Through Ashoka Fellow Dina Buchbinder’s organization Deportes para Compartir (Sports for Sharing), students in Mexico are gaining a deeper understanding of their world through sports and empathy. Her project recently won the People’s Choice Award in the Ashoka Changemakers “Activating Empathy: Transforming Schools to Teach What Matters” competition for its creative use of play to promote healthy living and inclusion.
Since 2007, Deportes para Compartir has helped children throughout Mexico learn the importance of cultural diversity, gender equality, world issues, and teamwork. It aims to eliminate the gender inequality, isolation, and inactivity that plague education systems across Mexico, as well as cultural segregation and violence that have contributed to a longstanding sense of distrust among communities nationwide.
For many school children, this lack of social cohesion has contributed to a break down in educational achievement—especially for indigenous populations where large classroom size and language barriers lead to higher dropout and absentee rates.
Deportes para Compartir is an extension of a Canadian sports initiative that was adapted in Mexico in partnership with the Mexican Association for the United Nations. More than 60,000 students, their parents, and teachers have experienced the benefits of this program’s interactive games that teach children to think critically about social issues.
Each lesson introduces children to one of the eight UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG), and then guides them to solve global challenges through games and reflection sessions. Learning activities such as the treasure-chest exchange, where students in opposite sections of the country trade meaningful objects from their natural environment, teach children to value cultural differences and respect the limitations of resource-strapped ecosystems.
Games like “Doctor Dodgeball” offer lessons about combating diseases and infections through preventative care. Children form two teams, or communities, and then role play being doctors and villagers. Throughout the game, students develop strategies to avoid getting sick, and simulate doctor or hospital visits for injections and treatments.
“When the game is over, ‘sick’ kids are given hugs as a solidarity gesture,” Buchbinder said. “In this cooperative game, children learn about teamwork, fair play, tolerance, empathy, and prevention.”
The semester-long program currently operates in 132 locations including public schools, indigenous schoolhouses, and a summer camp, reaching 777 teachers and nearly 19,000 students in the states of Morelos, Mexico, Puebla, and Veracruz.
Over the years, students have shown significant improvements in the way they relate to each other and their environment. Parents and teachers are taking notice.
One mother told Buchbinder, “I want to thank the Deportes para Compartir team, because you have taught something new not only to my son, but for me also. He has taught me the importance of embracing a healthy lifestyle.
“He proposed me a deal: ‘I will no longer eat junk food,’ he said, ‘as long as you quit smoking. Lets take care both of us.’ I don’t smoke anymore and he eats healthier, so I wanted to thank you for having taught us that.”
Noelia, a 10-year-old student from Chihuahua has also seen major changes in her peers. “Prior to Deportes para Compartir, there was no respect here,” she said. “We used to call each other names. Now it isn’t that way. With this program, we all play as a team, respecting each other. We work together, we have fun.”
As the program grows, Buchbinder and her team of 35 staff members intend to take their winning innovation on the road, reaching even more Latin American countries as well as communities in the United States within the next five years.
“This program has a direct impact on some of the most important problems such as reducing violence, apathy, corruption, and discrimination,” Buchbinder said. “Deportes para Compartir also generates awareness and invites children to take responsibility about their own bodies and actions. With Deportes para Compartir, children realize there are alternatives they can choose in their lives from what they sometimes see at home.”
This piece was written by John Converse Townsend, who blogs regularly for Ashoka Changemakers. It originally appeared here.