By Molly Burns
Whether it be memories of Saturday morning soccer games, making friends in PE class, or pre-ballet recital jitters, for most of us childhood memories are inextricably linked to sports and team activities in one way or another. While organized sports and extracurricular activities for kids to stay active and healthy are completely immersed in the culture of most developed countries, many developing countries, specifically in rural areas, usually lack team sports for youth and physical education at school.
Children who are denied the opportunity to join a team or participate in athletics are missing out on much more than a way to stay healthy. Research has shown that sports and physical education programs help to improve behavior, retention, and the development of social skills in the classroom. In this way, sports not only provide an outlet for children after school, but also positively affect school performance.
Beyond the benefits to health and school performance, sports and athletics play a huge role in the development of self esteem and act as an equalizer for those who are less privileged. According to the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace, “In disadvantaged communities and populations, where people are often defined in terms of their needs and deficits, sport provides a powerful counter-balance to these perceptions. Participating in sport draws on people’s strengths and assets — energy, enthusiasm, natural and acquired skills, the desire to excel — and the universal capacity for fun and enjoyment.”
Averaging three hours of classroom time a day with a school year that is comprised of 85 days a year, the children of Potrero who Abriendo Mentes (AM) serves need and deserve sports and other activities to channel their energy. However due to limited funding, formal physical education is not included in their school day. This is where Abriendo Mentes and our partner organization Lacrosse the Nations (LtN) come in. AM offers a wide range of physical activities for youth participants. Whether they are joining us for Zumba or Bootcamp or participating in a game of kickball at a “Fun Friday,” AM offers a myriad of ways for children in Potrero to stay healthy, active, and happy. While physical play will always be an important component of our Youth programming, we are excited to share the many advances our partner Lacrosse the Nations has made in expanding the sports activities available to local children in the community.
An AM partner since March 2012, Lacrosse the Nations (LtN), offers Lacrosse practice four times a week to children of all ages (although there is a focus on grades 5th and up). Children are not only taught Lacrosse skills, but the program works to build on existing AM curriculum by incorporating English words and phrases into practices while placing an emphasis on the importance of team building and mutual respect. When asked about the impact of LtN on its participants, Sheila Serafino, LtN’s Program and Activities Coordinator since August 2013, expressed that “there is a correlation between kids who are physically active, participating in other AM programs, and also doing well in public school.” However it isn’t just Potrero’s best students who are benefiting from lacrosse practice. According to Serafino, “with lacrosse, you don’t have to be an all-star student to do well, so children that may be struggling in other aspects of life can come to practice and it’s something they can do well and be proud of.”
If lacrosse doesn’t spark interest, AM provides many other options for fitness and fun. Zumba and boot camp classes are offered for children and adults three times a week to stay fit in a group environment. These classes are well attended by community members of all ages (sometimes even local dogs will get in on the fun). AM’s “Fun Fridays,”a program-wide afternoon of a planned activity, will often consist of fitness-focused activities such as yoga, field days, and soccer games. We have even hosted our own Potrero Olympic Games at a past Fun Friday. While not always situated in a traditional team environment, these activities focus on fitness, as well as foster creativity and self-esteem.
While working to provide sports and exercise related activities to AM participants may not be an obvious priority, the inclusion of these programs is critical. Not only do sports work in conjunction with educational programs, but they help to impart a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem for children of all skill levels and backgrounds. Come to Potrero and you’ll see these themes at play in a more intangible way. If you’re lucky, you might catch a young boy skipping home from practice down a dirt road, lacrosse stick in hand with two jerseys, all his own, draped over each shoulder. A childhood memory in the making.