Can Play and Sport be a Path to Community Healing? Three Reasons We Say Yes
February 23, 2023
Whether we’ve acknowledged it or not, millions of us are living under the weight of a syndemic — a term used to describe confluent epidemics – that has defined this historic moment and has deep effects on the mental health of our societies. In the face of nearly three years of concurrent crises, including the global pandemic, deep political divisions, and rising extremist violence, we urgently need to find innovative opportunities to create safety, improve mental health, and center equity in our societies.
The public is looking to leaders, organizations, and philanthropies to help us address the effects of the mental health crisis head-on — not only across the general population, but also with intentional care for communities who are disproportionately affected by inequity and violence, and with consideration of the young people caught in either, or both, fights.
The need for equity-centered, innovative strategies and interventions to heal is clear, but what solutions exist for us to scale?
One answer may be key, but unexpected: play! Play and sports are emerging as key strategies for healing and even justice for children and young people during this critical time.
Pulling from our recent work with two incredible organizations, we believe that trauma-informed approaches* to play and sport may be the key to unlocking some of the personal and community-wide transformations we so badly need, beginning with our youngest generations.
*Trauma-informed care is an approach in the field of human services that assumes an individual is more likely than not to have a history of traumatic lived experiences. It promotes approaches of – and environments conducive to – healing and emotional wellbeing by emphasizing the need to create safety, choice, collaboration, trustworthiness, and empowerment in each of your relationships and interactions with others.
Here are some timely lessons about the intriguing intersection of play and healing that can inform greater systemic shifts toward wellbeing in these unprecedented times.
What we’ve learned about play, sport, and community healing
We need to make sport about more than physical development – it has the power to enhance young people’s socioemotional development and promote collective healing.
It’s natural to think of sports purely as physical development and of play as a recreational activity for children. In addition, it’s important to remain aware of the positive impact they both can have on children and young people’s socioemotional development and potential to support healing from various types of trauma. Trauma can look like many different things in a child’s life, including the uncertainty and isolation from the COVID-19 pandemic, the increased stress in families because of political instability and socioeconomic challenges, the loss of a loved one, or even witnessing violence. Play activities don’t only help children release tension and stress, but can also support their parents and caregivers as the whole family experiences emotional overflows and life transitions.
As you might imagine, these benefits ripple beyond individual children and families and throughout communities, strengthening ties and building resilience in a changing world. It’s critical to remember that by creating spaces for children’s wellbeing in play and sports, we will also create spaces for collective healing and community cooperation that spans across age groups, race, ethnicity, class, and political divides.
To leverage play and sports as healing spaces, adults need to be intentional about approaching them through a lens of trauma-informed care.
Creating physical spaces and making sure kids have the time and space to play is just the start — we also need to think about the strategies and intentions behind these activities. We’ve learned that coaches who facilitate sporting activities have a huge positive impact on children — if they implement a trauma-informed approach to their practice that centers and prioritizes every child’s physical and mental wellbeing. Coaches and caregivers alike deserve tailored guides for trauma informed strategies, like those offered by the Center for Healing and Justice through Sport. Such tools enable caregivers to holistically support children that have been excluded from, or even harmed by, traditional sports and other enrichment spaces because of their race, gender, physical ability, class, and/or history with trauma.
When we center every child’s wellbeing by taking the time to understand their individual reality and context, we can go beyond the one-size-fits all play experiences that risk further reinforcing harms such as discrimination, exclusion, or unrealistic performance expectations. Despite some adults’ assumptions otherwise, young people are as affected by the world’s systems as adults are. It’s crucial to understand the specific context in which young people live so we can create experiences of play that are informed by the socioemotional challenges they face – and, ideally, aid in healing from their effects.
We must be intentional about making play and sport accessible to every child and young adult — especially in communities that have been historically and systemically marginalized.
A lack of resources for playspaces and sports reinforce historic inequities toward marginalized communities, where recreational segregation has existed for generations. All too often, well-resourced play spaces and sports programs are built out of reach of children living in racially or socioeconomically depressed spaces, in effect upholding that painful legacy of segregation. We need to ensure that the benefits of play and trauma-informed sports are not sequestered to the privileged few, but are made available to all children and young adults – especially those most impacted by current and historical marginalization, trauma, and mental health impacts.
