Why the Pentathlon in Fifth grade?
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Dear Fifth Grade Parents,
Fifth grade is a special year in gym class. At the end of the year we will travel to Wisconsin to compete with 6 other Waldorf schools in the manner of an ancient Greek Olympiad. I will come to the first parent night to discuss the details, but in the meantime here is some information about this special event and how it is brought to your child appropriately at this stage of development.
This year the fifth grade has gym on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Please arrange their outfits accordingly as we will spend the first and last several weeks of school at the beach on Tuesdays.
Please always contact me with any questions,
WHAT EVERY FIFTH GRADE PARENT NEEDS TO KNOW ABOUT THE PENTATHLON
Let me begin by asking you this: what do you know about Django Reinhart? Did you know he achieved musical virtuosity on the guitar—even though he was missing several fingers?
Do you know that story about a tiny baby born, and not expected to live, who later had polio, and was not expected to walk, but surprised everyone by winning four gold medals in sprinting at the Olympics when she was 20 years old? Her name was Wilma Rudolph.
How about this one? Who was the only swimmer to get a standing ovation during the Sydney Olympics and not win a medal? He was a wild card participant from a small African nation entered in the 100 meter freestyle at the last minute. His technique was awful, he had never before been in a heated pool, and had never swum a 100 meter race before. He was the lone competitor in his heat. He jumped in the pool and nearly drowned completing the distance, but he competed for the first time ever for his country.
My point is this: the Django Reinhart story is about more than music, the Wilma Rudolph story is about more than sports and, this lone swimmer’s story is about more than winning and losing. What inspires us about stories like these is that they describe
universally human struggles, triumphs of the human spirit and strength and dignity in the face of adversity.
So… why the pentathlon? Why in 5th grade? Why those 5 events?
If you have followed the recommendations in our curriculum, then your children are at a threshold between the imaginative cooperative games of childhood and the competitive oppositional sports of adolescence. It is true that they have played together, and next year they will play against each other.
This year they stand all alone. Individually they must meet these five events and the challenges of technique, discipline, competition and consequences. The words “gymnasium” and “gymnastics” come from the Greek word meaning naked. As you
probably know, the ancient Olympians competed in the nude. May be not physically, but certainly emotionally, you child will compete unclothed and, in a way, exposed.
The 5 archetypal events of the pentathlon can be described in terms of apparatus and physical technique. But, for our purposes what is significant about them is the soul experience of the child as they approach each event. At the Pentathlon prizes are awarded in each event for both Truth and Beauty. Truth is the empirical, measurable result (distance, time, etc.) and Beauty is the form and gesture or outward expression of the inner spirit.
Here then, is what is significant about each of the events---both what is required physically as well as what soul qualities they represent.
• Truth—thrower must be balanced and centered throughout throw, and throw must be
long and stick in the ground at a 45 degree angle
• Beauty—thrower must maintain personal center while connecting with the peripheral
dome of the sky. They Greeks believed the javelin carried their spirit to the Gods.
• Truth—an inwardly spiral throw is released from the index finger and spins outward
for a great distance
• Beauty—the weight of the discus is transformed into lightness
• Truth—The foot must be before the jump line, take-off on one foot, landing on two
feet, arms involved, sitting position in the air, greatest distance jumped
• Beauty—forward momentum is changed into flight, the blind will is transformed into
• Truth—to cross the finish line first
• Beauty—to keep your eye and energy focused on the goal in the distance
• Truth—to push your opponents out of the ring
• Beauty—looking your opponent in the eye, maintaining your own space while
respecting theirs and still being able to make your point
PHYSICAL DIFFERENCE AND INDIVIDUAL STYLE
While there are physical techniques to consider in each event, judges are asked to take the more general guidelines to heart when a child presents with a physical difference. Children with physical differences will necessarily make adaptations, and if they make these adaptations while preserving the requirements of each event, the balance and economy of movement and showing intention and resolve, they should still be considered eligible for beauty. There must be a tolerance for individual style, but this appreciation for effort should not become sentimental as all the children are struggling to do their best with each challenge presented. The attempt is to allow an equality of chance in participation with the group, and not a singling out, or advantage.
At the Greek Feast, each athlete will be honored with a medal of participation, and their unique contribution will be pointed out quietly by the judges. Winners of the events in either Truth or Beauty are given a laurel wreath on the final day. It is no accident that the medal is permanent while the laurel wreath soon deteriorates. The root of the word “competitor” is the same as the root for “compassion”. It is because we agree to come together that any competition happens. The more skillful our opponents are, the more satisfying our competition is. We should be grateful that we are allowed to compete, and that others agree to come to the field to compete against us. Our victory has nothing to do with the opponent, and everything to do with our own mastery of skills. When athletes remember this, they are able to conduct themselves with dignity in the course of competition.
Students are arranged into teams representing 5 Greek City-States, and each City-State is a mixture of students from all the schools. Every student participates in every event (unless an injury prevents full participation). The City-State leaders are usually class teachers, and the Event Leaders are usually gym teachers.
The 5th graders will have fun, make new friends, and typically will become more interested in the performances of others than obsessed with their own victory. Other things you can expect to happen at the Pentathlon are:
• Victories • Judging decisions that you don’t understand
• Disappointments • Chivalry
• Courage • Ripped pants and wet socks
• Fear • Slippery grass
• Bad weather • Tears
• Hilarious mishaps • Laughter
• Some type of insect event, ranging from leeches to worms…and beyond
DO’S AND DON’TS TO ENSURE A POSITIVE EXPERIENCE
• Add to the pressure of the day. Let it be a matter between your child and her discus.
• Argue or openly disagree with judges or teachers. We, as adults, must model
• Attempt to coach your child before or during the games. (We use modified forms of
these events that are more appropriate for 5th graders, and your expert advice
could confuse their technique).
• Pull your children away from their group/City-State. Children are asked to stay with
their City-State during the event. You can visit with them at the Greek Feast.
• Videotape—even if you do it in your phone or camera. You will show it to your child
later and challenge their inner feeling of magnificence. Trust me, they feel mightier
than they will look—no matter how skillful a videographer you are.
• Worry—it will be a wonderful day!
• Be supportive and understanding rather than critical.
• Be confident that your child has the physical and emotional tools to handle
• Always focus on the social aspect of the games and on your child’s own personal
best. No matter how gifted the athlete, there will be at least one event that is
difficult. And, even for a child who is not typically considered athletic, there will be one
event at which they shine and excel. That is the real treasure of the Pentathlon.