Kids need to learn how to compete. It's part of our culture. Whether or not you're trying to raise born winners who will gleefully trounce their enemies at any cost, all young people have to go head to head with their peers at some point. Kids should be taught how to win gracefully and lose with dignity -- and, most importantly, how to experience the deep rewards that come from hard work and prolonged effort. It also doesn't hurt that winning feels fantastic!
There's the classic method of using sports to teach kids about the competitive spirit and the thrill of victory, but why limit your little ones? There are whole constellations of other competitive activities for kids, many of which can impart real-world skills they'll use for the rest of their lives. Coming up are 10 alternative ways to get kids hungry for victory.
10: Sport Stacking
You may remember a few years back when cup stacking was all the rage. Players competed to see who could build and disassemble pyramids of cups. Instead of going the way of the dodo bird like POGs and tamagotchi, sport stacking is alive and well. It's amazing to watch (seriously, check out some YouTube videos), and stacking increases hand-eye coordination, improves reflexes and promotes ambidexterity. There may be even more brain-boosting benefits -- one recent study found that motor tasks like cup stacking can increase reading comprehension.
Coolest of all is that kids seem to have a leg up in sport stacking over adults. Although adults stack competitively as well, according to the World Sport Stacking Association, every world record is held by a kid 11 years old or younger.
9: Debate Team
Competition is preparation for the cold, hard facts of real life. Real life is cutthroat! Real life makes you think on your feet to defend yourself! Real life involves occasional public speaking!
Fortunately, so does debate team, where kids actively develop a toolbox of interpersonal and critical thinking skills that last a lifetime: persuasion, organized thinking and staying cool under pressure. Debate may produce more successful people across all walks of life than any other youth activity. Unsurprisingly, President John F. Kennedy was a debater, but did you know that Oprah Winfrey, Brad Pitt and Lee Iacocca were, too?
8: Competitive Robotics
As parts get cheaper and programming information becomes more and more accessible, homebrew robots have become available for absolutely anyone, even kids. While most competitive leagues like the National Robotics Challenge and the Academy of Robots Challenge involve finding elegant solutions for simple programming tasks, there are also robotic sports like robot soccer at the RoboCup Junior. And of course, once kids have developed some programming chops, they can use robots for what they really want -- to fight!
Despite what you may have heard, very few children who build robots actually go on to become evil geniuses. Maybe 20 percent build their own robotic armies, tops. Just try to steer them away from equipping the robots with flamethrowers, and they should be fine.
7: Scripps National Spelling Bee
Got a kid who knows his way around a dictionary? Every year, the venerable and colossal Scripps National Spelling Bee offers young word ninjas the chance to walk away with a tremendous vocabulary, $30,000 in prizes and the wicked bragging rights that come with the ability to spell words like autochthonous and vivisepulture.
This competition is intense. If you've seen "Spellbound," you know that high-level spellers are under the most pressure they've ever seen in their young lives. A spelling bee is the adult equivalent of forgetting to wear pants to a job interview -- even if you don't pull it off, just getting through it at all is a triumph in and of itself. Kids who can survive a spelling bee don't just get a free dictionary and a pat on the head; they get titanium-tough nerves.
6: Speed-texting Championships
What's the opposite of a spelling bee? Pr0bubly a txtng c0ntst. While old-guard grammarians bemoan the death of the English language that the Age of Texting has ushered in, we say that when you've got a talent, you should flaunt it. Many quick-fingered young Net natives are already practicing daily for events like the LG US National Texting Championship whether they know it or not. So why not go pro?
5: Design Squad Trash to Treasure
One of the problems with finding a good competitive activity for kids is the amount of money that has to go into the equipment. Lacrosse players need pads, bagpipers need earplugs (for the rest of the family), and swimmers need pool time -- after a certain age, the bathtub is just too small.
With that in mind, we present the Design Squad Trash to Treasure competition, a yearly engineering competition run by PBS designed to motivate kids not only to flex their creative muscles, but to do it by recycling and reusing material that would otherwise go to waste. Best of all, it's cheap -- all you need is some trash.
4: Math Olympiad
Ah, the math olympiad. For so long, it's been the whipping boy of middle and high school activities. Combining extreme nerdiness with intense difficulty seems like a recipe for disaster in a competitive sport, but behind the slide rule and pocket protector image, what everyone secretly knows is that mathletes grow up to sign our paychecks.
And why? Besides the pencil-snapping stress of this competition, math olympiad isn't just about memorizing pi to 500 decimal places and being able to calculate derivatives in your head. It's about taking problems -- any problems -- analyzing them and ripping them apart. Mathletes know how to turn problem-solving into an art.
The cool thing about 4-H is the sheer volume of activities available. Originally founded to encourage personal growth and learning by doing, 4-H members get involved with long-term projects in a huge variety of fields and learn specialized skills through hands-on experience. Although 4-H is more of a venue for competition than a competitive category in and of itself, there are tons of opportunities for young competitors to shine, from jam-making and marksmanship to raising sheep.
Musical competition has two main benefits. First, unlike most other activities, kids are alone when they perform, even when they're playing in groups like marching bands. For that moment, there's no one else to rely on -- no parents to push, no teachers to give advice and no teammates to help carry the load. All they've got are the hours and hours of practice they've put into mastering their instrument. Second, past all the solo competitions, marching band battles and dueling banjos (non-lethal banjo duels, of course), there's the pure happiness of making music.
1: Dance Troupes
Physical activity doesn't always have to belong to the realm of sport. Sometimes, the thrill of competing has more to do with getting in front of an audience than taking down an opponent (though we have to admit, it does always feel good to be the best!). There are competitive dance competitions all over the country for both solo and group performers. Some, like the Kids Artistic Revue, even have separate experience categories to allow kids to compete not just at their age level but at their skill level as well.