vol. 39, Issue 16, Pages 1, 16

Published in Print: December 11, 2019, as Dodgeball: Bullying Tool or Fun Game?
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