Little League in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin

An excerpt from This Page at Peter Gray’s Freedom to Learn blog.


Sun Prairie, Wisconsin: managing my little league team at age 9

Between the ages of 7 and 10 I lived in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. I’m told that Sun Prairie is now a rapidly growing suburb of Madison, but when I lived there, in the 1950s, it was a small city with lots of cornfields between it and Madison. The kids in Sun Prairie were involved in many activities that were new to me. For example, I learned from my new friends how to build my own kite and fly it. We used to organize kite-flying contests, with the one rule that the kite had to be built from scratch, not from a kit. Today you’d assume that parents would be involved in helping kids build the kites, but that was not at all true then. We younger kids learned from our slightly older, more experienced friends how to do it, and then we went on to produce our own innovations. We used to get shafts of wood, free, from the local lumberyard to make the frames (sometimes we asked for them, sometimes we didn’t). Some kids built truly remarkable kites, unlike any kites I have seen since.

But even more than kite flying, Sun Prairie was, for boys, a baseball town. Every neighborhood had a vacant lot, and in every vacant lot you would find kids playing baseball—all summer long and on weekends and after school in the fall and spring. Baseball quickly became my passion. Like most of my friends, I was sure I would grow up to become a professional baseball player. We all listened on the radio to the Milwaukee Braves games, and we all collected and traded baseball cards. Kids who couldn’t do long division in school had no trouble calculating batting averages, in those days before calculators.

Most of our baseball was completely informal, in vacant lots with anyone who showed up. But Sun Prairie also had a little league program. I use small letters here for “little league,” because I don’t know if it had any affiliation at all with official Little League, but we called it that. Our little league had nothing like the adult involvement that you see in Little League today. A playground supervisor would get it started each year in the spring, but beyond that it was entirely kid run. Here’s how it worked:

On a certain day in the spring, kids in the proper age range who wanted to be in the league would show up at the main city park. Generally we showed up in groups—groups of friends who were already playing in vacant lots together. Groups would declare themselves to be teams, and individuals who weren’t part of a group would be added onto the teams by the playground supervisor. Each team elected a team captain, who would be the contact person to the supervisor and who would be official manager of the team. Then the playground supervisor worked out a schedule of games, so each team played each other team a certain number of times over the course of the summer. At each game a high-school kid served as umpire. That was it. Generally, no adults even attended the games. If there was an audience at all, it was mostly little kids who hoped to get into the game, as replacements, if one of us got hurt or for some other reason had to leave early. A similar league was also organized for girls’ softball.

These league games were very exciting to us, because they were a step beyond, in formality, the pickup games that we played most of the time. We played on a field that looked like a real baseball diamond, with a backstop and real bases. There was an umpire who called balls and strikes and kept an official score. But the games were also exciting because they were still really ours. No adult was telling us what to do; we had to make our own decisions.

When I was near the end of third grade, and had recently turned 9, I was elected captain of my little league team. That meant I was responsible to be sure that my teammates knew about each game and that they showed up. (We all traveled by bicycle. The idea that parents should drive kids places had not yet been invented. Parents didn’t even know when the games were scheduled.) I also had to determine the lineup for each game. The biggest trick was determining who would pitch. We had one good pitcher and several others who thought they were good pitchers. I had to compromise between letting our good pitcher pitch and letting others pitch to some extent. I was manager, but I had very little real power because players would quit if they weren’t happy, and we needed a certain number of players to keep the team going. So lots of discussion and compromise went into that lineup every game.

Can you imagine, today, putting a 9-year-old in charge of a little league baseball team? The fact that you can’t imagine it is a measure of the degree to which we, as a culture, have lost respect for the abilities of children. It wasn’t just me; every team in that league was led by a kid. The whole league was founded on the premise that kids wanted to play organized baseball so much that they would take responsibility to make it happen. And it worked! If it hadn’t worked, that would have just meant that we kids had lost interest in baseball; and that would be OK too.


This was just an excerpt from a longer blog post/article by Peter Gray. The rest isn’t about baseball or little league but rather on the topic of little kids being capable of much more than we sometimes give them credit for. Read it here…

FWIW… we send our kids to a school that is basically founded on that idea — Sudbury Valley School one of many Sudbury schools that are popping up.


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  1. Pingback: Sudbury Valley School vs playgrounds and recess | Erik's Blog