Think back to when sports were just plain fun and you could play all day, and you were good at every game, too. You were 10. It still sounds the same out there on the field.... Hey, batter, batter.... It's still fun, and when it's muddy, it's even more fun. Fun and funner—that's all sports had to be when you were 10. But these days many kids at that age give up sports altogether or arrive at a crossroads, forced to choose among sports in order to excel at one.
In 1978 a real-estate agent showed Colman McCarthy a brick house overlooking Friendship Playground, an Elysium of baseball diamonds and basketball hoops in northwest Washington, D.C. It was the easiest sale that agent would ever make. "Didn't even bother to check the plumbing," remembers McCarthy, a writer and teacher whose three boys grew up playing on what became an extension of the family's front yard. � Now, on summer weekdays on that very playground, one of those boys, John McCarthy, runs Home Run Baseball Camp. It's an enterprise that nods gratefully to his childhood by recreating a sandlot atmosphere in which kids don't need the intercession of an SUV-driving, PDA-wielding baby boomer parent to amuse themselves.
To be sure, Coach Mac and his staff provide plenty of instruction and motivation. But coaches let campers—who range in age from five to 13—choose teams and make lineups. No one keeps score until the final day of each weekly session. And every day the staff turns over one hour after lunch to free-form play. "They play a lot of pickle and tag-up," says McCarthy. "Some invent games. Some just sit and talk. Our only rule is to stay within the fence. It may look unorganized, but in fact it's very organized. It allows leaders to percolate and develop. When the kids come back to the coaches in the afternoon, they're a more directed group. With a 10-year-old, you want him to fall for the sport hard. He can pick up the details later."
Camp ends at 3 p.m., but McCarthy is cheered to hear many children tell their parents to fetch them at four. They do this for a reason that's notable in an era marked by the playdate, the proliferation of elite travel teams and the fear parents have of leaving their children unsupervised. It turns out that many campers want to play stickball.
McCarthy has spent a lot of time insinuating himself into the heads of 10-year-olds. "They aren't yet set in their ways, so they'll absorb a lot," he says. "They're the most popular group to coach. If I want to get my batteries recharged, I go hit fungoes to the 10-year-olds."
There's a crossroads quality to being 10. The hormone-fired moods of adolescence are still a ways off, but innocence is yielding to budding sophistication. Ten-year-olds know how babies are made, but they won't necessarily let on that they know. It's by 10 that kids have a fully developed conscience, not just to guide their own behavior, but also to serve as a matrix into which the particulars of the world around them fit. "That's not fair," is a classic 10-year-old's declaration, whether uttered to a playmate or to Mom after a sibling has gotten away with something. ("That's unfair," Emma Eddy, a 10-year-old soccer player in Hinesburg, Vt., said recently upon learning that the WUSA had folded. "They should have a girls' league too. I need some sports to play when I get older. I mean, do I want to play, like, golf?")
Though fourth-and fifth-graders typically stand less than five feet tall and weigh less than 100 pounds, you can have a startlingly high-level conversation with them, during which you're likely to learn what they unabashedly love: to be praised; to be asked their opinion and tell you what they know; to belong, be it to clubs or teams or other groups; and to hear true stories, not just made-up ones. If 10 is the time to step out in the world, Mark Twain captured the age perfectly in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, based on Twain's own recollections of that period of his life.
Sports offers many of the things 10-year-olds crave. Teams are clubs; victories and defeats are real, not made-up; and rules are presumably applied evenly. "Ten-year-olds are collectors and organizers," says Bob Ditter, a family therapist who practices in the Boston area. "That's why baseball, which is very methodical and specific, and basketball, where there are plays, appeal to them. There's an elegance to sports that makes sense to a 10-year-old."
There's a usefulness to them too. With the 10-year-olds' impending physical maturation, sports will soon separate them, sometimes very quickly, according to size and skill level. And as they prepare to move from the romantic "having fun" stage to the technical "getting better" stage, kids can be quite aware of the implications, for by the end of the fourth grade they've become strikingly more realistic about their strengths and weaknesses. "They know for sure who is really good at math and can feel that they're not going to magically get better at it," says Michael Thompson, a child psychologist and co-author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. "Indeed, if you wanted to have a class of fourth-graders nominate their future valedictorian, they could do it with considerable accuracy. That ability to be realistic is a huge step forward. The sad part is that they lose the capacity to engage in magical thinking, to believe that they'll suddenly get much better at something at which they're not in fact very good."
So it is that children at 10 also reach a sporting crossroads—and as any student of the blues will tell you, crossroads can be fraught with complications. Whereas eight-and nine-year-olds are conformists and cultivators of wide-ranging interests, at 10 kids might delve deeply into their passions but have fewer of them. It's the age at which a child is likely to either set sports aside or choose to throw himself into them—or into one sport.