02 July 2014

World Cup Fever in the Pacific and Just Play

Football World Cup 2014 has managed to mesmerise the world in unprecedented ways. Even countries like the USA and India who weren’t typically known as “football countries” have not been able to escape the charm of the game and the contagious enthusiasm of its fans. Vanuatu is no exception to that phenomenon. Yes, World Cup fever has gripped even the countries of the Pacific!

The quiet streets of Port Vila suddenly go berserk with honking and cheering. You don’t need to switch on the TV to know what is going on - the country’s favourite team playing that day is victorious. If the streets are instead solemn and somber, people are mourning a loss. The incessant promotional messages from local telcos is yet another, albeit annoying, reminder that the World Cup is on!

Children participating in Just Play activity sessions.
© UNICEF Pacific/2014/Thakkar
Football is clearly more than just a game. It is about passion, patriotism, dedication, hard work, teamwork, respect for rules, money, glamour and competition. Taking it a step further, UNICEF along with Oceania Football Confederation and its partners are using football as a tool for social change and development. The initiative is called ‘Just Play’ and it is rather subtle and clever in changing attitudes.

Spread over 34 sessions, Just Play is designed for children with four main objectives - increase healthy lifestyle choices and reduce risk of non-communicable diseases, promote gender equality, encourage social inclusion irrespective of race, gender, religion, socio-economic background or abilities, reduce child abuse and promote child protection. These are difficult topics for a young audience to absorb. How does one make it interesting and comprehensible while keeping their innocence intact? Quite simply through sport.

Little Jayden, an energetic three year old, turned up at the playground to play football... or so he thought. He was the youngest in the field and the most uncontainable as well. Free-spirited, running around, he insisted he wanted to take on the older boys who were playing football at the other end of the field. His mother, Georgina Tari, was watching him from a distance making sure he stuck around with his group and his coach Rerena Vatu.

A young vivacious 18-year old Ni-Vanuatu girl, Rerena is a trained ‘Just Play’ facilitator. She always had an aptitude and love for sport so when she heard about this initiative, she enthusiastically signed up. Jayden notices that his coach is a girl. He has already received one message quite subtly.

The kids started their session with no rules, giving them a free and safe environment to do what every child has the right to do - just play. Rerena then summoned them all to create a circle around her and go through the homework she had given them at the end of the last session about healthy foods. They had to yell out three healthy fruits, three healthy vegetables and three unhealthy foods to avoid. There was a sense of competition and a sense of camaraderie at the same time.

Continuing with the theme of making healthy lifestyle choices, now it was time for organised games. Three kids were given yellow shirts and called ‘water’. The rest of kids were split between green shirts and orange shirts for fizzy drinks of the respective colours. The yellow (water) shirts created a chain and chased the fizzy drinks who were all running around individually. Once caught, the fizzy drinks no longer existed, they joined the water chain and became water droplets instead. Each time this happened, the children yelled out “water is good for me”. Moral of the story: We should chase away fizzy drinks and replace them with water.

That's Jayden spitting the water.
© UNICEF Pacific/2014/Thakkar
Simple and strong enough for three-year old Jayden to register. That game session continued for fifteen minutes followed by a water break before moving on to the next topic with a bit of football thrown into the mix. Jayden came running over to his mother, proclaiming that water is good for him and drinking a couple of sips till his thirst was quenched. Just as he was about to return the bottle to his mother, he realised he had forgotten something. He took yet another sip and spit it out, and he did that one more time.

His mother explained the peculiar action – Jayden was mimicking what he had seen older players do on the field and on television screens. She was relieved that her little impressionable boy hadn’t watched the recent Uruguay versus Italy match. But even if he did, she is certain her son knows better than Luis Suarez what he should be sinking his teeth into - thanks to ‘Just Play’. 

All children have the right to play and join in a wide range of activities (Article 31). This year UNICEF celebrates 25 years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

About Just Play 

Just Play gives a child a ball, a coach and a safe place to play.  The programme shows children how to have fun with other children, be physically active and become confident in their abilities

The Just Play Programme has been designed and developed by the Oceania Football Confederation Social Responsibility department, in partnership with the Australian Government through the Australian Sports Commission, Football Federation Australia, UEFA and UNICEF Pacific. For more information please visit: justplayofc.org or unicefpacific.org 

Just Play OFC Ignite video:

Neha Thakkar
Communications Officer

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