Playground Jungles versus Young Tutors — A Option for Worried Parents and Ambitious Students

May 11, 2012 by

Robert Oliphant

By Robert Oliphant –

Dear Young Friend. . . . By way of openers I’m assuming that you’re familiar with the climate of fear that now envelopes American schools, especially when their playground jungles are involved.  I’m also assuming that you’re personally familiar with how well older children can teach younger ones, especially when basic skills like sports, speech, and singing are involved.

Consequently what’s here simply urges young people like you to think of themselves as friendly one-on-one tutors who from experience respect the confidence that comes from early learning of these basic skills.  Practically considered, you’ll discover that some clients may be only five years old, in which your natural authority will be stronger than when he or she is close to your own age.

Your natural authority must be backed up with a clear picture of what you want your client to achieve.  Hence what’s here focuses upon my own direct experience with young clients and very basic skills.  If you want to specialize in particular fields like math or computers, by all means hop to it.  Overall, though, I hope you agree that America’s playground victims will be best served with the personal confidence that comes from early on mastery of basic skills that the playground community as a whole respects.

Given the playground community’s respect for singing skills (especially the words), I have added a special treatment of that topic that first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.  I have also identified some additional keyboard-accessible materials, some of which may be useful to special-interest tutors.

As will be apparent, most of what’s here is based upon my direct experience with my own family, including one of my great granddaughters.  Given the family element in tutorial relationships, I feel this somewhat primitive feature is a plus.  I hope most aspiring tutors will agree, along with their clients.



Throwing, Catching, Speaking, and Singing — The Case for Playground Survival, Starting at Age Three By Robert Oliphant


My name is Bob and I’ve logged many hours teaching members of my family on several levels how to throw and catch at the age of three: this driven by the hope that mastery of this basic skill would help these small people survive the savageries of our American playgrounds.  Now that the B-word (“bullying”) has invaded parental vocabularies, I feel this early-warning approach is worth bringing to the attention of a larger audience.


On the bright side, I think most of us will agree that in measurable matters the American playground is consistently accurate in its judgments.  Most experienced teachers will point out that the scaled rankings made by third graders choosing sides are far more accurate than assessments made by the teachers themselves.  And certainly our own experience testifies to the ruthless honesty with which children evaluate incompetence on the playing field.


THROWING AND CATCHING. . . . My own direct experience with playground competence began quite by chance at age twelve with my brother, age three.  With a large, safe sidewalk in front of our house, teaching my little brother to throw and catch struck me as both brotherly and fun.  Even better, as I learned much later, age three itself is a very learning-friendly age in motor skill matters.


A couple of months work produced what my brother and I both felt were impressive results, including  a one-handed scoop by my brother of a regular size baseball in a first-baseman’s glove!  Much later on I reactivated my one-on-one instruction when my first son turned three, followed by his younger brother, and then my grandson much later on (he called our activity “lemon,” since we also picked up lemons from the grass and threw them back and forth).


Apart from avuncular bonding, the long range payoff of this one-on-one tutoring was surprisingly high, especially in being chosen closer to first and in sheer physical joy.  But I should warn tutors and their clients that this precocity can carry a darker side, very much like creating Frankenstein’s sports monster in one’s family.


My little brother, for instance, grew up to letter in three high school sports and to become a three-year letterman as a running guard at Washington and Jefferson College (home campus of Deacon Dan Towler and other pros).  Going further, my oldest son is a rock climber who has also been coaching tennis for over 20 years now.  His brother, a scratch golfer, still pitches fireballs in a softball league, and my grandson won high school letters in baseball.


By way of solace (I had hoped to discuss Proust with them), I’ve also noticed that they consistently each bring an athlete’s aura and good humor with them when they walk into a room.   Simply put, I feel my juvenile experiment was a winner, and I urge concerned parents and prospective tutors to take its results seriously — and optimistically.


PUBLIC SPEAKING. . . . Linguistically considered, the American playground offers a bonding experience to those learn its language and the rules of its games.  But its jokes, even for some five year olds, can be horrifyingly impossible to comprehend for some youngsters, e.g., “Why did Mickey Mouse become an astronaut?” (answer: “because he wanted to find Pluto”).


By way of personal frustration, as a “look and say” learner (not phonics), I can still recall my feelings of complete inadequacy in trying to puzzle out “coal black steed” (which I finally decided must refer to a kind of railroad engine). So when the chance came to strengthen the linguistic chops of a nine-year old granddaughter,  I praised her chess playing first and then opened the door of opportunity with “I bet you could learn Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address if you wanted to.”


Stirred perhaps by patriotic loyalty, she agreed to give it a try.  So I set GETTYSBURG up as an 8-verse poem with four 7-stress lines in each verse, e.g., “four SCORE and SEVen YEARS aGO, our FATHers BRO-ught FORTH [rest]// on this CONtiNENT a new NA-ugh TION, conCEIVED in LIBerTY [rest]// and DEDdiCATed TO the PROPoSI-ih TION THAT [rest]// all MEN ARE creA-TED E-QUAL [rest, rest]//.


If my granddaughter had been more musical, I would have perhaps pushed her into singing GETTYSBURG to the melody of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  But this marching-rhythm version certainly encouraged her to spend a day on each two verses (her idea), with the result that she recited her target with accuracy and authority four days later.  By way of a bonus, she and her twin sister used this kind of rhythmic mnemonics in school, including their college work.


As far as school credit goes, when my granddaughter described her achievement to her teacher, he offered her 25 units of extra credit if she would perform this American classic in front of the whole class.  Still in a shy stage, she refused.  But the teacher later on tricked her into performing and awarded the 25 extra points on his own.  My own take on his trickery is that he recognized the importance of her achievement and wanted to underscore it — for her, for her parents, and for the other students.


