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The Importance of Sports for Children

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Posted on 8/5/2013

This page was updated October 14, 2021.

The Value of Sport for Development

If you’ve ever played a sport, you know how formative and important that experience can be for a child.

Sports are a great way for children to learn essential life skills that will serve them in later life, such as teamwork and cooperation. Sports help children develop physical skills, get exercise, learn teamwork, play fair and improve self-esteem. Moreover, they can teach kids important life lessons on how to persevere, how to win with humility and lose with grace. 

But around the world, access to team sports is limited for children living in vulnerable communities. Read on to learn why we should care about making sure kids stay connected to opportunities to sport for development, no matter their circumstances.

Child Development Through Sports

In the parts of the world where we work, children often lack access to education, health care and nutritious food. Beyond depriving children of these more tangible needs, poverty also deprives them socially. Many kids don't have the clothing or equipment they need to play sports, so they play with improvised materials — like a spare tire or a homemade soccer ball. And while this kind of innovation and creative thinking is a great skill too, every child deserves to have the resources they need to play and grow in a safe, carefree way.

A boy plays soccer with a red homemade ball outside in Zambia.

Harrison, 6, plays soccer with a homemade ball outside his house in Zambia.

That’s why sport for development is built into many of ChildFund's programs. We worked with World Rugby, for example, to develop and implement our innovative sport for development program ChildFund Rugby. The program integrates rugby and life skills curricula to help young people from vulnerable communities in Southeast Asia and Oceania overcome challenges, inspire positive social change and take active leadership roles within their communities. This is especially important for girls, who often don’t have the same opportunities in sports or in leadership, and for children with disabilities – children like Mai.

Mai lives with her grandparents in a small town in the remote northern district of Tan Lac, Vietnam. She has a hearing impairment, and it’s often difficult for her to make friends.

“In the past, Mai was often lonely,” her grandmother says. “At school, she often sat alone during breaks because she could not hear what her friends were talking about.”

When Mai was invited by a ChildFund Rugby coach to join the local tag rugby team, her family was hesitant. “We had never seen a child who has a disability in our community participate in any kind of team activity,” her grandmother says.

But since Mai joined the program, her teammates have provided her with an unparalleled level of support. It wasn’t easy at first: She learned more slowly than her teammates, and some of the players did not want to let Mai play on their team. It was a great opportunity for the coaches to teach all the children about the importance of inclusion. 

Fast forward 12 months, to the end-of-season tournament, and Mai was actively playing in matches and showing a huge enthusiasm for the game. Her ChildFund Rugby coach says she is much more confident in her abilities. And her teammates now value Mai as a member of their team, treating her truly as their equal and friend.

“I’m so happy I could be a part of the competition,” Mai says. “I had thought that the competition is only for good and skillful players and not for me.” 

A girl in a green jersey plays rugby in Vietnam.

Mai plays rugby as part of ChildFund's Pass it Back program in Vietnam. 

Sport for development can also be an innovative way to keep children safe from harms like violence and even child marriage. That was the case for Raniya in rural Jharkhand, India. She was only 15 when her parents began the process to arrange her marriage.

As a longtime member of the local ChildFund-supported Adolescent Girls’ Club and soccer team, Raniya knew about the dangers of early marriage: increased risks of domestic and sexual violence, less financial independence, less or no say in matters related to her own health, including any potential pregnancies. She wanted to be more than someone’s wife. She had always dreamed of finishing school and starting her own business.

ChildFund’s UNMUKT project — an acronym for the Hindi that translates to “Mind Without Fear” — is empowering teen girls from 50 villages around Jharkhand to carve out their own identities and become role models for other girls. It does so in part by encouraging their participation on Mind Without Fear soccer teams.

With their coaches as mentors and their teammates as support, these girls travel for matches, participate in state-level competitions and win prizes, all while learning the value of teamwork, determination and courage — not ideal characteristics for child brides.

“Through ChildFund India and my club mates, I came to know about early marriage’s [risks],” Raniya says, “and I was able to fight back.”

When Raniya told her friends in Mind Without Fear about the impending wedding, the girls immediately came together to visit her parents and try to educate them on the dangers of early marriage. When that didn’t work, they staged an elaborate nukkad natak — an Indian street play — about early marriage, starring Raniya as the protagonist. And when that didn’t work, the girls went to the local government. Village leaders met with the family and persuaded Raniya’s parents to let her finish school before getting married.

Raniya’s mother says that before the adults’ intervention, she didn’t fully understand the risks of this culturally entrenched practice.

“We were about to put my child’s life into danger, as we had no idea about the consequences of early marriage,” she says. “I am happy that my daughter is safe now.”

Beyond being safe, Raniya is thriving. After her wedding was canceled, she passed her exams and entered the 11th grade. She continues to play soccer and participate in other activities with Mind Without Fear. She also enjoys mentoring the younger children in her village, who look up to her for her bravery both on the field and off.

The Benefits of Sports for Kids

The importance of sport in a child's life can't be underestimated. All children deserve opportunities to play, learn and grow in a nurturing environment where they can form friendships, have fun and learn the skills they need to keep themselves safe and healthy for the rest of their lives. For children living in vulnerable communities, the benefits of sport for development are only multiplied. 

A group of kids plays basketball, crowded street in the Philippines.

A group of kids plays basketball on a crowded street in Manila, Philippines.

At ChildFund, we often hear about the different ways that sponsors build connections with their sponsored children. One of the first things they often find they have in common is sports! Take sponsor Chris Grecco, for example, whose love for soccer has taken him around the world and helped him connect with Henry, his sponsored child in Uganda

Sport is a great connector. It helps a child connect her body with her brain. It helps him connect with his peers. And it can help you build a connection with a child in need today.