When 13-year-old Priya first tried out sports, she was terrified of falling and hurting herself. And with no one to push her to try harder, she decided that sports was something she wasn't interested in. That was, until last year.
As a student of Delhi's Gandhi Memorial School, a low-income private school, Priya's access to sports education was always limited. "A few of my friends would call me to come play, but I never went," she says. Today, however, Priya is a regular Kho Kho player and runs across the field faster than most of her companions. This change, she attributes to the work of one particular startup.
Levelling the Playing Field with 'Khel Khel Mein'
Co-created by four ex-Teach For India (TFI) fellows, Khel Khel Mein is a non-profit aimed at bringing sports education to low-income schools where it's lacking or neglected. When founders Anirban, Jasmeet, Chandni and Garima were still TFI fellows, they would bounce ideas off one another, wondering how to improve the quality of education in their classes. Over time, these interactions showed that there was one common theme across all their experiences: lack of sports.
It started out as an experiment in their schools, introducing a basic level of sports and physical activity. They would break the class up into smaller teams, and organise mini-leagues within the school itself. As enthusiasm, health competition, and pent-up energy all revealed themselves, they realised the concept was working. Soon enough, their fellowships ended and the micro-project experiment became a much larger idea.
Sports Education: A Game Changer
"We're using sports as a medium to address multiple aspects. First is, the holistic growth of a child, which is social, mental, emotional and physical. And also, through this imparting life skills like leadership, team work, nutrition," shares 31-year-old Anirban.
Along with football's regular rules, they've also introduced things like an 'opponent point' for when your opposing team plays well, despite not being able to score a goal. Anirban says these tweaks teach students a lot more than just how to kick a ball.
Priya, whose school has had Khel Khel Mein's intervention for a year now, says not only is she enjoying being exposed to sports, it's also helped change the minds of her parents. Although they were once averse to her being 'distracted' by sports, they now encourage it. "I also never knew who my juniors in school were before. Now that we play together all the time, it's like we've become a community. I know most of my juniors now!," Priya shares.
Convincing parents of the value of sports in education was just one of the many challenges they faced in schools across Delhi, both public and low-income private ones. While parents of boys were easier to on-board, those of girls took longer. Now, however, their gender ratio is equal and then some.
"We have about 60% girls in our leagues," Anirban smiles. He clarifies, that their intention is to intervene temporarily to help equip schools to run such sports programmes themselves. Instead of being a third-party outsource for such facilities, they aim to enable and self-empower schools to provide it themselves. "Once their teachers are trained on how to integrate sports in learning and their facilities are set up, we exit the school and let their administration run it independently," the team explains.
Kicking off 'Just For Kicks'
This is a sentiment shared by Neha Sahu and Vikas Plakkot, founders of Just For Kicks (JFK). Created in 2012, the organisation JFK aims to serve the same purpose of bridging the resource gap for low-income school students through sports.
Neha, like all teachers of hyper 8 or 9 year olds, needed to find a way to make math problems engaging and interesting without students falling asleep mid-class. After much deliberation, she decided to take her class out of the classroom and onto the field. She developed games that involved both math skills and physical exercises, making the children alert and excited to learn. As she managed to make learning fun and entertaining, her students responded by doing better in class and on the field. That's when Neha knew her work could be expanded.
After taking the idea to schools across major metro cities, JFK now runs 2 leagues each year, for male and female students, with students in bright orange, green and yellow jerseys scoring goals across the country. While it started out in Pune, the football fever has now spread to Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Delhi.
One of the challenges they faced initially was getting school principals on board. With academics and report cards in the lime light, several school administrators along with parents would see sports as a 'distraction' or 'waste of time'. However this mindset changed slowly, as the value addition of sports started to become tangible and visible.
Neha says the impact of regular sports leagues can be seen in multiple aspects of the children behaviour. Teamwork, leadership and discipline have become a part of their lives, and they have grown into a community of young, talented sportspersons. By levelling the playing field and equipping these students to compete in leagues usually reserved for 'elite' schools, they're attempting to disrupt the class regime within India's organised sports.
Neha shares, “The top 10 players from the last tournament are going to train in the UK with an English Premier League Club. 5 JFK students along with 5 elite school students having been chosen by a technical panel." JFK students have also been scouted by Pune FC and Mumbai City FC for training. Funded by contributions, donations and sponsorship from CSR programmes of big companies, JFK provides entire kits, gear and training to all students in its league.
Need for More Referees?
Programmes such as Just For Kicks and Khel Khel Mein allow, especially in urban cities, are an essential part of giving all students equal access. Although the Right to Education Act, 2009 makes in compulsory for all government schools to have a playground, this isn't always possible. In most of India's urban areas, owing to lack of space, these 'playgrounds' end up being confined to small play areas within the school or neighbouring public spaces.
Recognising these constraints, in 2012 the Ministry of Human Resource Development amended the Act to accommodate urban city limitations. Only 39 percent of the total 5.7 lakh primary public schools in India have playgrounds for children, according to the National Council for Education Research and Training. As the roadblocks in this space are clear, such non-profit programmes say government policy support needs to come in to change the game for these students.