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Participation in Sport Can Improve Children’s Learning and Skills Development

New Report Produced by UNICEF Innocenti Finds

Visit our new Getting Into The Game microsite to download the Report Summary and to browse key message and data charts. The full report, which is still in production, can also be accessed in provisional form. (Cover image ©ChildFund Pass it Back)

(28 March 2019)  Participation in sport improves children’s educational attainment and skills development including empowerment, leadership and self-esteem – contributing to their overall well-being and future prospects, according to new research released today by the Barça Foundation and UNICEF.

“It’s long been understood that sport promotes children’s health, and physical development, but now we have solid evidence to suggest that sport can have a powerful impact on their overall education and life skills development,” said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Charlotte Petri Gornitzka. “We must use this evidence to inspire investment in sports for children, especially the most vulnerable.”

Getting into the Game: Understanding the Evidence for Child-Focused Sport for Development features analyses from global research literature and data from more than 300 sport for development (S4D) programmes in 100 countries. The report was commissioned by the Barça Foundation and carried out by a research team at UNICEF’s Office of Research – Innocenti.

Other highlights from the report include:

  • Successful sport for development initiatives involve multi-sectoral cooperation, such as the inclusion of education and social components.
  • Coaches play a critical role in safeguarding children and mitigating possible negative influences.
  • There is little evidence to suggest involvement in sport reduces a child’s risk of abuse and exploitation. In fact, when not done well, there are indications that some sports can increase exposure to violence.
  • Better evidence is needed for the monitoring of sport for development initiatives, including more research on effective implementation.
  • More meaningful child participation in programme design and evidence building is needed. 

As 2019 marks 30 years since the adoption of the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history - The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which among others, states that every child has a right to leisure, play, and participation in cultural and artistic activities – Barça Foundation and UNICEF urge governments to deliver on the commitment to leisure and play.

Barça Foundation and UNICEF Partnership on S4D

Barça Foundation and UNICEF have been working together since 2006. Their partnership has helped nearly two million children access sports, play, education and child protection initiatives. The two organizations identified a critical gap in robust evidence on sport for development programming, which led to the production of Getting into the Game. In a second phase, the researchers will test the report recommendations in programmes, including at UNICEF projects funded by FC Barcelona in Brazil, China, Ghana and South Africa, as well as projects in countries affected by conflict or disaster.

"With the presentation of this research, the partnership between UNICEF and the Barça Foundation is positioned as a benchmark in sport for development in the world. Our commitment to evidence and rigor will have an enormous impact on the organizations that work in this field, improving the actions and positively impacting the lives of millions of children," said  President of FC Barcelona Josep Maria Bartomeu.

"This partnership goes beyond programme implementation, goes beyond the logo of UNICEF on the Barça shirt, beyond a research. It's all that, and more,” said Jordi Cardoner, First Vice President, FC Barcelona. “This alliance has an incalculable value, because with it we are positioning sport as a great tool to improve the quality of life of children around the world.”

“Sport is not only inspiring, it is also a real tool for inclusion and to guarantee fundamental rights of children, such as the right to play, “said Gustavo Suárez Pertierra, Chair of the UNICEF Spanish Committee. “This report is a first step to learn how to overcome the barriers that prevent vulnerable children from enjoying sports in a safe environment. Sport generates development and, together with the Barca Foundation, we will work to demonstrate that."


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(6 April 2018) Sport for Development (S4D) is an intervention which can potentially deliver positive impact on children’s well-being. However, with little coordination between S4D organisations and a lack of rigorous evidence proving its value, there is a vacuum of concrete information and lessons learned in the sector. UNICEF Innocenti has initiated a new research project looking to fill this gap by building an evidence base to support improved S4D programming and policy to increase the impact of sport beyond the playing field.Sport is a powerful communal experience, bridging boundaries of language, religion and culture; engaging billions of supporters and participants. Beyond physical well-being, UNICEF has long recognized that sport can have many additional beneficial effects for children. In fact, Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child enshrines the right of every child to play and recreational activities in a safe and healthy environment.S4D is the use of sport as an instrument to positively impact social and personal development. Various S4D initiatives aim to achieve different objectives. Some initiatives aim to engage youth in sport to keep them away from harm, while others use sport to provide psycho-social support for children traumatized by war, disaster or exploitation. Still others use sport to engage youth and stimulate positive development of values, attitudes, and behavior. Harnessing the power of S4D has many benefits when designing practices and policies, not least its relatively low cost and easy incorporation into existing programmes at all levels. Visit UNICEF global S4D pageHowever, sport remains an untapped tool for making positive change for children on a larger scale. Currently, a myriad of organizations use S4D initiatives to achieve positive child outcomes. The closure of the United Nations Office of Sports for Development and Peace in 2016 left a vacuum in the sector and reduced coordination between key S4D actors. While there are over 550 registered organisations, there is a lack of rigorous evidence on their impact. Action surrounding S4D outpaces the evidence base to support it. Unlocking the potential of S4D – and the investment to support it – requires quality evidence.During a physical training session, a group of Yemeni child practice self-defence techniques at UNICEF safe space for youth at Markazi camp for Yemeni refugees. Djibouti.  UNICEF Innocenti’s new research project on S4D – supported by the Barça Foundation – aims to close this gap by building a reliable and consistent evidence base. Not only will this research help strengthen evidence on the impact of S4D initiatives, it will also facilitate cross-national learning, and may even help to reinvigorate sport as a development intervention. The research looks to understand how S4D initiatives can most effectively transform children’s lives and promote positive outcomes in four specific areas:EducationChild ProtectionParticipationSocial InclusionAdditionally, the research will identify both limitations and best practices in monitoring and evaluating S4D programmes and initiatives. The aim of this exploration is to identify the most effective initiatives, and the reasons for their success. This evidence base can help to harness the power of sport to transform the lives of children.Girls play football during afternoon activities at the Centre de Transit et d'Orientation, a UNICEF-supported reintegration centre for children associated with armed groups, in Kananga, Democratic Republic of the Congo The universal appeal of sport provides an important advantage for S4D based efforts to motivate, inspire and mobilise communities. UNICEF Innocenti’s research aims to provide a more consistent definition of S4D for the many organisations who are already using sport to improve children’s lives, as well as evidence to help governments position sport as a viable development initiative. S4D can help ensure that even the most marginalized children in the world can reach their full potential.UNICEF Innocenti’s research on S4D is led by Dominic Richardson, Senior Education Specialist, and is supported by education expert, Juliana Zapata.   

