Freedom to Play, Freedom to Learn

Learning Ecosystems and Leadership August 22, 2016

In a globalized, fast-changing world, education as we know it is being redefined. The 21st Century requires young people to master a set of technical skills that are highly valuable in the workplace. Companies like Google are sponsoring kids to learn coding. Mobile devices and social media have opened new opportunities for innovative learning. And more girls than ever before are growing up to be doctors, programmers, and engineers.

I feel positive that things have come a long way since I was a kid. At the same time, these technical skills don’t necessarily make good citizens. We are free to learn them all, but that is still not what freedom smells like.

At least that’s what I think. I started an organization with the belief that it is important to think about how people treat one another and that civic engagement can start from a young age. We train young students and especially teachers with skills and values that go beyond the technical. The belief is that education is inherently about human beings learning from each other, and how to best learn and work together in both local and global contexts. Technical skills are useful, but there are many other skills that we believe are more critical.

Of course we don’t want to get rid of valuable new skills like coding, but it is important to teach lessons that help young people interact with their peers in school and eventually in the workplace. Every time I enter a school that is using the Sports for Sharing (S4S) methodology, there is an essence in the air — one of lightness, open possibilities, motivation, collaboration. I smell it. I think it has to do with teachers reinventing education. Fernando Reimers, a Professor of Practice in International Education at Harvard, says that our work at S4S is “one where teachers reimagine what instruction could be, making it fun and meaningful.”

Most of the schools we work with face challenges ranging from criminal surroundings to marginalized locations. Our work with teachers goes a long way to get them closer to freedom — freedom to realize their potential, to reflect upon their findings, and to share what they learn with others.

For almost ten years, S4S has worked with thousands of teachers across 5 countries to rediscover the fun that children have learning, and the fun and freedom that they themselves can have learning and teaching. S4S helps teachers recognize the power of play and sports as a way to activate children to be curious, to want to work with others, to listen and collaborate.  The program helps teachers understand that one of the most valuable things that schools can do is help students understand the world in which they live – in all its complexity – and to understand the connections amongst our shared challenges of sustainability, social inequality, and poverty. 

Children everywhere love games and sports.  And guess what? Adults do so as well, even if they (we) have forgotten. Teaching through example is key. So, we train our teachers to play with their students to teach more effectively.

 Thus the smell of freedom means observing teachers play with their students as part of their classes. I talked with teachers who describe the empathy they witness in their classrooms and school environment. Last semester, 95% of our participating teachers said that S4S had improved classroom behavior; 86% said the program had instilled healthy habits among their students; and another 86% said that the program had reduced bullying. Knowledge of United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals among students had increased by up to 22%, and the number of students who said they practiced gender equality had increased by 24%. 

The list of anecdotes about the shyest kid in class becoming the shiniest one through games and activities is long. Social initiatives for a better world begin and multiply with activities that make learning playful and enjoyable. 

Making this shift in the traditional education model also involves a key ingredient: having our facilitators follow-up for up to a year with teachers, ensuring they feel supported.
Our training programme invites everyone – teachers and students alike – to become a team. Children perceive this immediately, and it becomes destiny, because they replicate what they see around them.
By using this kind of active and cooperative play, freedom becomes a familiar smell. Teachers discover the fun and the freedom to participate, to play, to learn and to share hand in hand with their students.  The hope is for every teacher, for every child, and every person, to enter any school and smell freedom. 

“When you give someone a fish, you feed them for a day. When you teach them how to fish, you feed them for life.” We take it one step further as we teach to teach how to fish. Teachers and children learning how to work well on teams, how to make decisions that include others’ points of view, and how to become problem solvers together for the global from the local is what freedom smells to me.

This is what makes a great community, to have people that are building it around you all the time. And that creates a great effect on society, developing competencies and values that go beyond just technical skills, but also impact the way people treat each other. 

That is my hope for the 21st Century and beyond: to enter schools where we all can smell freedom. How would you describe the smell of freedom?