This summer nearly 200 students are learning about math and science through baseball and softball as part of a program sponsored by the Washington Nationals.
The Major League Baseball team’s Youth Baseball Academy has been teaching kids the game since it started in 2013. But the idea is not to find the next Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg.
“This is not a program where we are trying to churn out professional baseball players,” said Zack Jamison, the program’s manager of curriculum and instruction. “We really want to help kids grow in all aspects of their life. We want them to become better students. We want them to become better athletes, and we want them to be catalysts for change in the community.”
Jamison describes baseball and softball as the vehicles the camp uses to promote academic achievement and character development. For example, students learn about the importance of teamwork and cooperation, characteristics that are key for a successful team. They also follow the science of sport curriculum, which includes things like lessons on angles.
“It reinforces math and science concepts,” said Jamison. “Instead of listening to a lecture about angles, they go outside onto the field and will do an experiment with baseballs and trying to launch different homeruns [by] launching a baseball at different angles.”
The program serves children in grades 3 through 7. The summer program runs for six weeks and operates Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. The Nationals also run an after-school program, which operates from October to May for three days a week, from 3:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
The teachers for the summer program come from Urban Teachers, a program designed to prepare teachers to work in cities like Washington. Most have been in the classroom for a year, while a few are student teachers. Enrichment coordinators serve as classroom aides during the summer and lead the after-school program.
All of the students currently taking part in the program are African-American and 75 percent of them come from low-income families. They must be residents of Washington’s Ward 7 or 8 to apply. Both of these areas have a high concentration of poor neighborhoods.
The Youth Baseball Academy provides breakfast and lunch for the students. Each morning, they spend time outside playing games such as kickball and time in the classroom doing a science of sport lesson. For example, students might learn why baseball players don’t run in a straight line from base to base. Hint: It helps them maintain momentum and run faster. Students then go outside and try it both ways while timing themselves.
“It teaches this idea of momentum and force and the physics that are at play during a baseball game, but it gives them something tangible they can also use on the field,” said Jamison.
Next Generation of Fans?
In the afternoon, the kids get another baseball and softball lesson and another lesson in the classroom.
So are these kids baseball super fans? Not exactly.
“We have a small number of kids who came to us already interested in the game of baseball,” said Jamison. “The majority of our population came to us with either little to no knowledge of baseball or don’t have much interest in the game.”
Only about 8 percent of Major League Baseball players are black, and the program’s website features a quote from Rob Manfred, the league’s commissioner, about diversity.
“Economics is why some kids don’t play baseball,” Manfred said. “To claim that certain demographics simply no longer like the sport is just another way of avoiding the truth. The good news is that the decline in participation in baseball by underserved kids is reversible.”
Jamison said one of the program’s goals is to help these students be better athletes whether they decide to play baseball or not, but most of them do develop an appreciation for the game.
“We definitely have kids who they would have never had a chance to pick up a baseball anywhere else,” said Jamison, who adds that there are only two Little League divisions in the District of Columbia. “So not every kid gets the chance to be on their neighborhood Little League team. Just providing that opportunity for kids is really impactful and feeds into that overall mission of getting kids interested in baseball.”
Coaches who have experience with the game and a passion for working with kids teach the students baseball and softball skills. And, the students have opportunities to meet players such as board member and starting Nationals third-baseman Anthony Rendon during the summer. Players are also invited to see student projects at the end of the program, which is housed at a facility in southeast D.C. that includes seven classrooms, three turf fields, an indoor training space, a teaching kitchen, and an outdoor space with a garden.
Photo: A student stands in the batter’s box prepared to take a swing. (Courtesy Washington Nationals Baseball Club)
A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.