GOALS Haiti literacy class
GOALS Haiti literacy class

I recently had an opportunity to swing by the offices of One World Futbol for their “Power of Play” potluck. GOALS Haiti and OWF have worked together for years to get their virtually indestructible soccer balls to the kids and communities who need them most in Haiti. We’ve used these soccer balls all over, from mountain tops to tent cities. It’s the only soccer ball I’ve seen that can hold up to the passion that kids in Haiti have for playing the game. It’s the solution to the problem I posed in a 2010 blog post for GOALS, “Where Soccer Balls Come to Die.”

I wasn’t always so passionate about sport-for-development, this quickly growing field that uses sport and play to improve quality of life, bring people together, and spark societal change. I was focused on homelessness, economic development, and other social inequality issues.

That’s all well and good, but the kids in Haiti didn’t ask me about the historical role of foreign aid on their country’s deforestation. They asked for soccer balls. In March 2010, I saw children playing a game of soccer in the streets of Leogane, surrounded by rubble.  (“Inside the Shantytowns at Haiti’s Ground Zero”) They were focused and having fun, able to temporarily remove themselves from the surrounding devastation. The idea for GOALS sprang from the idea that you can bridge the gap between this love for soccer and a country’s enormous challenges to help people in a fun, and therefore sustainable, way.

Fast forward four years later, and I’m a firm believer that sport is an unparalleled tool to effect social change. We get a lot of ‘serious’ development work done while having fun. I have seen the value in a child getting a chance to play and laugh, alongside drinking clean water, going to school, and planting trees.

And it’s not just kids, either. During my visit, Tim Jahnigen, co-founder of One World Futbol, brought up the 1914  Christmas Day Truce, when World War I took a remarkable hiatus on the front lines for the holidays. Men played soccer in the no man’s land between opposing armies, stepping away from their weapons and scrimmaging with whatever was at hand.

The official recognition of play is growing. While the Wall Street Journal reported on children as young as 5 taking entrepreneurship classes, Forbes reported that unstructured free time with hands-on play is the key to fostering independence, creativity and strategic thinking. The international community recently celebrated the first-ever International Day of Sport for Development and Peace on April 6.

Sport and play seem to be gaining street cred. I think it’s because the two are successful not only on an international level, but also resonate with us as individuals. It’s something we inherently crave, and it makes us better. As Jahnigen puts it, play helps us go from living as human beings to thriving as “humane beings.”