SINGING. . . . My personal anecdote regarding singing centers on one of my great granddaughters who had always been short on homework and long on sports.  By chance, though, she visited us (then age 10) and I heard her picking out the notes to the STAR SPANGLED BANNER (in the key of C) on the upright piano in my study.


As with my shy granddaughter, I expressed my admiration and wonderingly said, “I bet you could transpose all those notes one by one down two steps” (from the key of C to the key of B flat).  Her response was a promise to give this transposition challenge an honest try.  So I left her and went back to chitchatting with the rest of the family.


Wanting to give her every break, I waited for almost an hour and a half before checking her progress, and WOW! She had truly nailed the transposition perfectly — every note, including the black ones!  So I made her the following congratulatory speech.


“Sweetheart, I think you’re going to have a LOT OF FRIENDS from now on, and the reason is that everyone likes to sing in a group, which means that they need at least one person who has a good ear and helps them stay in tune; it also means that from now on you, darling, are going to be recognized as a STAY IN TUNE PERSON with lots of friends, including grown ups.”


Since I don’t see her a lot, I don’t know what other tricks she worked up, though she did work up some left hand stuff.  But I certainly was not surprised when she was cast several months later as the lead in her school’s musical production of Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.  And everyone, not just me, was struck by how she hit every note smack on the button phrase after phrase after phrase.


A few years later I was also bowled over when the choral director for a later show (ANYTHING GOES) appointed my great grandaughter as the lead singer for the ensemble rehearsals and performances, thereby validating my identification of her as a “popular stay-in-tune person” some years before.


In retrospect, I feel the STAR SPANGLED is a longish, daunting transposition target.  So I would recommend that those who tutor five-year olds should stack the deck with more short, more friendly transposition targets, e.g., ROW, ROW, ROW YOUR BOAT and SILENT NIGHT.  Given the importance of songs in the playground subculture (cf. the Opies’


“Lore and Language of Schoolchildren,), I feel every American parent should take the transposition experience as a practical and socially important giant step for any child over five.  And remember Music leads right up the hill to  Mathematics, especially when transposition comes into play.


TO CLOSE. . . . What’s here is largely anecdotal, not authoritative.  But I feel my statement of parental fear and desperation is accurate, including the fact that the United States of America is now being conquered by its own language, e.g., offshore telemarketing from India, Argentina, and the Philippines.


As a backup source, I’m appending a recent article in the Los Angles Times (they used an earlier on-file photo).  Here’s hoping what’s here convinces American parents that the American playgrounds should be taken seriously and respectfully — especially its sports, its speaking, and its singing.




Robert Oliphant found ways to enrich his forced confinements. (Handout, LA TIMES / March 3, 1998)


By Robert Oliphant, Special to the Los Angeles Times January 30, 2012 My name is Bob, and I know what it’s like to be flat on your back for more than two months.

My first encounter was for a form of arthritis called Reiter’s syndrome — a three-month stay in a Veterans Affairs hospital marked by boredom and depression. Fifty years later, I was confined again, by a broken hip, but this time my stay turned out to be surprisingly productive.

Rhythm: It was purely by chance one night that I attempted to keep track of a basic rhythm with my left hand while beating out the rhythm of the words to “Jingle Bells” with my right. My multitasking coordination was way, way off: It took me several weeks to get the knack of handling two rhythms simultaneously.

When it all came together, though, the impact of this multitasking upon my self-esteem was electric.

Songs: Each of us is a memorization winner with a repertoire of at least 2,000 songs (at least according to the Internet). If you cue yourself with a word like “love,” for instance, you’ll probably come up with at least three song titles. The words in the songs trigger memories of more songs and many evoke strong personal reactions. “Jingle all the way” triggers “Way down upon the Swanee River,” which triggers “Moon River” — followed by as many more as your ingenuity can produce.

For me, “Moon River” evokes composer Henry Mancini and a vivid picture of my high school brass band performance with more than 50 other Sousaphonists in Aliquippa, Pa. — all of us playing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” with Henry Mancini (then a senior) tootling away nearby with more than 100 fellow flutists. One of many precious personal memories waiting to be activated by chance.

Visibility: The mind’s eye can quickly translate the music we hear into visual shapes that distinguish between high and low notes, even in the dark. Imagine “moon” (a middle-pitched note) as a sphere or as a line. Or borrow the images you choose from “Doe, a deer, a female deer,” of “The Sound of Music” fame. But the important element is seeing each syllable as a visible creature in its own musical space.

There I was, flat on my back, with all of these friendly, little musical creatures dancing through my head until I drifted off to sleep, always with a feeling of honest work well done.

Parodies: Keep the melody and change the lyrics a little — as a fourth-grader, how I admired my friend Charlie Mushwick’s parody of the national anthem: “Oh-oh SAY can you SEE / an-y BED bugs on ME? / if you CAN, take a FEW / and then YOU’LL have some TOO. A gross form, certainly, but well worth it as an opportunity to go public and please.

To sum up: The challenge of solitude, be it that of jail, hospital, social isolation or sleeplessness, can be transformed to a resource, not a penalty. Why not allow our personal love for songs to help us when we need it?

Oliphant is the author of books such as “A Piano for Mrs. Cimino” (1980), a Reader’s Digest worldwide selection whose film version won a Monte Carlo award for Bette Davis. He writes a column for His recent e-books can be accessed via

My Turn is a forum for readers to recount an experience related to health or fitness. Submissions should be 500 words or fewer, are subject to editing and condensation and become the property of The Times. Email Read more at



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