As part of an ongoing series looking at the evolution of educational support organizations around the world, we recently spoke with Kevin Frey, CEO of Right To Play International and Jared Carroll, Director of U.S. Programs, about their work with Right To Play and the organization’s global work around play-based educational programming, particularly discussing work going on in New York City.
Right To Play demonstrates that play is both an integral part of daily life and a fundamental right by bringing sport and play-based programs to children around the world. Their work challenges assumptions that equate education with exclusively cognitive engagement through and healthy development with intellectual development and builds on the idea that play can be as rigorous and useful as other types of engagement.
Right To Play grew out of Olympic speed skater Johann Olav Koss’ experience as an athlete ambassador for the organization Olympic Aid. One visit to Eritrea, in particular, helped to spark the idea that providing sports equipment, coaches and mentors – three important elements in Koss’ own development – the act could create crucial opportunities to support the development of children living in some of the most difficult circumstances. Yet when Koss returned to Eritrea after having won 3 gold medals and having raised almost 18 million dollars to bring sports equipment to the children he had met, Norwegian critics wondered why he wasn’t bringing basic necessities like food and medicine. But the President of Eritrea at the time told Koss: ‘This is the greatest gift we have ever received. For the first time, we are being treated like human beings–not just something to be kept alive. For the first time, my children can play like any child.”
Koss built on this experience by developing Olympic Aid into Right To Play and committing to bring sports equipment, coaches, and mentors to children in Africa and many other parts of the world. While Right To Play’s initial focus was on sports, they quickly expanded to engaging children in games of all kinds. In the process, they got to know these children and to hear what the children needed and wanted. Through these initial activities, Right To Play staff identified problems with health, gender, and other issues that they could address through sports and play. Kevin Frey, current CEO of Right To Play International uses the example of a game called “malaria tag” to encourage children to use malaria nets for protection from mosquitos rather than for fishing (which seemed much more useful to many of them). “If you sit a bunch of kids down, and simply tell them how malaria is transmitted, none of them are going to go home and use mosquito nets because there was no opportunity to engage with the learning,” Frey explained. Right To Play is founded on the belief that play and learning are synonymous (not only for kids, but for adults as well). “If you design a game called ‘malaria tag’ the kids get totally activated.” To help children turn that activity into practice, Right To Play staff ask students to reflect on their experiences during the game, connecting those experiences to their own lives and then explore how they can apply what they learned moving forward.
With headquarters in Toronto, Right To Play has grown to operate programs in eighteen countries, primarily in Eastern Africa and Southeast Asia. Initially, the organization operated using a centralized model, with frameworks and models developed in Toronto and shared with local offices. These models involved creating games and professional development sessions for educators working in community-based organizations that program staff could implement in their communities. Over time, however, the organization has adapted and changed to include more self-direction based on local cultural settings and specific needs. These adaptations are distinctly visible in Right To Play’s programming in in the U.S. The organization’s work in the U.S. began in in New York City. After conversations with the New York City Department of Education (DOE) and the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) it was suggested that Right To Play work within an early childhood education context. Initially, the organization followed the typical model for DOE professional development, where Right To Play designed sessions that its employees would deliver for members of partner organizations (all participants were early childhood education staff from non-profit community-based organizations) at a centralized NYC location. In Carroll’s words, these early sessions “positioned Right To Play as experts sharing knowledge” rather than as collaborators of learning opportunities.
In this first US iteration, Right To Play sought to help integrate play-based learning into early childhood education settings by connecting with a number of local organizations that shared their philosophy and goals. After Right To Play provided professional development, the partner organizations incorporated the Right To Play model into their work with schools. By 2013, however, Right To Play began to change this initial professional development approach. Carroll recalls the shift as coming to view these organizations as partners in making, rather than recipients of, Right To Play’s programming. Right To Play sought to focus more directly on educational equity and to respond to the specific obstacles and challenges that the partner organizations described. Right To Play first stopped holding their training sessions at a single, central location. This way, they did not have one general session that was targeted to all the visitors from various organizations. Instead, session facilitators went to the partner organizations and worked with the entire organization. Furthermore, Right To Play shifted from delivering a more overarching, general professional development session to one designed around the expressed needs of partner organizations and rooted in interactive, participatory practices.
Today, a typical professional development session involves Right To Play employees going to a partner organization site to work on a session such as building community cohesion and using that as a foundation for collaborative work. For instance, if session facilitators from Right To Play and local educators identify building trust as a key issue (either for the organization or as something to help the children develop), a session will involve an activity that both requires and demonstrates trust. Carroll describes one such activity as using large elastic bands with a bucket placed in the middle of 4-5 people. Each person must pull on the elastic band and then let go at the same time in order for the band to fall into the bucket. Groups play this game for a while, working together and discussing strategy. Afterward, the whole group engages in a conversation about the purpose of the activity and how similar challenges with trust translate to their work together and how it can be used or adapted to early childhood settings. Later in the day, this theme is further explored in the context of necessary skills or understandings learners might need to engage in the classroom community in this way. As with the game of mosquito tag, the sequence of play, engagement, and reflection is central to learning for the children, as well as the educators who can then build on this experience to develop more activities.
In 2014, newly elected mayor Bill de Blasio launched an initiative for universal pre-K in the city. as pre-K expanded in New York City, Right To Play’s presence in the city expanded as well. As efforts for universal pre-K rolled out, demand for grassroots and community-based work grew. The list of community-based classrooms waiting to work with Right To Play has, in the last year, grown from 50 to 300.
As the organization moves forward, Right To Play is establishing a new leadership program and support network, focusing on early childhood education leaders. The three-year long leadership program builds on their partnership approach to professional development by undertaking a needs assessment with leaders, spending time with them in their sites, and through a cooperative inquiry approach developing a yearlong process of training. The leadership program has, in some ways, been a natural growth of their professional development partnerships as some preschool leaders come to the leadership program after their teachers have participated in Right To Play. Right To Play also actively recruits leaders, looking at demographics in the city and engaging communities they believe would benefit from this type of work. Finally, as Right To Play develops this partnership approach in the US, they are also shifting to a more networked approach with Right To Play organizations around the globe. As this next phase unfolds, Carroll’s work is changing as well as he is devoting more time to work with his colleagues in other international offices.
Right To Play has created a strong presence of play-based learning opportunities in New York City. Their impact, however, is not solely in the work they do but in the ways they have opened and collaboratively built a place for this type of engagement with education at an early childhood level. As these organizational changes occur, Right To Play finds itself working in increasingly diverse contexts, both in terms of educational and geographic settings. It will be interesting to see then how the organization responds to its commitment to deeply situated and contextualized work as it begins moving toward working more as a transnational network.