Sport and play are immediately and intimately tied to the notion of childhood. Children are naturally drawn to sport and play; these activities engage all children, even the poorest and most marginalised, to have fun and enjoy their childhood. Through play, children explore, invent and create. It is not just an end in itself; it has the potential to prevent disease, increase school attendance, improve learning levels, foster gender equity, enhance inclusion of persons with disabilities, and build skills that promote an overall social and economic development. Follow our campaign #PlayMatters for more.
On our recent field visit to Madhubani, we were witness to the above spirit unfolding into reality before us. The playground has the ability to transcend barriers of caste, class, and even the rigidly prescribed structures of gender. Bishanpur is a small village in the block of Pandaul in Madhubani. Our teams have been working with the children and the adults of the village as a part of the programme Leher runs in thirty-six villages across Madhubani. When we set out to the field in the morning, we were excited to meet and interact with the children. Little did we know that the day would pan out in a much more exciting manner than we anticipated.
The session with the children’s group was on gender stereotyping. It was for the first time that both the boys’ group and the girls’ group had come together to participate in the session. It did not take more than a few minutes for the children to cast off their inhibitions and engage animatedly with questions around gender stereotyping. “What are the differences in social expectations from a girl and a boy?” was the basic question the discussion was premised on. While we received many fascinating responses, one consistent response we received from both the boys and the girls was that girls are usually kept away from outdoor or ‘boyish’ sports. On being asked what their favourite outdoor sport was, we received an almost unanimous answer from the children – “volleyball!” And so it was decided that the next day a volleyball match would be held at the village playground – girls versus boys.
The match started at around 4:00 p.m. and was quite a close competition between the boys and the girls, with the boys winning, but not by a significant margin. While the match started with only the player teams, with the Leher team as spectators, as the evening progressed, the field started filling up with the other children and parents from the village. By the end of the match however, while for the children it was about a winning team and a losing team, for the rest of us witnessing the match, it was a testament to the fact that the times, they are changing. This tiny, and supposedly insignificant village on the map is taking its slow, but steady strides towards progress. The girls had come out to not just play an outdoor sport, but play it with boys (technically, against the boys). The playground had been successful in dissolving the stereotypes that ‘girls shouldn’t play the same sports that boys play’ and that ‘it was wrong for boys and girls to be seen together.’
Play matters, because it is the one thing that underlines the meaning of childhood anywhere in the world, be it in this tiny village in Madhubani, in a posh locality in New Delhi, or in suburban New York. It is the playground which brings children together and grants them the space and freedom to be what they should be – children, and to live the journey each child is entitled to – childhood. In the context of the story above, the playground functioned as a solvent for gender barriers. The match was an irreversible development towards making the playground a more accessible and inclusive space. The girls have as much of a right to it as the boys – this fact was established in a subtle, yet firm manner. While it is extremely unfortunate that even play and sports is gendered, these small, nonetheless significant milestones, need to be created, recognised and celebrated.
As the sun set, pouring its golden hues over the playground, beads of sweat glistening on the children’s foreheads, it was time to go back home. While the boys were jubilant over their victory, the girls were graceful in accepting the fair (but so close – 14-12!) defeat. One could hear them conversing about how they could have played better, and plotting their strategy for the next match. We couldn’t have been more proud, though, because we knew that both teams were winners.
Watch the match here!