A child flies a kite at Nehru Nagar slum in Mumbai.
Safe, interactive play spaces and organized sports can teach kids how to express themselves without violence. Punit Paranjpe/Reuters

As urbanization shrinks places for recreation, Project KHEL finds new uses for slices of neighborhoods, parks, and fields and uses sports to introduce life skills to underserved kids.

On a pleasant spring evening in March, a group of about 20 children from the Husadiya slum in Lucknow, a north Indian city, have congregated in a vacant plot opposite a flyover. Everybody opens their arms, thrusts out their chest, and imitates a crow in flight.

The kids, ages 7 to 14, do this every Wednesday and Saturday. It’s part of their session with Project KHEL (Kids Holistic Education and Lifeskills), an NGO that leverages the power of sports to captivate and empower India’s marginalized youth. Rohit Srivass, their facilitator, whom the kids call bhaiyya (or “elder brother”), begins each session with a song to help kids loosen up.

This one, “Have you seen a crow who drinks tea?” leads into a jingle about personal hygiene and toilet etiquette, which teaches kids to clean themselves and flush the lavatory before leaving. Most of these kids are accustomed to defecating on the nearby railway tracks, and the song reminds them of habits they’ll need to practice if they enroll in school, where some of them would see a toilet for the first time. “This activity addresses self-awareness, an important life-skill, and helps the kids learn to respect their bodies,” says Angana Prasad, the executive director of Project KHEL.

Rohit Srivass and a group of kids circle up to play near the Husadiya slum. (Priti Salian)

As a consequence of urbanization, Indian cities have battled shrinking play spaces for years. More than 90 percent of India’s youth never use a playground, and less than 1 percent of the country’s population under 35 has any access to organized sports. The worst affected are, of course, children who drop out of school either due to poverty or in order to contribute to the family income. Meanwhile, many kids looking for open spaces are driven to play in risk-prone areas such as roadsides, construction sites, and even railway tracks.

Project KHEL makes use of spaces within slums, parks, agricultural fields, empty plots, and playgrounds in government schools to teach kids about life skills such as self-awareness, empathy, problem solving, and interpersonal relationships. Global organizations like UNICEF consider sports, play, and physical activity to be powerful and cost-effective ways to advance the Millennium Development Goals, and Project KHEL carries on that work. The organization engages high-risk children and adolescents from shelter homes, orphanages, government-run schools, and other disadvantaged backgrounds to keep them in classes, spread awareness about gender equity and substance abuse issues, and veer them away from conflict. “The spaces we provide are safe physically, emotionally, and intellectually,” says Akshai Abraham, who founded Project KHEL in 2012.

In a slum where children grow up grappling with poverty or watching their fathers drink and beat up their moms, the only way many kids know to resolve conflict is through violence. “Most of the time, they don’t hesitate in slapping or hitting their mates,” says Abraham. So, the first thing Project KHEL teaches is how to resolve fights through dialogue, which could have long-lasting effects on the way they function as adults in society. Lessons also touch on dishonesty, stealing, and cruelty toward animals.

In Husadiya, the kids warm up with a quick game of volleyball and move on to a mixed-gender game of Ultimate Frisbee. About 10 minutes in, Neha, a 10-year-old girl, complains that no one is passing her the Frisbee. Ankul, 11, cries out when another boy hits him. Srivass calls for time-out.

“Why aren’t you enjoying the game today?” he asks.

“No one is passing the Frisbee properly,” says Ankul.

“Shall I give you a minute for planning?” asks Srivass. The teams cheerfully agree.

Post-planning, the game proceeds in a more organized manner, with equal participation from all kids. A debriefing after the match helps them realize where they faltered and why they need to improve.

Vikram Namdeo, a former Project KHEL participant, has seen firsthand how these lessons accumulate over time and help reduce biases. Four years ago, Namdeo, now 20, was attending a charity school for poor children. He doubted girls’ ability to kick a ball; he hadn’t ever seen girls from low-income homes playing in public spaces. So when Project KHEL landed in his school, he sniggered at the girls and the facilitators who were trying to get them to play a game of football.

A few months on, when he couldn’t resist playing his favorite sport anymore, Namdeo joined the mixed group. The hour-long sessions would begin with a round of football, followed by a break for small talk and then an activity. Mid-session discussions encouraged respecting every person’s right—regardless of gender—to claim public spaces. Now, Namdeo works for the program, and it continues to open his eyes. He recently attended Project KHEL’s menstrual hygiene workshop. It is not a subject he had discussed with anyone before.

Project KHEL’s Made in Maidaan program visits over 1,400 children biweekly and works with them for a span of at least two years. But Abraham is interested in an even longer-term impact. “Just by getting boys and girls to play together as children,” he says, “we could inculcate a respect for the opposite gender and maybe prevent teasing, harassment, and rape when they grow up.”

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