Sometimes, students have to relearn how to play

By Preston Williams
Thursday, October 29, 2009

The mission of Washington International School, with its intense International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, is "to provide a demanding international education that will challenge students to become responsible and effective world citizens."

Here's what the brochures don't tell you: Oh, yeah, we like to play, too, particularly at the annual and much-anticipated Sports Day. Pat Rumbaugh, the reigning All-Met girls' tennis coach of the year and a physical education teacher at the school, started the tradition at the independent school in the early 1980s.

Students from grades 6 to 12 form teams to compete in a boisterous and colorful but undemanding sort of Olympiad on the grounds of the Northwest Washington school. In some ways, it's a play date for academic-minded students who might sometimes forget to play.

"It's a nice reflection on what our school really means, because we're not trying to be uber-competitive. We're trying to have fun," said senior Benedict Wagstaff, the student government president. "I think what we accomplish is sort of building a community."

There's a lot to learn about one another: Seventy percent of WIS students come from families with both American and international citizenship, or all international, and faculty and staff members hail from more than 30 countries. No less an authority than Plato would approve of Sports Day. He is credited with the quote, "You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation."

WIS is tucked between Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues in Cleveland Park, with a winding, tree-lined entrance. It's in the shadow of Washington National Cathedral, and its stone-walled campus is on a former estate.

So given the setting of a school with an annual tuition of more than $28,000, it was a bit surreal for a first-time visitor to open his car door at 8:15 a.m. Friday and hear "We Are the Champions" and the "Rocky" theme blaring over the chatter of about 300 students on the sunken Ulysses G. Auger II Field.

Students were bedecked in their team colors, eager to try their hand at pyramid building, sack races, running relays, soccer and basketball shootouts (the latter on the school's outdoor court), a game called bombardment (like dodgeball but, in this version, with a larger ball as the target, not humans), a tennis ball toss (it used to be an egg toss, but that was before the school installed turf) and the event-closing crowd pleaser, the tug of war, "a legendary event," as one student put it.

Senior Nikolai Jessen-Petersen seemed like one of the more ardent participants, so we asked him whether he ever stared out the window during class and wished that it were Sports Day.

"Yeah," he said. "Like, every day."

"Where else are you going to play bombardment in a competitive way?" said senior Georgie Milanovic, whose sneakers gave away that he was on the light purple team. "Build a pyramid? When do you actually build a competitive pyramid? It's great."

Rumbaugh, the founder of the event, considers herself a "play advocate." She has formed the Takoma Park Play Committee and has written and lectured about the importance of play. Trivia: Her father, Chuck Abramski, coached Joe Montana at Ringgold High in Pennsylvania.

As part of her PE classes, Rumbaugh and her students sometimes walk to a nearby park, where she encourages them to swing or go down a sliding board to try to rekindle the childhood delights of unstructured play. No signup sheets, no coaches, no whistles. Just play.

Sports Day requires organization, but there also is that carefree playground vibe. Anticipation intensifies in the days before the event, when the rosters of the 16 teams are posted. Teams are chosen with a mix of middle and high school students, and representatives from each class try to ensure that everybody has at least one good friend on his or her team.

"The minute the team listings are posted up in the halls, everybody flocks to that," said senior Nicolo Cottarelli, a member of the light green team. "You can't even see your team for, like, three days because there are so many people there."

With events geared more toward participation than athleticism, there is no great pressure to perform. The idea is to get a brief reprieve from school, hang out with classmates and teachers in a non-classroom setting, make acquaintances, break down age barriers between the middle-schoolers and high-schoolers (they share a campus) and, in some cases, discover an untapped skill.

"It gives you a little oomph to try something new," said senior Anna Kingdom, who showed her dark blue team affiliation with a lei, necklace, bandana and fingernail polish. "I didn't know I could play basketball."

When did you discover that?

"Like, five minutes ago."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company