How are sport for development organizations keeping children healthy during COVID-19?

This blog explores how Sport for Development (S4D) organisations have responded and adapted their programming to support children during the COVID-19 crisis. S4D organisations use sport as a tool to catalyse positive change in the lives of children, youth and the communities they live in. Interviews with S4D organizations, conducted as part of the ongoing research commissioned by the Barça Foundation and UNICEF partnership, revealed that organizations are innovating to adapt to the current crisis through three key interconnected practices:

  1. Continuing to support children through remote sessions, with coaches providing guidance for physical activity along with content to accomplish a variety of social goals.
  2. Providing critical and accurate health and COVID-19 information through coaches, who are in many cases trusted individuals in communities.
  3. Supporting their staff in helping other programmes, such as feeding programmes, while sports activities are closed.

What is Sport for Development?

Sport and physical activity are fun, effective and engaging means to improve many areas of children’s wellbeing including physical and mental health, empowerment, learning and life skills that are essential for success in school, life and work. For instance, one review found positive associations between physical activity and academic performance in 79% of the studies it assessed. The Kazan Action plan highlights the role sport can play in improving children’s lives, and outlines the commitment of multiple governments to make sport part of the solution to achieving the SDGs.

S4D organisations come in various forms – from those that build social programmes around sport, to those that include sport as one of many approaches to achieving their goals. Approximately 1 in every 500 children worldwide takes part in a S4D initiative and almost every country hosts some S4D programmes (see map).

How are organisations responding?

S4D organizations create safe spaces where children can feel protected from violent and difficult contexts and where they are free to express themselves, away from social norms and expectations that communities can have for boys and girls. These activities take place in schools, community centres, and outdoor spaces. Social distancing measures have meant that organizations have had to stop their regular programming taking away these safe physical spaces and adapt both delivery modalities and content to respond to the crisis.

Continuing to support children through remote sessions

Many S4D organizations are going remote through online, but also through broadcast media. The Barça Foundation, in Spain, has adapted its sessions for marginalised youth to take place online: coaches lead children through physical exercises remotely replacing their usual football match (See Figure 2), and moderate group discussions, before and after the exercise on life skills and values. This provides socio-emotional support through play and continues healthy routines which can be critical for mental health during uncertain times. The Barça Foundation is working on alternative ways to deliver these sessions so they are available to participants without access to internet, acknowledging that access to technology is not a given for many children around the world as explored in a recent research brief on remote learning.

Figure 2

COVID Focus: Providing critical and accurate health and COVID-19 information

As part of their response, many S4D organisations, are adapting their content and developing innovative ways to help spread the word about good practices during COVID-19. Grassroot Soccer (GRS), who uses football as part of a curriculum on sexual and reproductive health, has developed an open-source COVID-19 curriculum that debunks myths around COVID-19 and promotes healthy behaviors. Sessions of this curriculum can be adapted to be implemented in person, respecting social distancing, or remotely and include physical activity (e.g. stretch, dance, game) components in place of the usual football (See Figure 3). This curriculum has been released with tips for coaches facilitators and caregivers, translated into 4 languages and is being used by several organisations in Africa. Various other open-source activities and curricula can be found here.

Figure 3

Organizations are also turning themselves into reference points for health information by sharing correct and updated health advice with communities. For example, TackleAfrica has been sending health content to its coaches in 12 countries via text message. CoolPlay and YouthWave are using WhatsApp and radio to stay in touch with programme participants, provide psychosocial support and healthy behavior tips. As trusted members of many marginalized communities, coaches and S4D organizations can have a critical role in providing health updates and fighting misinformation.

Supporting their staff in helping other programmes

Organisations have been helping in other ways, CoolPlay gave their staff’s time to support feeding programmes and the Barça Foundation provided in kind support to the families of the beneficiaries. Laureus Sport’s Informal Sharing Community meetings. This fits with the actions that sport organisations more broadly have taken. Football clubs in Europe have launched support drives to help others in need in the community, offered places for medical staff to stay, donated money to health services, and started helplines. In Spain, FC Barcelona has ceded the title rights to Camp Nou for the 2020-2021 season to the Barça Foundation to raise money for research in the fight against  COVID-19.

As shown in the Getting into the Game report, sports can have an outsized impact on a child’s wellbeing, from children’s health, to life skills like leadership and teamwork, to learning outcomes. S4D organizations are working hard to adapt to the current reality, and are making important contributions to the communities they operate in. Post COVID-19, the global community should make sure that the commitment made to using sport to improve the lives of children, remains integrated into plans to build healthier, safer, and more inclusive societies.

 

Are you part of an S4D organization? How has COVID-19 affected you and how have you responded? Please email us at cpasquini@unicef.org and tell us more about it.

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