Serious Play

Study after study has demonstrated the importance of playtime for young children. Play helps build imagination and creativity, as well as skills like self-regulation, discipline, and respect. Together, these attributes are the makings of a successful young person, and a fuller life—all thanks to play. Here in Nablus, the lack of opportunity for children to play is one of the most hidden but pernicious effects of poverty and underdevelopment. My fellow intern Danish and I have seen this especially clearly in our boys’ and girls’ soccer classes for children ages 8 – 12. These are the prime years of childhood, when habits and attitudes are formed, lifelong friendships formed, and the shape of a life plotted. Play should be an integral part of this stage of development.

The boys' soccer class listens to a lesson on passing and sharing before practicing their skills in the gym classroom.

Yet for our students, play is so rare that they come to class bursting with nearly uncontrollable energy and excitement; the chance to see their friends, to run around and have fun, to play soccer with a real ball and goals, is almost more than they can handle. This enthusiasm has made coaching a challenge, but also a joy: the importance of class time is clear on the children’s’ faces, and the impact is tangible. Every class begins and ends with a discussion about respect, and the importance of respect well beyond the bounds of our concrete soccer field. Drills and scrimmages are valuable both because they let our students run around, have fun, and enjoy a brief sense of normalcy, and because they impart lessons about teamwork, hard work, and staying positive.

In just the few weeks we’ve had them, Danish and I have noticed clear and impressive improvements in the children. Some of these improvements have been purely soccer-related: for instance, both the boys and girls can pass the ball far more accurately and skillfully. But the most important growth has been in areas far more important than soccer. The children are working together as a team, encouraging each other and working hard toward a common goal. Whether or not our students continue on with soccer, these lessons and traits will impact their lives for decades to come. That’s the benefit of serious play.


Alex is a TYO intern in Nablus.