Learning to Ride a Unicycle may be the Answer to Surviving Puberty

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I was around 13 when I quit the track team. I was fast, but all over the place – meaning I could not stay in-between the lines, which has been a theme throughout my life. Known for my self-deprecation and ability to laugh at myself even then, I allowed the other team members to poke fun of my “special” running ability. But my clumsiness in collaboration with newly appointed, and rather large breasts was enough for me to flee the team, and all things athletic. I couldn’t handle the stares from the pubescent boys, and the pressure to run in a straight line. The end of my brief submission into team sports had a long term impact. I never felt comfortable again trying out for a team or having the confidence to excel in physical education (PE) classes. I used every excuse in the book to get out of participating, and lucky for me that male teachers were uncomfortable with a young girl constantly giving them the details of her period, cramps, bloating or need for tampons as an excuse to skip the mandatory sports activity. I always said the initial humiliation I endured from being the youngest and only girl of three brothers paid off, because it gave me the moxie to use my period as a way to avoid school activities. So you ask, how does my uncomfortable and long winded story have anything to do with unicycles?

Do you remember the awkward stage around puberty? We felt clumsy. We were embarrassed. We lost confidence. We lost the freedom of being a careless kid. We became self conscious. According to the curriculum of my kids’ Waldorf school, learning to ride a unicycle helps to balance out this biological time of puberty in children. Because my boys attend a Waldorf school, people ask me about the curriculum all the time, and I never have a good answer. It surprises me at their level of interest and my level of ignorance. But one day my ignorance was shattered.

At around 10:00 a.m., I arrived at school to drop off a forgotten lunch box and noticed my kid riding a unicycle. At first, I was impressed with my kid’s balance, but then I got annoyed. Are they training him to be a member of some circus group? I know I can’t stand the pressure these other schools put on kids to prepare for ivy league admission at 10, but my kid is riding a unicycle and it’s prime learning hours. The neurotic East Coast Jew in me starts an internal monologue, “Mara, why the hell can’t you be normal, and send your kids to a regular school? Great job Mara, you’re so worried about “pressure”, but even Trump University won’t accept a kid who has no grades, and rides a fucking Unicycle!”.

Because I’m now officially a Californian who sometimes does Yoga, I take a deep meditative breathe, and do what any great Millennial genius would, I google “why Waldorf teaches kids how to ride unicycles?”, nothing comes up – the only thing that comes up, is a Waldorf teacher who lovingly reminds me that cell phones are not permitted on campus. “No technology and unicycles, what the hell kind of choice did we make for our kid’s education?”, I thought to myself. So like every overbearing mother, I unearthed a full investigation to get to the bottom of this unicycle business, meaning I contacted the Waldorf games teacher and scheduled a time to meet. My kids love games (which is equivalent to PE or gym), but also have a lot of complaints. Waldorf schools recommend not participating in competitive sports until 6th grade, and dodgeball is only allowed in 4th grade. These issues are very real to my boys – all they want to do is innocently slam a ball as hard as they can at another kid, and Waldorf makes them wait.

The Waldorf curriculum has explanations for each part of the children’s education. I admit to never fully listening to the explanations and details, mostly because the teachers are so dedicated and incredibly passionate about teaching, I kind of figured they did all the research, why should I meddle? But this unicycle had me curious. Donni, Waldorf’s games and movement teacher, was more than willing to meet with me. For one, Donni is incredibly passionate about Waldorf and loves her job, two, I think she was hoping she’d get to see me attempt riding a unicycle in 5 inch heels.

I met Donni on the playground, while she monitored three 6th grade girls riding unicycles while playing basketball. In 6th grade, I wasn’t playing basketball or riding a unicycle, and these girls were nonchalantly doing both, at the same time! Donni is the opposite of me, direct, clear and concise. She’s very passionate about Waldorf education and following the physiological markers when it comes to physical activity. “Learning to ride a unicycle provides a challenge at the exact right moment,” Donni explains to me, “the 12 year old change brings a capacity to intellectualize their world, they can embrace abstraction and it makes sense” But with this new found ability to be more logical and intellectual, they lose the innate balance and grace of childhood.” This makes it clear why they call middle school, the “awkward years”, it’s actually physiological. As they are growing, they lose their ability to be upright and become victims of gravity. What I learn from Donni is that Waldorf curriculum is based on physiological and spiritual development.

The reason kids don’t play dodge ball so young? Because spiritually they are still little jerks, who don’t have the sensitivity or will power to refrain from carelessly throwing a ball at another kid’s face. I tell Donni that my kids are “different”, apparently these theories are based on the science of brain development and physical development in childhood – meaning, things happen in our brains developmentally, and it’s Waldorf’s teaching method to only introduce subjects and activities that are appropriate and ready to be absorbed based on biological development. So even if I think my own children are emotionally advanced for their age, Waldorf won’t budge, and Dodge Ball will have to wait.

Donni continues to amaze me with the school’s games program. “Mara, when we start teaching these kids how to ride, many of them cry out of frustration and fear” – I decide to hop on the unicycle to understand the fear, I don’t get very far – this is scary, no chance I’m mending the scars of my 12 year self.

Donni’s goal is for the kids to learn to trust a new sense of balance, because they lose it in puberty. Succeeding at riding the unicycle is so much more than balance, it empowers these kids and gives them not only the confidence of overcoming a challenge, but it wakes them up emotionally and physiologically. And then it all clicks for me, as I watch these girls riding their unicycles around the basketball court, I think “if I had Donni as a teacher, I could have been throwing a discus for the US Olympic team”, but instead I quit track because of the normal emotional and physiological changes of a 12 year old girl. At this moment, I once again feel validated in my decision to choose this type of education for my kids. Puberty is one of the most talked about parts of childhood that leave indelible scars for most of us, and Waldorf has figured out how to use a unicycle to give back the grace and confidence of their prepubescent selves. The only minor set back, according to my boys, is that riding a unicycle and I quote “kills their balls”.

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