Research Projects

Research Project Research Project


The learning crisis is striking. 53 percent of children in low- and middle-income countries cannot read and understand a simple text by age 10. In poor countries, the “learning poverty” rate is as high as 80 percent. The UNICEF Office of Research (OoR) – Innocenti developed in 2019 a new vision for its education programme for addressing learning poverty, aligned with the 2019-2030 UNICEF Education Strategy ‘Every child learns’. The vision puts increased emphasis on research embedded within programmes and on the use of evidence at country level, through co-creation of the research from the onset with Governments, implementing partners, communities and other stakeholders.  OoR-education programme focuses on research of: i) education systems and policies and ii) local service delivery (in and outside the school); and iii) innovations using behavioral/scaling science & implementation research to build evidence to bridge the “know-do” gap between systems and local level implementation.Time to Teach Teachers attending lessons and spending quality time on task is a critical prerequisite to learning. However, in sub-Saharan Africa, teacher absenteeism ranges from 15 to 45 per cent. The Time to Teach study seeks to identify factors affecting various forms of teacher attendance and to use this evidence to inform the design and implementation of teacher policies in twenty African countries (the Comoros; Kenya; Mozambique; Rwanda, Puntland, State of Somalia; South Sudan; the United Republic of Tanzania; Uganda; Morocco; the Gambia, Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Niger, Mauritania, Togo, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire; Gabon). The study draws from national, system-wide, qualitative data collections and school observations, and a quantitative survey of teachers.Sport for DevelopmentSport for Development (S4D) programmes use sports to achieve development objectives such as education, health, empowerment and like skills. Collaborating with partners, including the Barça Foundation, this research aims to build the evidence base on the  practice and policy of S4D. Building on the findings of the Getting into the Game report, this mixed-methods study is now conducting case studies of programmes from different countries. By listening to the voices of various stakeholders from different countries it aims to develop guidelines on best practices, advocacy and communication, and monitoring and evaluation for organisations implementing S4D progamming for children.Akelius - Digital language learning for refugees, migrants and linguistic minorities This research programme investigates the co-creation, implementation, effectiveness of the Akelius digital language course.  The digital language course is co-created with teachers and students and used in a blended learning approach as a tool for teachers / facilitators, and as a self-learning tool. Fit for purpose monitoring and implementation research is built into to programme to facilitate improvements in the programme as it scales.  The programme is currently implemented for refugees and migrants in Greece, as part of the non-formal education programmes for Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, and as a tool to improve language skills of marginalized children in Mauritania.Data Must Speak (research component)In spite of the learning crisis and even in the most difficult contexts, there are some “positive deviant” schools, that outperform (in terms of learning, gender and equity) other schools in similar contexts and with equivalent resources. Data Must Speak uses mixed-method research on school performance, including behavioral and scaling science and implementation research to identify “positive deviant” practices and behaviors at classroom, school, community and district levels and incentivize their application at scale in all schools, in partnership with Ministries of Education in 8 countries (Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Lao PDR, Madagascar, Niger, Togo, Zambia)Let Us Learn – building evidence into education programmes for the most marginalized.Let Us Learn (LUL) is an initiative that supports vulnerable children - especially girls - learning though a variety of education programmes in 5 countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Liberia, Madagascar and Nepal. UNICEF Office of Research- Innocenti and the Education Section in UNICEF HQ are supporting LUL programmes by helping implementing partners to improve their M&E systems and building evidence through mixed methods research to understand programme effectiveness in their contribution to improved education outcomes, including learning.The education team also provides research outside of these multi-year research programmes supporting UNICEF HQ, Regional offices and Country Offices in research on multiple topics including: Private Education in South Asia, Migration and Violence in Latin America and the Caribbean and understanding equity in education spending using Benefit Incidence Analysis together with UNICEF’s Education and Social Policy sections in HQ. COVID 19 & ChildrenVisit our COVID-19 & Children website for Research Agenda, Research Publications, Blogs, Think Pieces, Online Events, Good Reads and moreShort-term projectsIdentifying good practices for equitable remote learning during COVID-19 school closuresAnalysis of promising remote learning practices during school closures and effects on the most vulnerable children. Builds on data collected from country offices and other sources.Parental engagement in children’s learning: Insights for remote learning response during COVID-19Analysis of MICS 6 data on the potential of child-oriented books at home and the parental role for learning, especially where low access to technology.Long-term projectLearning from COVID-19 on providing continued education for all in times of school closuresInvestigating the impacts of COVID-19 school closures on education and other outcomes and what works to provide continued learning during crises. The research will draw on available data and ongoing Innocenti research