When we work to increase access to play and sports for young people impacted by marginalization, we must build opportunities that meaningfully integrate and center children of diverse gender identities and physical abilities. Every child should be invited onto sports teams and physical play structures must be accessible to all kids.
Play spaces can be the most beneficial to those who have not previously had access to them, especially in these times of global crises. It’s urgent to invest directly in places where communities have been historically excluded to make sure every child benefits from the positive effects of sports and play. Organizations like KABOOM!, who intentionally seek out and close these ‘playspace equity’ gaps, can be a powerful collaborator for partners looking to bring play, care, and safety to the communities that need it most.
Three recommendations to enact trauma-informed play and sport in your projects and communities:
In order to make your efforts sustainable, proactively engage local community members and community organizations
No long-term, positive change is possible without working closely with community leaders, organizations, and residents to co-create solutions based on local context, infrastructure, immediate challenges, and cultural knowledge. To avoid reinforcing exclusion and inequities, go beyond publishing one-sided content and launching isolated interventions without community partnership. Instead, invest in the co-creation and infrastructure that reaches and supports historically excluded communities by strengthening their local initiatives, building their on-the-ground capacity, and investing in resources that remain in the community. Efforts such as these can support children and young people in the long run – in playgrounds, schools, and within the communities they grow up in. Without equitable co-creation and investment in communities, the buy-in and capacity to sustain transformational work will be lost.
- To fully leverage the healing benefits of play and sports, make trauma-informed resources available and accessible to young people, adults, and community leaders
To democratize your impact, making co-creation resources decentralized and easily utilized – by parents, caregivers, and leaders in local communities – is essential. By creating an accessible community resource, communication assets can be amplified organically through trusted messengers, digital channels, and in in-person spaces that communities already trust.
In order to create healing spaces in sports and play experiences, facilitation by a supportive and well-versed adult or young leader (be it a coach, parent, caregiver, teacher, health professional, librarian, or other community leaders) can be essential to designing the safe space that allows for socio-emotional wellbeing. Make sure your project includes equipping these community members with facilitation resources and tools needed for trauma-informed play and sport, to ensure the experiences go beyond physical development and recreation, but actually help develop coping mechanisms and healing for children and young people.
To ensure communities have equitable access to play spaces, trauma-informed sports, and resources, look closely at the systemic barriers communities face when accessing these resources
For the greatest impact and the sustainability of healing spaces, it is critical to examine the systems, structures, and policies that reinforce inequalities, generate trauma, and prevent historically excluded children and young adults from accessing experiences such as these. Think of your intervention from a movement perspective — from the bottom-up — in collaboration with community partners, with the goal of challenging systems and structures to unlock funding, change harmful policies, and counter any prevailing narratives and beliefs that limit access to healing experiences for children and young adults.
Thinking this way can help your work go beyond one-time interventions to launch sustainable, future-focused strategies that enable the creation of healing spaces at multiple levels (community, regional, and even national). Once you know your community’s barriers and needs well, think expansively about widespread, supportive impact opportunities like advocacy and policy campaigns, participatory research design, strengthening ecosystem networks, launching narrative change strategies, and investing in community spaces and resources – to name just a few.
The bottom line
Every kid deserves a chance to play and thrive.
Every kid deserves a chance to be a part of a team, to benefit from the collective spirit and the joys of teamwork.
And — every kid deserves a chance to be more than the social, emotional, or relational challenges they face.
The healing power of trauma-informed sports and play is one way to make healing accessible to every person and every community — especially those with the greatest need.
A final thought:
It’s important to note that healing through play and sports isn’t only available to children and young people! As adults in this unprecedented syndemic, we also need to embrace unconventional tools for our own wellbeing, individually and societally. Using these lessons as inspiration, we encourage every one of you reading this to explore what healing through sports and play could be activated in your daily lives, projects, and communities, too.
for Equity & Evidence