07 November 2014

How does a ball help change the lives of children?

©Just Play/2012

It all starts with a ball. But when you add an inspiring coach and a safe place to play, the power of sport takes root. Children are naturally drawn to sport, recreation and play, which are a vital part of childhood.

Not only are they a vital part of helping children to grow, learn and explore, they are every child’s right. As outlined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary on November 20th, 2014, every child has the right to leisure, recreation and cultural activities.

While we have come a long way since the Convention was signed in 1989 in the field of children’s rights, we have seen unequal progress on the playing field. We often forget that at the core of the rights is the fundamental right to play, and just one football can go a long way in helping to address some of the realities children are facing around the world:

Less than 35 percent attend regular physical education classes or play for 60 minutes or more in a day;
Over 45 percent are overweight and obese as early as 13 years of age;
Children with disabilities experience discrimination, exclusion and barriers to participation;
Girls experience inequalities in education, decision-making processes and access to services;
Children are affected by high levels of violence at home and in school.
Understanding that every child has the right to play, in 2009 the Just Play programme began, as a joint initiative between the Oceanic Football Confederation, the Australian Government (Australian Aid and Australian Sports Commission), the Football Federation of Australia, the Union of European Football Association and UNICEF Pacific.

As greater numbers of children in the Pacific Island countries are increasingly affected by poverty, violence, abuse and non-communicable diseases, Just Play is a critical entry point through which to engage, empower and mobilize children in a positive, practical and fun manner.

Children who have a positive experience in physical activity early on in life are more likely to develop good exercise habits and to participate in sport and physical activity throughout their lives.

Through this active participation model, Just Play gives children the knowledge and skills to develop healthy lifestyle habits and become confident in their abilities; encourages gender equality; promotes social inclusion and; insists on sport for all.

With the help of a football, the Just Play programme has engaged over 150,000 children, 44% of which are girls, in 11 Pacific Island countries, to grow, learn and explore through sport. Similarly, with just a ball, sport programs around the world reach out to millions of children each and every day. That one ball, teaches them about teamwork and fair play. It helps girls and boys play together, and promotes the importance of physical activity and exercise.

©UNICEF Pacific/2014/Alcock
This is the simplicity upon which Just Play is founded. The programme uses football as a social development tool with a view to improving the lives of communities in the Pacific. Just Play is a Sport for Development (S4D) programme with four key objectives:

  • To reduce the risk factors of Non-Communicable Diseases
  • To promote gender equality and create opportunities and pathways for the empowerment of women
  • To promote a change of perception in the community towards persons with disabilities, encourage social inclusion and contribution in the wider community
  • To promote children’s rights and fight against child abuse
  • With the help of this one football, UNICEF and the Oceania Football Confederation are using the Just Play program to teach children to develop healthy lifestyle habits, encourage gender equality, promote inclusion of children with disabilities and become active community citizens.

This one ball, the Just Play football, is helping children in the Pacific Islands to more effectively navigate the many challenges which affect their daily lives. This one Just Play football is making a difference, transforming the lives of children in the Pacific every day. Did you ever think that one ball could be so powerful?

I now pass the ball on to you. Sport makes a difference and with your ball, you can too!

Melissa Palombi is a Sport for Development Consultant working with UNICEF Pacific.

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